Category Archives: February 2023
By Jane Bauer
“Einstein’s 1905 paper came out and suddenly changed people’s thinking about space-time. We’re again in the middle of something like that. When the dust settles, time – whatever it may be – could turn out to be even stranger and more illusory than even Einstein could imagine.”
This month our writers explore the concept of time and space. When I was in grade 5 the teacher gave us an exercise in which we mapped out our life on a timeline which looked like a straight line stretching horizontally across a page.
Storytelling was divided into befores and afters. During high school a teacher pointed out to me that in my fiction writing I struggled with tense, she seemed to suggest that perhaps I hadn’t been taught my verbs in English properly which was/is probably true since I went to school in French and only spoke English at home.
As I got older I often wrote two versions of the same story- one in the present and one in the traditional narrator’s past. What I came to realize is that I don’t struggle with verb tenses- what I actually do is lose myself in time. What I mean by this is that when you are telling a story about what happened in the past you are usually recalling it as you narrated it to yourself back then, in which case the present tense would make sense for a narrative voice, whereas if I am telling a story with the wisdom incurred since the event, then using the past tense feels logical. If you are not an avid reader or writer chances are you don’t spend a lot of time worrying about your verb tenses.
We are taught time is linear but now as we enter a world where what was once science-fiction is now just science, it is likely that time is constantly folding over itself and our experiences and inner world are floating between dimensions, like flotsam and jetsam.
Julia Mossbridge, a cognitive neurophysicist, has been doing studies on precognition that support the idea that you can increase your skill to see the future (Although it isn’t really necessarily the future but could be a slip of the past that may have already occurred). I think every one of us has had the feeling that something would happen and then it did.
Have you ever met someone and disliked them immediately for no reason? Some future transgression that you are aware of on a deeper level perhaps? Carlo Rovelli, physicist, and author, posits that Time is “part of a complicated geometry woven together with the geometry of space.”
Perhaps the next thing to divide us will be whether we are string theorists or quantum loop theorists? Maybe the thought of several versions of you living in different dimensions seems ridiculous. Maybe you have never experienced the knowing I referred to and you live your life tight-roping it across a clear line from ‘before’ towards ‘after’ with logic and rationality.
Or maybe you are like me and find yourself doing things without knowing the logic of why.
See you sometime,
The Saturday Boarders of La Bocana
By Randy Jackson
They began meeting at La Bocana beach on Saturday mornings for boogie boarding more than a decade ago. Back then the only boards available around Huatulco were boards too small for an adult. Although that meant the rides, even on the biggest waves, were quite short, they had a taste of what great fun it is playing in the waves. They returned in subsequent seasons with boards more suited to their size, and their fun in the waves really began.
A boogie board is a trademark term for bodyboards, just as Kleenex is a trademark term for facial tissues. However, “boogie” in front of “board” is an indispensable descriptor of the use of the device, much as “magic” is a descriptor to the term “magic wand” (a wand in medieval English means stick). To “boogie” is to dance, whereas a bodyboard could mean something you lay a cadaver on. So, in the spirit of good clean fun, the Bocana Boarders prefer the term boogie board. And by adding “ing” to “board,” as in Boogie Boarding, it becomes an activity of jollification.
The origin of this activity is attributed to the indigenous peoples of Polynesia. A lesser-known fact in surfing history is that most early Polynesians lay prone on their boards, and only rarely were they observed standing up on them. The Polynesian term for this form of fun is he’e nalu, or “wave sliding.”
The Saturday Boarders of Bocana are a small non-elite group of gringo-pensioners. They are much less fearful of the waves than the possibility of developing neck wattles. But then again, the waves in the snowbird season are generally modest, not at all like the cresting turquoise four-meter waves off French Polynesia. In fact, the surfer term for the type of winter waves at La Bocana is “shoreys.” In Tahiti, shoreys are mostly used by the surfers’ Swedish girlfriends to wash sand off their calves. To the Boarders of Bocana, however, shoreys are riotously more exciting than even the upward curve of bank stocks.
Like good surfers everywhere, the Saturday Boarders of Bocana have honed their skills using practiced techniques appropriate for the conditions. This type of boogie boarding requires one to stand in waist-to-chest-deep water, watching for the appropriate ocean swell that will break into a curl near one’s standing position. Then, facing towards shore, they tuck the back end of the board into their waist while looking back over their shoulder at the rapidly forming wave. Then, just as the wave is about to break overhead, they leap shoreward onto their board, their momentum joining the force of the wave as it breaks.
From shore, the boarder’s motion will appear to hesitate slightly as the wave crests. Then, tipping earthwards as the wave breaks, the boarder shoots downwards and disappears into the crashing water and foam of the breaking wave. It takes two or three seconds for the laws of physics to work out the boarder’s fate. Spectators on shore hold their breath. Sometimes a riderless board is shot skyward (“oooh’s” from the crowd). But, emerging from the wave-froth is the face of a skilled Bocana Boarder, grinning, out ahead of the wall of foam, careening towards the beach. The crowd cheers.
Oh, and the crowd? It’s an imaginary one. The wives and friends of the Bocana Boarders are there each Saturday morning for the event, but not to watch it. Some stroll along the beach, others are busy with their fish tacos and beverages at the restaurant. Alas, the Bocana Boarders’ daring acts of athletic wave conquest are rarely witnessed.
A good ride ends when the board smooches to a stop on the sand, just centimeters from the highest wave mark. That wave delivering the boarder to the beach was a final bit of energy culminating from planetary forces of wind and gravity. While the earth spins at 107,000 kilometers per hour, the gravitational pull of the moon sloshes the oceans like pulling a beer keg out of a bathtub. But as oblivious to these cosmic forces as they are to farting in Walmart, the Bocana Boarder rises from the beach, tucks his board under his arm, and heads back into the oncoming waves.
