Checkmated by My Love
The following is excerpted from The Unlikely Peace at Cuchumaquic: The Parallel Lives of People as Plants: Keeping the Seeds Alive by Martín Prechtel, published by North Atlantic Books.
The greatest and most renowned Tzutujil Ajcun shaman of his time, Nicolas "A Clash" Chiviliu Tacaxoy's life had spanned pretty much an entire century, wherein he had served twelve times as priest of Holy Boy, ten times as village headman for the entire Hierarchy council, and at least eight times as Headman of seven different Sacred Houses; he was prominently remembered by both allies and enemies for his infamous struggle in various non-sympathetic religious and political ages and climates to keep legal and alive Tzutujil spiritual custom in service to the complex ritual cycle upon which all traditional life depended.
At those strange junctures of difficult times experienced by the village when either powerful outside religious figures, anti-Indian government policies, or bizarre combinations of them all purloined or commandeered at gunpoint various Sacred "objects," Chiv was in the middle of it all. In the 1950s, when soldiers of Arbenz confiscated Holy Boy and his representatives, imprisoning both the God and his priests, ordering the people to desist from their "backward-looking" customs, Chiviliu would mysteriously gain a reprieve for the village through some unlikely friendships and allies that, unbeknownst to the people, he'd made in certain government circles and among some normally unsympathetic Protestant converts who, though they also thoroughly detested the same "harmful misguided Native ritual beliefs," hated the Catholics even more. Chiv somehow secured higher-up governmental reprieve for freedom of religious activity from the new socialist regime that was soon to tumble. Except in two cases, even the sacred "objects" in question were secretly returned or released back to the village hierarchy.
Although recognized for his clout with both the spirits and the political forces of his day, his legendary creative fire and cleverness had backfired in more than a couple of instances, causing in one case the eighteen month imprisonment of all the shamans of the Lake Atitlán region, some one hundred and forty individuals.
But then on his own he mysteriously secured the release of all his colleagues by some magical ruse, in which according to a thousand versions of the legend, his imprisoned form was assumed by "Holy Boy" who himself remained in the prison grounds as an alternate appearance of Chiv's presence, making it possible for the real Chiv to meanwhile reportedly drive back alone eighty beef cows to the old medieval-looking Solola prison facility to feed his peers and the guards, accompanied by an "official" writ from Guatemala's president of the day exonerating the entire body of shamans accused of "mass witchcraft against the State."
But even then while incarcerated, huge losses had occurred to the great "Heart of Food and Water Bundle" in the form of many seed fetishes that were never found again and for whose most important loss Chiviliu never stopped grieving, pursuing every vague clue of their whereabouts for the remainder of his days. Till the day he died, Chiviliu never gave up hope and charged me with following up on any leads or rumors regarding the whereabouts of those "objects" that had disappeared decades earlier about whose loss he felt strangely responsible. As he'd been the presiding leader of those particular Sacred Houses at the time they were stolen, there were foolish converts who spun rumors that Chiv himself had sold them to collectors.
Despite my heroic pursuit to find the "objects" in my desperate desire to redeem Chiv's innocence before his death by coming up with any or all of these revered tribal "Seed Hearts" as they were called, except in the case of one ridiculously complicated return of what turned out to be a practically insignificant stolen "relic" from a European museum, I utterly failed to vindicate the old man in the end.
But in keeping with the inborn flash of his unkillable heart he also made sure I understood that what he grieved even more than that was not so much the losses of those "Holy Objects" but the loss of people wanting what these so-called objects meant; their spiritual understanding of the incredible mythological epics that their tangible presence embodied as delicious ritual abbreviations to feed the Divine in the Seed, as these ritual ceremonies unfolded through their annual staggered "flowerings" of Time.
