By Lawrence Lenhart
Our tour of the underworld begins with kidney stones, my wife wincing as the van crawls through divots on its way to the ranger station, the perfect pain of seed-crystal aggregates grown in the cave of her gut, formed like the first kernel of a speleothem, and shame on me for just now getting around to telling her what today’s “strenuous” will look like—a dawn hike through Yucatán forest (beware the jaguar, tapir, scorpion, parasite, sinkhole, and sun); several crossings of Roaring Creek, rope holds to grope on the way to belay; a frigid entry at the mouth of the cave, a blue-bright sump before miles of darkness; a chest-high stream with aquatic squeezes overrun with scab-starved fish; free-form spelunking upward to the chamber; maybe a belly crawl or two, a complete embrace of the troglobite within—so she shakes an extra-strength capsule onto her palm, and sucks it up, for this is Actun Tunichil Muknal cave, also known as Xibalba (“place of fear”), a Mayan underworld populated by gods named Pus Demon, Stabbing Demon, Skull Staff, and Flying Scab, said to flow with the blood of ritualized phlebotomy, crawling with armies of whip spiders, where priests processed with torches topped with wavy flames, fingers twiddling over the holes of their ocarinas, in hopes of appeasing the rain god Chac in whose presence we’ll never speak of the weather again, but instead of climate systems, atmospheric conditions unfolding in the fourth dimension, ancient timespace—we call it paleoclimate, which derives from palai “long ago” and klima “a slope” like the spring down which a droplet of rain rides before entering through the crack of a cave and so becomes a dripping, a puddle, a deposit, a nubbin, a pillar, a stalagmite that stands tall as a mini-fridge full of minerals, mud, pitch, sand, and crystallized rat piss—with patterns that are literally concretized in a cave, measurable in the concentric rings that form within a knee-high hump (viz. speleochronology), patterns’ story-told by interior rings made visible by drilling hair-width trenches into rock, yielding infinitesimal dust that’s harvested into thousands of small bottles, tipped in by careful hands, each vial representing a six-month span for over two millennia, and whose contents reveal an isotopic pattern that indicates a dry season (if once), dry spell (if twice), drought (if three times consecutively), or a drying trend so pernicious (as when 760 vials in a row test positive for delta-O-18) that one imagines the world denatured, undone in a molecular berserk, presenting a hell vivant for those “Terminal Classic” Mayans unlucky enough to realize a hot afternoon is only the beginning of a white-hot century, no growth upon the terraces, no rainfall in the catchments, no nothing to irrigate the corn, no corn to keep the bellies full, so moon-faced kids with kwashiorkor peek sadly into dry metate, all of this worsened by the balkanization of states who wage their wars to win the dinner table, and when that war comes too close to home, when whetted obsidian is hafted to spear, axe, and arrow, piercing their own flesh to make blood, it’s time to go, so comes the specter of forced migration—or call it what it was: a climate migration, population dispersal so comprehensive it triggers the end of a civilization whose extant mounds still outnumber modern houses in Belize—from city-centers’ whose sprawl, don’t forget, was motivated by a make-way mentality, a clearfelling of the forests whose leaves made rain in the first place as they gave vapor to the clouds, so rain to the ditches, so milpa to the mouths, so amity to the polities of the Mayan Lowlands where so few remained in resilient residence after the climate meltdown, and speaking of remains (what a euphemism for a being), those priests of Xibalba—noticing modern agriculture produced too few calories, and the state’s warfare too many casualties—thought they’d try a technology of their own, which some call religion, and others—like the renowned archaeologist who sat across from me at breakfast—regard as a Death-Cult-cum-Drought-Cult, a group of charlatans whose sadistic piety meant draggling bodies to the dark zones of the cave, bodies that go in but never out, like the skeletized toddlers we see stowed in pockets of stone, bound and left for dead, or deeper in the chambers, the remains of men, dismembered and snuffed out by blunt trauma to the head, or most gruesomely, the crystal maiden eternally supine in this chasmic sepulcher, final destination of today’s tour, suplexed to death as if an unregistered opponent in a lucha libre match, spine severed in a one-sided bargain with Chac, an ancient climate oblation—the charcoal fallen from the ritual’s torch, it should be noted, has been carbon-dated to match the drought rings of the stalagmites—whose skull, column, girdle, and limbs glitter with crystal residuum, all of it calcified not unlike my wife who confirms her stones are worse than the pain associated with childbirth (a nine-out-of-ten sort of pain), but all things considered from the violent vantage of Xibalba, and at the feet of this manhandled maiden c. 900 A.D.: “Things could be worse.”
Notes: With debts of gratitude to Jaime Awe and the co-authors of “Development and Disintegration of Maya Political Systems in Response to Climate Change,” which appeared in Science, 2012.
Lawrence Lenhart is the author of three books of creative nonfiction, including Of No Ground (forthcoming from West Virginia University Press), and he teaches fiction, creative nonfiction, and climate science narratives at Northern Arizona University.
Art by Dev Murphy, a writer and illustrator living in Pittsburgh.