Yet in this dimension, where time exists, the fun in the waves must inevitably end. So while galaxies rotate, supernovas explode, and nebulas coalesce, there on the edge of a continent, on this blue spinning planet, the Saturday Boarders of La Bocana leave barefoot tracks from the water’s edge, with a promise of fish burgers and later the open-mouthed oblivion of an afternoon nap.
A Twist of Time
By Carole Reedy
Books have a unique way of stopping time in a particular moment and saying: Let’s not forget this.
— Dave Eggers, prolific writer and editor
Science fiction writers aren’t the only storytellers who work with the themes of time and space. Novelists, too, are beholden to time to create the masterpieces of literature we so deeply enjoy. In fact, writers of all genres magically engage readers through their philosophical treatment of the phenomenon of time. The authors here hail from one of three centuries and from five different cultures: French, British, American, German, and Polish. Their works, at the time they were written, were all revolutionary in style and structure, opening the door for future generations to understand and explore the context in which we live, evolve, feel, and observe.
We can never say enough about the mysterious ascendancy of time.
Topping the list of writers with a penchant for time and memory is the quirky, charming bon vivant Marcel Proust. Best known for recollecting his past after tasting a delectable madeleine, his seven-volume novel (more than a million words) still fascinates readers throughout the world and challenges and mystifies academics.
À La Recherche Du Temps Perdu (1913-27), Proust’s masterpiece, translates to English literally as In Search of Lost Time. However, the popular and dominant translation of Scottish Charles Kenneth Scott Moncrieff titles it Remembrance of Things Past, a subtle but significant difference.
Proust’s memories are involuntary, sparked by a smell or taste. They do not come bidden by a conscious search. Moncrieff’s title is inspired by and taken from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30, “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought, I summon up remembrance of things past.”
Proust’s tome has mesmerized readers for more than a century. And even though it is set in early 20th-century France, the behaviors, emotions, and habits of the characters remain recognizable today. Proust’s mastery of language and nuance is unmatched. The prose is among the most beautiful ever written.
From an early age Proust suffered from asthma, which remained with him into adulthood. He spent the last three years of his life in bed, writing all night and sleeping all day. He died at age 51 in 1922 from pneumonia.
The highly acclaimed British writer Virginia Woolf has been the focus of literary roundtables, college theses, and book club discussions for nearly a century. She was the forerunner of the stream-of-consciousness genre in which her characters observe their everyday surroundings in search of an understanding of life. The style is evident for creating an almost dreamy, trancelike state that welcomes the reader into new worlds.
Recently the Met Opera from New York presented a new production called The Hours. The drama is based on the 1998 novel of the same title by Michael Cunningham, which itself is based on Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925) as well as Woolf’s life. Both books are among my favorites. The novel The Hours is a literary masterpiece in its juxtaposition of time and place.
Mrs. Dalloway is one of Woolf’s most enchanting works, and I believe it to be a perfect novel. The action is reduced to the course of one day in Mrs. Dalloway’s life, but it tells the story of a lifetime of experiences and emotions. The enigma of time.
Another of Woolf’s popular novels is To the Lighthouse (1927). Here the reader accompanies the Ramsey family to Scotland, a place they vacation regularly in the summer. But once again, with the twists of time, the story of a woman is told through the eyes of others as well as her own. The Scottish landscape functions as a significant character in this novel, which scrutinizes a woman’s life and relationships.
Sadly, as is the case with many persons of genius, Wolff suffered from bipolar disorder and depression. At age 59, she walked into the River Ouse in Northern England with a pocketful of rocks and drowned.
This 40-year-old American novelist has recently captured the attention of readers of all ages. Ruthless and bold in her craft, she painstakingly takes us on her characters’ searches for resolution and peace. The emotional development, upheaval, and final settlement of her main characters is only hesitantly revealed through the author’s singular unfolding.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation appeared on many best-seller lists in 2022. The sleep-induced self-cure of the protagonist develops slowly, making for a fascinating journey. Since I was completely satisfied with the novel, I then searched for this young innovative writer’s previous work.
Death in Her Hands (2020) caught my attention as it was tagged as a mystery, a genre among my personal favorites. Yet here is a completely different take. The action is disclosed to the reader exclusively from the point of view of the main character. All is auspiciously resolved in the end despite, perhaps, the reader’s doubt!
Fortunately, Moshfegh is young and undoubtedly is churning many ideas that will make their way into new novels for her demanding fans.
Thomas Mann suggested to his readers that once they finished his novel The Magic Mountain (1924), they read it again. Those who have done so claim it is the most magnificent novel ever written, and many more agree.
Although he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929, principally for Buddenbrooks (1901), a novel based on his own family, it is The Magic Mountain that brought Mann continued fame over the years. It continues to be named one of the best novels of all time.
Apart from the themes of life and death, Mann returns often to the subjective nature of time and our own perspective. In The Magic Mountain, the main character, Hans Castrop, comes to visit his cousin in a sanatorium, falls ill, and spends seven years there himself. The two engage in philosophical arguments about time: does “interest and novelty dispel or shorten the content of time, while monotony and emptiness hinder its passage”? The relationship of time and space is a continuing debate.
Mann lived a long interesting life, in both Germany (his home), Switzerland, and the US. Wartime conditions in Europe, especially in Germany, were the impetus for his relocations.
To know more about this highly regarded writer, I recommend a 2021 novel written by famed Irish author Colm Tóibin called The Magician, which is based on the life of Thomas Mann.
