This article is from the May 2001 The Mexico File
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Sacred Monkey River
Christopher Shaw. New York: Norton, 2000.
reviewed by Ron Mader
Ron Mader lives in Mexico
and travels frequently throughout the Americas. He hosts the award_winning
Planeta.com website – www.planeta.com – and is the author of the Exploring
Ecotourism in the Americas Resource Guide.
Ready to explore one of
the world's most intriguing regions? Take your trip with Christopher Shaw who
introduces readers to the Usumacinta River and its magnificent watershed that
stretches across the Mexico_Guatemala border in his new book, Sacred Monkey
Subtitled “A Canoe Trip
with the Gods,” this notable book traces the author's canoe trips running
the great river. Unlike many adventure travel narratives in which the author
plunges into an unknown terrain, Shaw aims for comprehension rather than
searching for misadventure. The result is an account which combines the best
of travel literature and environmental reporting.
Few travelers opt for the
watery path, particularly with the threat of hijackings and shootings in such
a remote area. But Shaw, an accomplished river guide and an enthusiast of the
Maya culture, will not be deterred. “In classical art, two gods pictured as
canoeists, accompanied travelers on both actual and metaphysical journeys,”
Shaw explains. “Both gods paddle the souls of the dead to the Otherworld and
the cosmic canoe – the Milky Way – across the sky.”
Shaw also connects with
the environmentalists in the region, including Fernando Ochoa and Ronald Nigh
– two pioneers in developing sustainable agricultural practices in the
region. The book is a veritable “Who's Who” of the region. Meet Scott
Davis of Ceiba Adventures, Maya scholars Linda Schele and David Freidel,
Moises Morales, the owner of El Pachan, and Victor Perera, author of The Last
Lords of Palenque.
The book is divided into
12 chapters and boasts the 1953 Franz Blom map of the Selva Lacandona on the
inside book cover. What would be useful additions would be a map of the
author's expeditions and an index of places and names. Sacred Monkey River
deserves a long shelf_life and it will no doubt be consulted for many years by
travelers and environmentalists alike.
Excerpts from Sacred
Recent Americans –
those of us whose forebears crossed the oceans in the past five hundred years
– have lost the connection to the past and place that galvanizes many
traditional communities. Yet the longer we stay here the more that world
imprints itself on our psyches.
The Usumacinta has been photographed from space, the images magnified and pored over by governments and non_governmental agencies – and prospective looters – looking for ruins, ancient roads, canals and raised beds, mineral wealth, illegal logging and settlement.... At least from on high, it has been reduced to a sum of known quantities. But in its essence, its nature as a place apart, it remains a dimly perceived and shapeless expanse.
Oddly, nobody I talked to
mentioned the possibility of small, economical “run of the river” hydro
plants for communities in the selva, the kind that wouldn't require huge dams,
wouldn't result in siltation, evaporation, habitat loss or lost tourist dollars.
The government and agencies like USAID and the World Bank smiled on the massive
projects, it seemed.
In almost every Mayanist's
eschatological scenario, humans had populated the watershed so thickly by the
eighth century that the forest had become a patchwork. The resulting climate
changes and erosion depleted poor rain forest soils. Food demand outstripped the
productivity of both the Mayas' sophisticated slash_and_burn agriculture and
their elaborately maintained system of aquatic raised beds. Eighth_century
burials show a widening nutritional gap between the elite royal classes – the
ahuas – whose skeletons remained robust, and the common folk, whose
remains grew smaller and showed signs of malnutrition. Wars ensued. The people
lost faith in their rulers and abandoned the cities. Their populations returned
to a sustainable level. It meant that large sections of the Lacandon forest and
the contiguous forests of Peten and southern Yucatán were already mature
second_growth, second chance wilderness long before Cortes hacked his way from
Tenosique to Honduras in 1525. Classical culture had to decline in order for the
ecosystem to recover.