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Tuesday, March 26 , 2019, 1:59 am | Fair 50º

 
 
 
 
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Anabel Ford: Cool and Sunny — El Pilar Offers a Window Into the Maya Forest

Anabel Ford and Amb Carlos Moreno chat over the picnic.
Anabel Ford and Amb Carlos Moreno chat over the picnic.  (Anabel Ford / Noozhawk courtesy photo)

As the warm hurricane season gave way to the cold nortes, U.S. Ambassador to Belize Carlos Moreno joined me for a trip to El Pilar, the major Maya center that is protected as a binational cultural reserve in Belize and Guatemala. The recent days of sun had dried the road, and it took 25 minutes from Cayo to reach the welcome sign at El Pilar.

Retired Justice Moreno, a first-generation Mexican American, received his law degree from Stanford University and pursued his legal career in California. Initially practicing law, his talents were recognized, and by 1986 he moved into the judiciary.

In 1993, Gov. Pete Wilson appointed Moreno to the Superior Court of Los Angeles, and in 1998, President Bill Clinton appointed him to a federal judgeship in Central California. He culminated his career on the California Supreme Court when Gov. Gray Davis' appointment was confirmed in 2002. He retired in 2011, and with President Barak Obama's appointment, he has assumed the mantle of U.S. ambassador to Belize.

Ambassador Moreno presented his credentials in Belize in July, in time for an Independence Day celebration. This was his first visit to El Pilar.

When we reached El Pilar, Ambassador Moreno was greeted by the park rangers. Then, the group, including master forest gardeners Narciso Torres and Alfonso Tzul as well as Duke of Edinburgh Awards champion Cynthia Ellis Topsey, proceeded to the parking area and walked to ancient Maya house and forest garden of Tzunu’un, hummingbird in Mayan.

There we discussed the importance of understanding the housing of the Maya that are the foundation of the society.

The setting of the ancient Maya house is nestled in the forest gardens where lush medicinal, comestible and ornamental plants can be seen in the shadow of the ancient temples of the center. The trees that shade El Pilar are native of the Maya forest and to the traditional Maya, their useful properties are known.

Walking up to the magnificent Plaza Copal with its imposing temples and palaces, the forest gardeners shared knowledge of the uses of plants such as the Corozo, or Cohune, palm nuts that can be rendered into medicinal salve and a cooking oil.

Anabel
Master forest gardener Alfonso Tzul, U.S. Ambassador Carlos Moreno, Duke of Edinburgh Awards champion Cynthia Ellis Topsey and master forest gardener Narciso Torres at the top of the H’Mena, El Pilar. (Anabel Ford / Noozhawk photo)

Crossing the public plazas to the north, we entered the H’mena, the most private and restricted part of the site. There we saw the corridor of Zotz Na and the exposed walls and rooms of Jobo.

On the way to the highest point of the site, we passed a copal tree where every visitor takes some of the aromatic sap to use as incense. Rising above the forest on the tallest temple, we were presented with a commanding view to the east, Chik’in in Mayan, to the sister plazas in Guatemala.

No visit to El Pilar is complete without seeing to the “Chert Site.” Known as Eznab in Mayan, chert, or flint, occurs in the limestone and provided the raw material for tool making for the Maya. The El Pilar Chert Site is just that, a hazardous waste debris of manufacturing byproducts of the common chopper, the machete of the Maya.

At the end of our tour around El Pilar, we capped the visit with a picnic at the thatched “champa” adjacent to the parking area and near the Community Creek trail. There we shared homemade salads, French bread, hot tortillas, and fresh mozzarella while we reflected on the unique qualities of El Pilar.

As we learned of other interests, we discussed common themes and charted plans where El Pilar would play a role in the future of ancient Maya.

Anabel Ford Ph.D. is the director of UC Santa Barbara’s MesoAmerican Research Center and president of Exploring Solutions Past. Ford, UCSB’s resident expert on Maya archaeology, discovered the ancient Maya city-center El Pilar, which bridges Belize and Guatemala. By decoding the ancient landscape around El Pilar, she is creating a sustainable model in conservation and agriculture that can regenerate the threatened Maya forest. With investment and support, her model can assist environmental efforts worldwide. Click here for more information about El Pilar. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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