Take the opportunity to watch interviews with this surprisingly bubbly personality. Despite the serious nature of her subjects and writing, Tokarczuk has a contagious sense of humor. The obvious mutually respectful relationship with her English translator, Jennifer Croft, manifests itself in the superb results of this successful team.
Tokarczuk, a clinical psychologist, is a serious writer, evident in the recognition of her work by the Nobel committee in 2018, when she was awarded that coveted prize for “a narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life.”
Her book Flights (2007) is a favorite. She won and shared with her translator the Man Booker International Prize for it in 2018. Judges for the National Book Award, for which the novel was short-listed, offer this description: “Brilliantly imagined characters and stories, interwoven with haunting, playful, and revelatory meditations, Flights explores what it means to be a traveler, a wanderer, a body in motion not only through space but through time.”
Tokarczuk’s epic novel, The Books of Jacob (2014) transports the reader over seven borders and five languages, starting in 1752 with the 18th century Polish-Jewish religious leader Jacob Frank, then evolving to the persecution of the Jews in the 20th century. It is her revelations of the past that prophesize and thus advance the pursuit of solutions to present-day problems.
At 61, this politically and socially aware author is active in rights of equality and respect for minorities.
Coincidentally, just before submitting this article I began reading Out Stealing Horses (2003) by Per Petterson. On page 6, I ran across this poignant note: “Time is important to me now, I tell myself. Not that it should pass quickly or slowly, but be only time, be something I live inside and fill with physical things and activities that I can divide it up by, so that it grows distinct to me and does not vanish when I am not looking.”
It Came from Outer Space –and the Dinosaurs Were No More
By Deborah Van Hoewyk
A long time ago, in an asteroid belt – or maybe a comet cloud – but definitely far far away … a “space rock” escaped its orbit and slammed into Earth. It was the end of an era.
An Astronomical Event
A long time would be 66 million years ago (mya), apparently on a day in the northern-hemisphere spring. The impact marked the end of a geological period called the Cretaceous, which ran from 145 to 66 mya). The Cretaceous followed the Triassic (237- 201 mya) and Jurassic (201-145 mya); these three periods comprise the Mesozoic Era, or the age of dinosaurs. The dinosaurs, except for those that could fly, were pretty much instantaneously over as well.
There is not yet agreement on whether the “space rock,” 9.6 km (±6 miles) in diameter, was an asteroid, basically a giant rock, or a comet, made of ice, rock, and dust. Whether it came from the asteroid belt, a donut-shaped collection of debris left over from when the planets of our solar system were formed, or from one or another of the more distant debris clouds that generate comets, doesn’t really seem to matter. Either way, Jupiter got into the act and set the space rock on course for a place named Chicxulub (chicks-oo-loob) on the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico.
What did Jupiter do? Exerted gravity. Jupiter is about 318 times the mass of Earth, and its gravitational pull is about 2.4 times that of Earth. As astrophysicist Amir Siraj, a student at Harvard when he did his research on the “Chicxulub Impactor,” explains, “the solar system acts as a kind of pinball machine,” and “Jupiter, the most massive planet, kicks incoming long-period comets into orbits that bring them very close to the Sun.” The complicated interaction of these “sun grazer” comets with solar tidal forces makes them smaller and faster, and increases the chance they’re headed straight for earth.
What Happened the Day the Dinosaurs Died?
About a thousand species of dinosaurs inhabited the earth. From ancestors to extinction, they lasted about 230 million years, with the age of recognizable dinosaurs running for about 165 million years. They originated when the earth had a single land mass, called Pangaea; as Pangaea split into areas we now know as the seven continents, the dinosaurs went along for the ride on most of them.
Mexico hosted a range of dinosaurs, with most fossilized remains coming from northern Baja California and Coahuila. There were horned dinosaurs like the Cohuilaceratops, 4 meters (±13 feet) long and weighing just over a ton – but its horns were 1.2 meters (±4 feet) long. There were some of the largest duckbilled hadrosaurs – remains of Tlatolophus galorum were just unearthed in Coahuila, as well as smaller duck-bills like Velafrons and Latirhinus. Tlatolophus was 8-12 meters (26-39 feet) long, weighing in at about 3.6 tons. There were the “apex predators,” the tyrranosaurs, who preyed on the hadrosaurs; Mexico’s best-known tyrranosaur was the medium-sized Labocania, only 7 meters (23 feet) long and weighing in at a ton and half.
Mexico’s dinosaurs were the first to go when the Chicxulub Impactor hit the tip of the Yucatán peninsula with the equivalent of a 100-million megaton blast – 60,000 times the energy of all the nuclear weapons now in existence – hollowing out a crater ±150 km (90 miles) wide.
The impact generated a core of super-heated – over 10,000 degrees – plasma, i.e., matter that has reached a fourth state, beyond solid, liquid, and gas, basically a gas “soup” of charged ions (positive) and electrons (negative).
This thermal pulse lasted for only a few minutes, but it sent out an air blast, a shockwave of air pressure that created winds well over 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) per hour. The air blast radiated across the seas, sending raging wildfires through ancient forests and bringing tsunamis with waves 100-300 meters (±330-990 feet) over the coastline of the Gulf of Mexico.
The impact also produced a seismic pulse equal to a magnitude 10 earthquake, causing landslides on the sea floor, which was already deeply eroded by the backwash from the tsunamis. The seismic pulse radiated far from Chicxulub, with tremors gathering surface water and pushing it up the Western Interior Seaway, an inland sea that split what is now the United States in two.