Like all the other women and men of his type and generation, he sighed eternally for the loss of these stolen beings' place in the cyclic regeneration of the power of growth of plants and animals, upon whose generous deaths at the harvests and butchering all human existence has always been utterly dependent. Though the things stolen were sacred, they were not deities in themselves but "thrones" like my seed-eyed beings, only that they were tribal, not private. These thrones were the "sitting place" for Time Deities: complex details of each year's ritual, Deified, where the other half of reality made the half we live in with all its plants, animals, earth, suns, moons, stars, water, and so on, continually revived. They were the same beings as in the big mythological stories, but through the presence of the thrones they could be directly addressed like ancient relatives, given Feasts of offerings, tangibly danced with and adorned.
The people bemoaned their loss more as a sign that as a people they were, as they put it, "finally losing their seeds." Because what had been stolen were the seeds of their way of being: small things that held big life-giving knowledge whose presence was a ritual antidote to the ever-present threat of the village's spiritual amnesia. They were a kind of visible rosary that helped us to not forget how to do all those ancient things, a kind of memory device that made what those "Holy Things" were sprout again ritually into view every year, a complex of rituals that
fed the powers behind our food-growing plants. They were the spiritual DNA of the village that made the Divine in the Seed of all food live by being "re-membered." Spiritual forgetting killed the possibilities of the Food growing. "Losing the seeds" meant losing the ritual and the way of life of living by and as seeds.
The knowledge of "what came next" ceremonially in the annual ritual embodiment of that old mythology had always been the highly respected burden of the village hierarchy of village men and women who had spent their entire lives over and over, annually learning by doing under the previous hierarchy until all the sequences needed for the ceremonial feeding of life were involuntarily pulsing in their bones. They knew whatever divine understanding these stolen "objects" housed on their ritual thrones need not disappear with the "thrones," but they seemed to have fled right along with them.
What Chiv and the entire body of village hierarchy, men and women, mourned so deeply was not so much that these deified tools of antiamnesia had been stolen, or even that the people at large, the regular people they had always served by themselves serving what sat on these thrones that caused everyone in the village and things that fed them to
flourish, but that these villagers had apparently succumbed to the outside amnesia of modernity. Every villager's former unanimous respect for this immense ritual understanding even though they didn't one hundred percent comprehend it all, leaving that long learning to the ritual specialists, it was the reality that these "thrones" could be stolen that devastated the old people. Not what was stolen.
Though very secreted and cleverly guarded and rarely described except during the deepest ritual context, the opportunity to steal them had always been there, but it had never been an issue. Only people who had no comprehension of the magnificent, however delicate, net of interdependency this Tzutujil method of "keeping the seeds alive" contained for the world and their people would even want such a thing. Anyone who would want to steal them, to sell them to a collection somewhere, removing the ritual throne for the Divine Seed of Time away from the people's ceremonial feast, was heedless of the fact they were shredding and unanchoring the entire universe that gave even the thief life. That there might actually exist people who were antipathetic to "keeping the seeds alive" was like a devastating earthquake in the souls of the traditionalists.
When this first happened, of course, all the old people and younger traditionalists
bitterly surmised, since what they considered human culture was ritually "keeping the seeds alive," that these events signified their own culture might be on its way out. With no one to continue living it, it would become something objectively surveyed instead of actually lived. It would only be a matter of time before the husk of the ritual life: its "material culture," the clothing and paraphernalia, would be appropriated and dribble away into meaningless frozen forms in collectors' cases, documentary films in the vaults of museums or books on the conjectured past, no longer capable of understanding time and the earth in its living "sprouted seed" form of the annual ceremonialism within everyday farming Mayan life.
