By Jan Capps
The Tz’utujil, one of the 22 indigenous Maya groups of Guatemala, see themselves as people of the birds. Birds are revered for the many benefits they bring. They are viewed as charmers of the ear, as messengers. Birds know the Earth and sky well, so they can recognize and announce changes. If you watch the birds, you know what the sky will do. For example, robins and thrushes swarm in a specific pattern when rain is coming. The hoot of owls, in particular, but also the calls of other birds, can signal trouble nearby.
Birds spread and solidify life. When a person’s house is destroyed, she or he seeks to rebuild it in the same place, often foolishly, because what destroyed it may come back again. When a bird’s home is destroyed, it flies away to find another place to build its nest. Birds carry the seeds of fruits they’ve eaten with them, which allows new plants to sprout and helps other birds make future homes. Flycatchers stuff the roofs of thatched houses with moss, thereby adding stability and durability.
The Tz’utujil assert that bird calls are not only signals for people and other birds, but also brings into existence the changes in the annual natural cycle. They say there is a type of bird that calls the wind of January, another that calls the pollen haze of March, and yet another calls the fuchsia cactus flowers in July. The appearance of hummingbirds brings an end to the dry season.
The Tz’utujil are also a tree people. The birds help spread the trees, but the trees in turn provide a home for the birds, as well as for other animals. Though trees appear solid and stationary, they are communicators as much as birds.
According to Maya legend, the god Huracán (also called Heart of the Sky) formed the Earth between the underworld, also called Xibalba, and the upper world in the sky. The lords of death occupied the thirteen levels of Xibalba, and the gods and spirits occupied the thirteen levels of the upper world. Seeing that he left no space between the Earth and the upper world, Huracán planted a ceiba tree that stretched its branches into the upper world and expanded its roots deep into Xibalba. The ceiba’s trunk grew to separate the Earth from the sky and leave space in between for all beings. The gods, spirits, and the dead can pass through the ceiba as a communication route between Xibalba, the Earth’s surface, and the upper world.
Groundbreaking research on the “minds of trees” has confirmed the connectedness and communication capacity of trees. Previously, trees were considered individual beings operating separately from others and depending solely on the sun over their heads and the soil at their roots. Scientists have since discovered an intricate underground communication and support system consisting of a web of tendrils connecting species. They recognize when one in the network is deficient in nutrients and can send what is lacking to it. When trees are injured or dying, they send messages of resilience to the next generation of seedlings, increasing their resistance to future stresses. Through back-and-forth conversations, they increase the strength of the whole community. They also give life to an ecosystem of lichens, vines, moss, liverworts, ferns, bromeliads, and orchids that live symbiotically within them.
These two natures are often in conflict with each of us, and at certain times in our lives, we must call upon one and suppress the other. Yet, we must also recognize their interdependence and honor both.