All terrestrial flora and fauna, along with marine life, within a 1,500-1,800 km (900-1008 miles) radius was roasted or buried alive. And all of this occurred before any debris ejected from the crater could fall back to earth. Within minutes, however, the debris – mostly rocky rubble and “ejecta spherules” (tiny glass beads called tektites, composed of melted rock and dust) – began falling over the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, covering the end of the Yucatán Peninsula and the adjacent sea floor several hundred meters (±800 feet) deep; 350-600 kilometers (210-360 miles) away in Campeche, at the base of the Yucatán, the ejected debris was 50-300 meters (165 to 980 feet) thick.
Chicxulub and Mass Extinction
The gas, dust, and “geologic shrapnel” flung up by the Chicxulub impact did far more than fall to earth in Mexico. It followed global air currents to create an “impact winter,” in which the entire earth was plunged into darkness and freezing cold as the ejected material circled the globe and blocked out the sun. It was a winter that lasted three years. Hot fragments set off wildfires around the world. Acid rain poured down. Plants died. Animals that ate plants died. Animals that ate the animals that ate the plants died. In what is now called the “Cretaceous-Paleogene Extinction Event (K-Pg),” three-quarters of all species then on earth – including and especially the dinosaurs – went extinct.
Not everyone agrees that Chicxulub is the whole story. After studying over a thousand dinosaur-egg fragments, Chinese scientists have argued that in the two million years before K-Pg, dinosaur diversity was dropping. They conclude that the “end-Cretaceous catastrophic events [saliently massive volcanic eruptions in India that would also have caused climate change] probably acted on an already vulnerable ecosystem and led to nonavian dinosaur extinction.”
There were survivors. Some of the avian dinosaurs, ancestors of today’s birds (not the pterosaurs, though, pterodactyls were actually flying reptiles); early small mammals that lived in burrows; small amphibians like frogs and salamanders; and reptiles – snakes, lizards, alligators, crocodiles, turtles – made it through.
Researchers in evolutionary biology at Cornell University have been studying the ancestors of primates (that’s us!) and marsupials (kangaroos and possums). Before the K-Pg extinction, these mammals had been arboreal, living their entire lives in the trees, not a good place to be as incredibly high temperatures sent wildfires tearing through forests. Right around the time of the impact, however, these mammals were making an evolutionary transition out of the trees and a few survived.
It should be noted that we are now in the “Holocene Extinction,” in which human activity – increasing population, overconsumption, and pollution – threatens the extinction of over a million species in the next ten years; the World Wildlife Fund calls it the “largest mass extinction event since the end of the dinosaur age.”
How Do We Know All This?
You could spend time struggling through academic analyses to gather all this information, but there’s an easier way. David Attenborough, the British dean of natural history documentaries, has just released his latest work, a 90-minute film titled Dinosaurs: The Final Day with David Attenborough (premiered April 15, 2022, on the BBC; in the U.S., May 11, 2022, as a two-part special, Dinosaur Apocalypse, on the PBS show Nova).
The documentary shows Attenborough walking with dinosaurs as the Chicxulub impactor is gathering speed in space (the dinosaurs were created by the animators of The Lion King and The Jungle Book). Surprisingly, the documentary starts out not in Mexico but in Hell Creek, North Dakota, about 3000 km (1800 miles) from Chicxulub. Attenborough spent three years with the researchers at the Tanis dig, and devotes most of the documentary to exploring their findings.
The key? The “K-Pg boundary,” a sharp demarcation between life before, during, and after the impact. At the actual boundary there is a concentration of iridium, a hard, iridescent mineral rare on earth but known to occur in meteorites (meteors are “space rocks” once they have entered Earth’s atmosphere, and meteorites are the post-impact remains of the meteors). In 2016, a group of international marine scientists drilled a thousand feet into the edge of the Chicxulub crater about 30 km (18 miles) northwest of Progreso, Yucatán, extracting a core sample that showed iridium at the point of impact.
The Tanis dig shows this even more clearly. British paleontologist Robert DePalma, working with an international team, found large, astonishingly well-preserved fossils below and in a crumbly layer of rock full of the ejecta spherules. Fossils from the Tanis dig are so well preserved because the post-impact inundation of watery mud engulfed living creatures, preserving them much as volcanic lava preserved the victims at Pompeii in the year 79 CE.
Among these fossils are saltwater fish, obviously not native to North Dakota, with gills full of spherules chemically identical to ones found at Chicxulub, indicating that the fish came with the water that rushed from the Gulf of Mexico up the Western Interior Seaway. It is thought that the spherules may have taken as little as 13 minutes after impact in Mexico to fall in Hell Creek.
Chicxulub and the Future
Will Chicxulub happen again? Probably. But definitely not in our lifetime. Amir Siraj, who identified the sun-grazer comets, has determined that, even though the chances of a similar impact are 10 times greater than previously thought, it’s only projected to occur every 250-730 million years.
In the meantime, Chicxulub has lessons for the future. The crater was open on its northeast side to the Gulf of Mexico, allowing nutrient-rich water to circulate in the crater. Life started up very quickly in the form of microscopic marine life, perhaps within 200 years. A consortium of scientists who study the return of life to Chicxulub say it offers lessons for restoring the oceans, threatened today by oxygen deletion, ocean acidification, and rising temperatures. According to Christopher M. Lowery, of the Institute for Geophysics at the University of Texas (Austin), Chicxulub “might be an important analog for the recovery of biodiversity after we finally curtail carbon dioxide emissions and pollution.”
Chinampas, Calzadas, and Aqueducts: The Ancient Engineering Marvels of Tenochtitlán
By Julie Etra
Tenochtitlán was the capital of the Triple Aztec Alliance empire (formed in 1428 and ruled by the Mexica, the empire joined together the three Nahua states of Tenochtitlán, Texcoco, and Tlacopan). There is not enough space in this column to write about all the marvels of the Tenotchtilán itself, a magnificent city built on the five inland lakes in the Valley of Mexico. The Aztec empire was at its peak when Tenochtitlán was substantially destroyed by the Spanish Conquest in 1521.