After I had been his ritual helper for several years, and by the time he came visiting my two little stone huts precariously embedded in the orchid-covered cliff overlooking the fisherman's canoe bay of Xechívoy, to announce he would die the following day, Chiviliu no longer had any doubts that the spiritual culture he had spent his life living, the culture that served and ritually fed the Holy Mother in the Seed and her tree of visionary time of the flowering earth's own annual complex cycles, renewable seasons, their fruits, deaths, and rebirths, had already been virtually strangled by an insidious invasion of a non-comprehending mentality that looked at things, collected them, but could never be what they saw. Like the seeds in previous creations spiritually heading away from present time to cloister themselves back into the "Rock," the cultural knowledge seeds of this spiritual culture were already preparing to wait out this next node of "dead time" on the stalk of life. Until a renewed earth could relight and reflower itself alive again, our capacity with this spiritual brilliance would live inside all of us as a living earth, but out of reach of the modern mind in the refugeed existence of the depth of our Indigenous Soul.
In other words, what "religious things" had been stolen could never have been stolen in the past because they were not stealable objects but "deified comprehensions": comprehensions that lived inside us and all around us. As soon as the commercial minds of Euro-American civilization for a traditional Tzutujil mind an impossible thing to even think or say, a thought introduced through the increased presence of missionaries of modern life methods, business, and business-oriented one-God religions, the objectification of "matter" as a thing, including plants, food, animals, clothing, and so forth, made all these living beings into exploitable soulless objects instead of powerfully necessary tangible spiritual synapses in the spinal chord of the Human position as part of all nature. A real Human of this sort was not unwelcome on the Earth. But the strange stare-of-the-dead-matter-mind that was now coming in on them made the people into enemies with their own personal Indigenous Souls.
Chiv mourned his culture's growing inability to make more of its natural self and keep the seeds alive no matter how many "objects" went missing. On the other hand, if they could be stolen and stayed stolen, and the living mythic story disappeared unstruggling as it left along with the "object," then the comprehensions the objects held no longer existed as a renewable viable seed! The stolen thrones were not symbols either, but tangible, living, literal, ritually alive places where these deified comprehensions, as life-giving Time, could live, feast, rest, and flourish.
He didn't order me to merely "carry" a bundle to safety, or just retrieve lost relics. What he wanted me to do was swear I would "keep the seeds alive" after he died; to keep alive these comprehensions as "seeds," and comprehensions of the seed nature of Time and the Divine in its diversity. He hoped he had planted it all deep enough in my heart for me to continue "cultivating" the seeds and plants without the Tzutujil culture somehow, bundles or no bundles. He wanted me to keep the "spiritual" Ruk'ux, or Heart, the spiritual DNA, alive in these cultural seeds and so as to possibly regrow real Human culture again in an unspecified time from those "seeds" but certainly well beyond either of our eras. The idea was to continue replanting the "seeds" in the land that brought that mind of discomprehension. Since for shamans the bodies of people were the Earth Herself, we should replant the Earth Bodies of those who'd "lost their seeds" and couldn't remember how to be on the Earth, or in their Earth Bodies anymore. Their land, the territory of their culture, he surmised must have suffered the same effects that they now promoted from came from an outside world ruled by its own pain of having lost their
seeds a long time back, the stunned existence they were living infected the mind on contact, causing the indigenous part to evacuate. What was their own experience of some earlier invasion of their own ancient village mind by some other harsh forgetful culture. My job was to live with these people but not lose my capacity to keep the seeds alive with no people of the village to back me up. This meant returning to the U.S., he said. How could I possibly keep it all alive in that environment?
"Do not be prejudiced against the form these seeds end up having to assume, Ma Martín. As all seeds, plants, and people do, they may have to alter their forms to survive the climate in which both of you find yourselves," he said.
Instead of sending the "seeds" into the Rock at Cuchumaquic, Chiv wanted to see if we could keep these seeds alive in a more nomadic, nonstatic way: by planting them inside the living heart of people living in a destructive culture. This way no matter how far the "seeds" wandered, a person could carry the seeds to replant them wherever that heart might land. Wherever they grew, however they grew, something would survive the spiritual destruction at hand.