Two of the most intriguing aspects of this civilization were its systems of agriculture/food cultivation and water management (they are of course intertwined), especially how these systems were constructed. For those readers interested in more detail, Barbara Mundy’s exhaustively researched and superbly written book is referenced below.
The Valley of Mexico
The basin that comprised the Valley of Mexico had five lakes: Zumpango, Xaltocan, Texcoco, Xochimilco, and Chalco. They were endorheic, i.e., they had no outlet, were hydraulically connected, and formed one enormous lake when flooded. The lakes were shallow, with a depth of no more than 150 ft (45 m); water quality varied. The more isolated southern lakes of Xochimilco and Chalco were higher and protected by the high peninsula formed by Cerro de la Estrella on the east and a “lava plug” to the west; the lakes were fed by springs and rivers, and so held fresh water. Drainage from the higher lakes flowed north to Texcoco (the largest lake), Zumpango, and Xaltocan; the waters of these lakes were brackish (saltier).
Following the discovery of a freshwater spring in Lake Texcoco at what came to be called Chapultepec (“grasshopper hill” in Nahuatl – chapulin = grasshopper, tepec = place), the rocky island of Tenochtitlán was settled on June 20, 1325. The brackish waters supported salt-tolerant aquatic life and were harvested for a species of algae made into edible patties. Flooding during the rainy season not only joined the lakes, but the backwash could threaten the innovative Aztec agricultural system known as chinampas.
The chinampas were rectangular gardens located in the southern lakes. Swampy land was dredged, creating navigable channels between islands. These islands were constructed with logs, reeds, and sticks woven into frames and covered with the muck of soil, mud, roots, and other dredged plant detritus. Whether or not these farmed rectangular parcels floated, as do the modern Floating Gardens of Xochimilco, is still subject to scholarly debate, although the establishment of willows would anchor them. While more investigation might reveal the actual materials, I would guess that the “reeds” included species of cattails (Typha spp.), bullrush (Scirpus spp.), and reeds (Cyperus spp.), all of which grow in standing water or saturated soils and are supple enough to weave. Ahuejote (Salix bonplandiana), an erect willow resembling a poplar, grew on the drier shores, along with ahuehuete (Taxodium mucronatum), aka sabino and Montezuma bald cypress. Ahuejote is derived from the Nahuatl word ahuexotl (atl = water, huexotl = willow). The Spanish word for willow is sauce; think of Sausalito, California, near San Francisco, meaning little grove of willows.
Young, flexible branches of willows were used in constructing the chinampas, and live cuttings were planted for eventual shade and to stabilize the structures through their vigorous and extensive root systems. (The bark of this versatile plant produces salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin, and was no doubt an herbal Mexica pain reliever). The dense and durable wood of the ahuehuete was most likely used as posts for the multi-functional causeways called calzadas (more about them in a minute).
According to the noted archaeologists Pedro Armillas and William T. Sanders, the swampland converted into chinampas was estimated to be about 12,000 hectares, enough to support a population of between 117,000 – 200,000 with an annual consumption of 160 kilograms of maiz (corn) per head. What else grew on these islets? Chia, beans, squash, tomatoes, avocados, amaranth, cacao (chocolate), chilies, cotton, and a variety of flowers including marigolds, which are native to Mexico. The Mexica fished and also consumed the endemic salamander, the axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum), named after the Aztec god of fire and lightning, Xolotl. The axolotl was important in the diet of pre-Hispanic residents of the city, along with ducks and other waterfowl that were trapped in nets.
Construction of the calzadas, the system of dikes and watery causeways, was begun in the 1420s, initially to separate the brackish from the fresh water. They most likely had openings to manage flows, similar to an agricultural sluice gate. The calzadas averaged five to seven meters wide and eight km (about 4.8 mi) in length. To form the dikes, wood posts, perhaps from the locally available black cypress or pine/oaks in the surrounding forests, were anchored in the shallow lakes and back filled with layers of rock, clay, and a mortar of mud and calcium carbonate (limestone). They required constant maintenance.
Netzahualcóyotl, the tlatoani (leader) of Texcoco – and a scholar, philosopher, warrior, architect, and poet to boot – vastly improved on this system of water management. Aside from his military victories, governmental prowess, and poetic skills, he was a superb engineer. According to Wikipedia, “He is said to have personally designed the albarrada de Nezahualcóyotl (dike of Nezahualcóyotl) to separate the fresh and brackish waters of Lake Texcoco, a system that was still in use over a century after his death.”
The construction of the calzadas took place at roughly the same time as the aggressive expansion of the Triple Alliance empire, which handily had 50,000-plus solders available from Nezahualcoyotl’s army. The calzadas also served as roadways, which ironically contributed to the conquest of the city as the Spaniards cut off supplies, particularly the aqueducts conveying water (see below for this third triumph of ancient engineering), from the mainland. The calzadas were the avenues of trade and contributed to the enormous wealth of the city, as the groups conquered by the Triple Alliance, which extended to Guatemala at its height, paid tribute to the capital.
In 1466 Nezahualcóyotl began the construction of another important hydraulic work, the Chapultepec aqueduct system. It supplied fresh spring water to Tenochtitlán. Before the aqueduct system was built, water was supplied by canoe from the springs at Chapultepec (now a large park in the middle of modern Mexico City). Water was distributed through apantles (open pipes) to public fountains and noble houses.
A second aqueduct was built by Nezahualcóyotl’s successor, Ahuítzotl, around 1500. Although Ahuítzotl had supervised a huge project to rebuild Tenochtitlán, completing the Temple Mayor (the Great Pyramid), the aqueduct project didn’t go so well. At the springs of Coyoacán, Ahuítzotal had a dam and two holding tanks built at elevations necessary to create enough pressure to send water into new aqueducts that joined the existing system. As the story goes, about 40 days after the Coyoacán aqueduct opened, it began to rain. It continued to rain. It poured. The elevated design sent high-pressure floodwaters throughout the city, Ahuítzol took refuge in the Temple Mayor, hit his head on a brand new rock, and died shortly after.
I am now out of both time and space!
For more information:
Mundy, Barbara E. The Death of Aztec Tenochtitlan, The Life of Mexico City (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2015).
By Carolina Garcia
Today we will explore Homographs- words that share the same written form but have different meanings and Homonyms- words that have the same pronunciation but different meanings.
Sal: Salt and also the verb to get out (salir)
Sal de ahi – Get out of there
Calle: Street and also the conjugation of the word to silence (callar)
Callete – Shut up
Nada: Nothing and also the conjugation of the verb to swim.
No es nada – it’s nothing
Haya – the verb ‘haber’- to have
Halla – the verb ‘hallar’- to find
Aya – nanny or governess
Hola – hello
Ola – wave
Hierba – herb
Hierva – conjugated verb of hervir- to boil
Ciento – hundred
Siento – I feel
Bienes – property
Vienes – conjugated form of venir- to come
A locally made movie about Huatulco is hitting the silver screen of Cinépolis on February 2nd, 2023. Titled HUATULCO BIOSPHERE RESERVE: BASINS AND CORALS OF THE SOUTH PACIFIC
By Kary Vannice
This hour and nine-minute-long passion project filmed and produced by locals José María Arias Méndez and Jesús López Aguilar is an audiovisual journey through the wetlands of the Central Coast of Oaxaca. Their intention was to create this film as a testimony of the local biodiversity, human processes, and challenges of living in a Natural Sanctuary.
Huatulco’s unique ecosystem is a sanctuary for the conservation of life, the evidence of this is alive in its natural biodiversity and cultural expressions: beaches, rivers, jungles, reefs, gastronomy, music, dances, festivities, quality of life, economic opportunities, healthy environment and sightseeing.
What are the origins of this natural paradise and what actions we must undertake to preserve our quality of life here? These are the questions that this trip through the Huatulco’s wetlands and social developments strives to answer. Massive tracts of jungle, mangrove forests, dunes, springs, rivers, reefs and transition ecosystems, make up a picturesque and aesthetic walk through the contrasting climates of 10 micro-watersheds that cross the municipalities of: Todos Santos, Cuajinicuil, Arroyo Xúchitl, Cacaluta, Chahué , Tangolunda, Coyula, Aguaje de Cocos, Arenal and Chachacual.
“Huatulco: Biosphere Reserve. Basins and Corals of the South Pacific” provides a window through which we, as humanity, can view and contemplate our role in this diverse ecosystem.
- BIODIVERSITY: An exploration of the characteristics and bio-environmental conditions in the region.
- ECOSYSTEM SERVICES: Benefits that nature provides to humans and its impact on the lives of Huatulqueños.
- CYCLES OF NATURE: Macro and micro environmental dynamics of the basins of the Sierra Sur and the Coast of Oaxaca
- RESPONSIBLE CONSUMPTION: A call to become aware of our energy expenditure and resources consumption as local residents.
- HUATULQUEÑO COROLLARY: List of recommendations to prevent the most recurrent environmental damage taking place on the coast, in tourist and community spaces.
The film will be shown with English subtitles and all proceeds will be used to fund a grassroots effort to show the film throughout rural areas to raise awareness of human impacts on the local ecosystem and biodiversity.
Residents of Huatulco who wish to play a role in the preservation of our “jewel of paradise” here on the Costa Chica of Oaxaca, will want to support this local effort to educate people on the best ways to protect the unique and special biodiversity of our region. Keep a watchful eye on the local social media groups and pages as the premier of this film approaches so you don’t miss out!
Thyme and Spice in Time and Space
By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken
One of the remarkably innovative activities that sets humans apart from our closest primate relatives is cooking our food and flavoring it with spices. According to some anthropologists, this behavior may have emerged while we were still nomadic hunters and gathers. To carry a kill to the next temporary home site, our ancestors probably wrapped the meat in leaves – and a distant relative with a fine palate realized that the meat wrapped in some leaves lasted longer and was tastier than meat wrapped in others. The former leaves became desirable and assigned a higher trading value than others. Similarly, specific flavorful roots, bulbs, berries, flowers and even pollen became prized first as enhancements for cooking and preserving and, after observation of beneficial effects, medicating.
Once humans settled down in farms, towns, and cities and developed writing and reading, one of the first uses of these newly emerged forms of communication was accounting in long-extinct languages for amounts of spices traded. Recipes using spices for preservation, including mummification, were shared; thyme was used as an ingredient over 5500 years ago in Egyptian unguents that were used to prepare bodies for the afterlife. As writing became a method of expressing religious beliefs and poetic expressions, literature produced millennia ago equated thyme and other spices with love, riches and the best of human life. The incredibly beautiful Song of Songs in the Hebrew Scriptures (aka Old Testament) mentions many spices including cinnamon and saffron.