Real spiritual treasures could not be actually stolen, but they most certainly can be forgotten, and in the case of seeds being equal to a people's culture, this would cause them to lose their vitality unless someone could somehow remember them back to life in some new living way. Knowledge and culture, like seeds, lose their viability after a while and must be recultivated, or they will disappear. The "seeds," like the comprehensions, were nothing if not kept alive by continual cyclic replanting to grow into adult seed-making plants of comprehensions. They could not be kept alive by simply storing them away indefinitely like preserved objects in a museum. People are always saying they write things down so as to remember them, but in reality, they do so only to ensure they themselves don't have to remember. When knowledge is lost as a culture lived and exists only in written form, it has an identical fate with seeds kept unplanted in a jar: someday they will forget how to be the living thing they're meant to be, even if planted; they both lose their viability.
The core principles of how to feed the Holy that Chiv worried so much about and wanted me to keep alive, as implausible as that was, were the organic tangible fruitings on the stalk of living Time called life, and would become as useless as more sacred texts without teachers and the living cultural context of their origins unless physically planted and lived out. But how could that be done by anyone without a village who knew, without an established Hierarchy, without the generations and regenerations it took to slowly maintain such comprehensions? Even a life lived in a village to feed one's family, the village and the Holy who feed us all with the sprouted seed, is a long, multigenerational, mostly limping effort that takes every square inch of heart, every extra calorie, and every human to even remotely maintain. How could I do it alone? It was impossible. But the old man was going to die, and he was that crazy old wild man, and it was a wonderful vision.
Chiv and I climbed up to the little summit behind my little cliff house and called to the last fingernail sliver of the sinking orange Father Sun to address him: "Don't forget about me, Old Chiviliu, and when you travel tomorrow morning, don't forget to gather up my Ruk'ux, my Seed Heart, my spirit at midday tomorrow and haul my Ruk'ux up into your string bag of time knotted with stars, take me to your Home and put me to good use." Sixteen hours before he died, Nicolas Chiviliu Tacaxoy told me that he had no idea how I would "keep the seeds alive" when he was gone. It was a total mystery to him, but to try anyway!
Sitting together as the evening darkened over us together for the last time, he said over and over as if repetition would make it take better hold and make it happen that he was sure with what resourcefulness and knowledge that I already had tied "under my belt," that if anybody could figure out how to keep these seeds alive in the times coming it would be me. But then after a silence, he added as an afterthought in his rare whisper, "I know how you are, you are a purist, but watch out not to judge too narrowly the appearance of the fruit of the seed on its return, do not hate the seed for looking odd or different, or having a strange accent when it returns to you each time. Your only job is to figure out with the old-minded words and understandings how to keep the seeds alive. But don't do it here in Atitlán, because that will have equally disintegrated. Do it in the USA, in the modern world, in the place you came from! You have to promise to plant the seeds in the land that sent us the trouble. Then if the seeds take root there, then someday bring them back here, or if you too are gone, have your student deliver them to this place. Maybe the last generations living here to come can resprout themselves back into a village with the seed mind intact, maybe not. But now that this village has almost totally forgotten how to be its original self, what's to be lost by trying?"
The village was already starting to forget, looking and acting like rootless money-oriented, gizmo-dependent Americans, avaricious merchants, Ladinos, and other outside civilized people who could no longer see the world as anything but a resource, a prop for recreation, or an uncooperative headache of natural laws that needed taming to make it obey. But this, as bad as it seemed, would be nothing compared to the common experience of village death, violence, and rag-tag hand-me-down TV culture that would ensue at the onset of the nineties.
Well . . . his last request was a dying man's last orders to me, and as absolutely impossible, grandiose, and unrealistic as it all was, I was checkmated by my love of him and our mutual love of the Divine in the Seed, and of course like the life-loving idiot I'd always been I promised to do everything I could, which I was certain would be very little.
Copyright © 2012 by Martín Prechtel. Reprinted by permission of publisher.
Teaser image by www.ruffrootcreative.com courtesy of Creative Commons license.