The Song of Songs is said to have been written in the 9th century BCE, so we have evidence from that time period of the availability in the land of Israel of cinnamon native to Sri Lanka and India, and saffron from Crete, which must have made their way via the ships of ancient mariners to the Middle East. In fact, literature from China and other accounts from around Eurasia provide evidence that spices growing wild millennia ago in various parts of the known world were harvested and sold or bartered in distant lands. When given root in favorable climates far from their origin, they were cultivated and harvested for local use or became a currency of exchange.
There is also archeological evidence that in the Western hemisphere, including Mesoamerica, different species of plants from those in Eurasia were also harvested in the wild and began to be cultivated. Like the use of spices across the oceans, they were used to flavor foods, for preservation, including mummification, and for medicinal purposes. It is not surprising, then, that many millennia later, during the Age of Exploration and the Spanish invasion of Mexico and South America, one of the earliest cultural exchanges consisted of adopting Western spices in Europe and Eurasian spices in the New World.
The Spanish conquistadores were accustomed to a diet flavored with garlic, onions and, for the most wealthy, saffron. Imagine their surprise when neither garlic, large onions, nor crocus producing saffron were to be found to be growing in “New Spain,” and the small scallion-like onions were a far cry from the plump sweet vegetable growing in the Mediterranean. Instead, they found a plethora of other spices being used by indigenous civilizations. A wide variety of peppers unheard of in the Old World – ranging from sweet to extremely hot and spicy – were dried and ground and added to many dishes. Cacao, a new and addictive chocolate-tasting fruit, was used to flavor both food and drink. Tomatoes, which originated in the Andes in South America, had been brought north and were cultivated and formed the basis for many different salsas. Anise seeds added a depth to dishes and achiote seeds were “discovered” to impart a distinct flavor and an attractive deep red color to food. Herbs and flowers added while cooking included chipilin, epazote, mint, and pre-Columbian coriander (different from modern day cilantro), each contributing a delicious taste to a diet which, mainly prepared with corn, squash, and beans, could have been quite bland.
To the great delight of those living in Eurasia, tomato seeds were brought from the New World and cultivated in many parts of those continents. Today many Europeans would deny that tomatoes are not native to their countries and would claim they had always been part of their heritage. Similarly, European peppers were primarily sweet peppers, but, learning from their Mesoamerican hosts, Spanish cooks began drying and smoking a large sweet variety of red pepper and then grinding the peppers, producing what is today called Spanish paprika. And of course, chocolate produced from cacao became associated with countries far from the trees that bear the flavorful fruit (think of Switzerland).
In turn, 16th-century colonists began cultivating spices in the lands of the New World that had never grown there. Mexican thyme, which originated in Africa long before the Spanish invasion, was introduced. Cumin, originally cultivated in the Middle East, was introduced and became so ubiquitous that it almost seems synonymous with Mexican cooking – especially in US chain quasi-Mexican restaurants where it tends to be overused. Garlic and large white onions are staples in Mexican grocery stores and kitchens, although relatives of the original scallion-like onions are more flavorful and also still used.
While some of the exotic spices from distant lands could be grown in countries that took a liking to them, other plants have difficulty thriving outside their native land. Over a period of centuries, the spice trade became a highly lucrative enterprise and was dominated by large companies, such as the British East India Company, which was founded at the end of 1600 and continued to exercise a monopoly on some markets for 274 years. Around the time the Dutch East India Company, founded in 1602, folded, two brothers named Schilling, who had immigrated from Germany to San Francisco formed their own spice company. Shortly thereafter, Willoughby McCormick founded his spice company in Baltimore. McCormick bought out the Schilling brothers’ company in 1946. Today, McCormick is still a dominant force in the field, employing 10,000 people and selling $3.5 billion of spices annually.
As with other markets in the 21st century, spice production is global. However, the country that dominates spice production is India, providing almost 11 million tons between 2021 and 2022. We took a walk down a road in the Southern State of Kerala that was lined with shops displaying heaps of ginger and burlap bags of other spices; it was such a heady experience that we will never forget being there. India is such a prolific producer that Mexico actually imports red peppers from that part of the world. Other countries specialize in individual herbs and spices; cinnamon, so ubiquitous in Mexican cooking and baking, is often a product of Sri Lanka. But Mexico has to a small degree turned the tables; nutmeg, originally from the Banda Islands in Indonesia, is now grown in Mexico and exported primarily to the U.S. And although thyme can be grown in most places in the world, China is the world’s leading producer.
As humans emerged from hunter-gatherer groups and small agricultural units to span the globe and conquer time and space, so did thyme and other herbs and spices we so love. Perhaps when humans colonize other planets, thyme and spices will be among the first possessions brought across time and space.
Mind-Bending Movies that Explore Different Facets of Time
By Kary Vannice
Humans have always been fascinated by the concept of time. Scientists study it, philosophers contemplate it, artists try to depict it, and directors make movies about it. Here are eight mind-bending movies that explore different facets of our understanding of time.
Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022) explores the “many-worlds” theory that proposes that every life choice creates an alternative timeline, thus creating many parallel universes. Martial arts action star Michelle Yeoh plays Evelyn Wang, a laundromat owner who discovers she can move between these parallel timelines and tap into the talents and skills of her alternative selves. Because of her special abilities, she is tasked with saving the entire multiverse from eventual doom by a version of her daughter, who has evolved on a different timeline. As she enters different versions of herself, Evelyn can see how different life choices on other timelines lead to different outcomes in her personal relationships, prosperity, and even her personality. If you’ve thought about what your life might have been like had you made a different choice at a crux moment, this movie will fuel your imagination!
The Jacket (2005) also focuses on the idea of timeline jumping. However, it sticks to one universe and has the main character, Jack Starks, played by Adrian Brody, jumping between past and future in a fractured and frantic attempt to save his own life. After returning home from the first Gulf War, Starks is wrongfully accused of killing a police officer and, because of his claims of innocence, is sent to a mental institution. While incarcerated, he is forced to undergo brutal sensory deprivation treatments inside a morgue drawer after being bound in a straightjacket and injected with experimental drugs.
Over the course of these terror-inducing “treatments,” Jack’s mind fractures as he desperately tries to ground himself in memories of the past, one memory in particular, that of a young girl he helped shortly before he was institutionalized. His attachment to the memory is so strong he “jumps” to 15 years in the future and finds her where she tells him of his death a few months later. With each new treatment, Jack jumps from future to past, convincing key people of future events and persuading them to make different decisions to change the outcome of their future lives, all the while trying to figure out how to use his time-traveling abilities to change his own future and save his own life. At the film’s end, however, one wonders if Jack was truly traveling timelines or if it was simply his tortured consciousness creating comfort where his body could find none.
Somewhere in Time (1980) may have you questioning whether time is just a mental construct and whether one can time-travel through autosuggestion alone. The stars of this romantic drama, Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour, are separated by nearly 70 years of time and space, but that doesn’t stop the pull and passion of true love. After falling in love with the photo of a turn-of-the-century actress, Christopher Reeve’s character learns how to self-hypnotize so he can travel back in time to find a woman he swears he had a brief encounter with eight years before, when she was in her 80s. Convinced she is the same woman as the one in the photo, he uses tape-recorded suggestions to hypnotize himself back to 1912, he finds his love and embarks on a mission to convince her they are meant to be together and, in fact, have been before, or will be, depending on whose timeline you’re working from. She’s eventually convinced and allows herself to fall in love with him, only to be robbed of him when a 1979 penny he finds in his pocket breaks his hypnotic suggestion and sends him back to his own time. But don’t worry, as classic romance movies of this time almost always do, the story eventually brings these two lovers back together again in the afterlife.
I Origins (2014) plays on the idea that the afterlife is just another life, and another, and another, and that we carry one unique characteristic with us into each new incarnation, the irises of our eyes. The movie begins with a Ph.D. student who’s researching the evolution of the eye at a costume party where he meets a masked woman, Sofi, with unique and beautiful eyes. At the end of the night, she abruptly leaves, and all he is left with is the memory of the irises of her eyes. Fate, however, leads him to her again one day on the train. They begin a passionate, albeit tumultuous, love affair, which ends tragically with her death not long after. Seven years later, when his first child is born, he discovers that his son has the same iris signature as a man who had recently died in Idaho. Spurred by the hope that this could connect him to lost loved ones, he runs a scan of Sofi’s eyes. He finds a match in India, but the records are for an orphan girl with no known address. He goes to India and spends weeks searching and putting up billboards with photos of Sofi’s eyes, hoping to reconnect with the memories of his past love.
In Time (2011) takes place in a future where the currency is time. Everyone on the planet stops aging at 25 years old. From that point on, they must earn time to stay alive. They must also spend time to stay alive. Time is used to buy food, take the bus, even have a beer. Most people live day to day, earning just enough time to stay alive until tomorrow. But there are wealthy businessmen who bank time and live for decades, centuries even, in luxury.
In the ghetto, people steal time, trade for time, and even kill for time. Will, a lowly factory worker played by Justin Timberlake, has a chance encounter with one such “wealthy” man who is tired of living but has over 100 years left on his “clock,” which is digitally displayed on his forearm. The man gives Will all but 5 minutes of his time and “times out,” making Will a target but also emboldening him to take time back from the immortals and give it to the common man. This movie is a fast-paced Bonnie and Clyde meets Robin Hood, and will have you thinking of the term “time is money” in a whole new way.
The Map of Tiny Perfect Things (2021) is a new take on the old Bill Murray classic Groundhog Day (1993). Mark, a teenage boy, is stuck in a time loop, repeating the same day over and over again. After many iterations of the same day, Mark can anticipate the movements and actions of others and begins to help them in in tiny, subtle ways, only to get up the next day and do it all over again. One day, however, he meets a girl, Margaret, who also seems to be living the same loop. Mark and Margaret live endless days together, sharing their dreams and hopes for the future, but the future never comes. Each day is the same as the last, and Margaret frequently and frustratingly disappears after receiving mysterious text messages, leaving Mark wondering what part she’s playing in the loop. Mark eventually discovers where Margaret’s disappearing to, and that there are some things worth living the same day over and over for, and that not all futures are full of hope. Some are full of heartache.
Safety Not Guaranteed (2012) is the warning on a classified ad placed by a grocery store clerk looking for someone to travel back in time with him. The ad also reads, “This is not a joke. P.O. Box 91 Ocean View, WA 99393. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before.” A Seattle Magazine reporter and two interns, each with an ulterior motive of their own, set out to find the man who placed the ad and find out if he truly believes he can travel through time. This movie is less about time travel and more about the exploration of regret, making plans to right wrongs that happened in the past, and how pain can cause us to rewrite our history to alleviate our current suffering.
Primer (2004) is a little-known, low-budget film that depicts what developing time travel might look like if one applied the laws of physics to everyday objects as a “side project” to a regular 9 to 5 suburban job. You’re bored already, aren’t you? Well, you shouldn’t be. This is probably the most realistic movie about how actual time travel might come about, as well as what humans might do with the power to travel back in time. Written and directed by Shane Carruth, a former engineer with a degree in mathematics, who also stars, this film doesn’t “dumb it down” and also doesn’t “glam it up.” It won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance film festival and has gained a cult following. Its popularity is not so much due to the science behind time travel, but the exploration of how average humans might grapple with the power of being able to alter and manipulate the past, present, and future.
You must be logged in to post a comment.