Revisiting the Cretaceous Extinction

This Yucatán Fishing Village Along the Gulf of Mexico Hides a Secret

A few miles from Progreso, Yucatán, is the fishing village of Chicxulub (CHEEK-shoe-lube) which was the site of one of the great catastrophes in the life of the earth. Some 65 million years ago, an asteroid that was nine miles (fifteen kilometers) across slammed into Chicxulub at the speed of 44,640 mph (or 20 km/second) and destroyed some three quarters of all the life on earth, including all the dinosaurs. The impact was equivalent to a million times larger than the largest hydrogen bomb explosion and created a crater that was sixty miles (100 km) across and eighteen miles (30 km) deep.

Of course, that was millions of years ago, and the geology of the area has changed significantly.

Where the Asteroid Impacted

 

Signs of the Impact Today: A Ring of Cenotes

Today, the Yucatán Peninsula is a large limestone chunk that has been raised up, but with numerous underground rivers and caves admitting access to the water beneath. What you will not find there a river. This did not make it easy for the ancient Maya to grow crops—except in their areas where cenotes prevail. The dark green aresa beneath the ring of cenotes is where the Puuc Hills are located, which rise to an elevation of several hundred feet. There, the Maya dug cisterns, called chultunes, which frequently run dry during periods of drought.

I hope to visit Chicxulub Puerto when I stay in Merida or Progreso.

 

The Last Mexican Governor of Alta California

Pio de Jesús Pico and Family

Today, Martine and i visited the Pio Pico State Historic Park in Whittier. Lately, we have spent several Saturdays and Sundays visiting locations that figured in the history of Southern California. And none has been more significant than El Ranchito, the home of the last Mexican governor of Alta California, Pio de Jesús Pico (1801-1894).

As it frequently did during that period, the United States essentially steamrollered the territory of Alta California and its environs. This happened in 1846, when a group of American settlers captured the Mexican army garrison at Sonoma. Within two years, gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, setting off a gigantic gold rush, and the United States signed the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, ceding what is today the states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and pieces of Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah to the victorious Yanquis.

Pio Pico’s Home, El Ranchito

After the Americans moved in, Pico and his family fled to (what remained of) Mexico for a few years. He returned when the dust settled, as he and his family personally owned some quarter million acres. He was besieged by lawsuits, many of them fraudulent. He sold most of the San Fernando Valley in 1869 to finance the building of the Pico House Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles, which still stands today—although mostly empty.

Arbor with Grapevines at El Ranchito

Toward the end of his life, Pico had problems holding on to money, due largely to his gambling addiction. The last act of his life was a sad one. A criollo of Spanish and African descent, Pico never learned English, which put him at risk in his financial transactions. He decided to deed a half interest in his remaining lands to his brother-in-law, John Forster. A sharper if there ever was one, Forster actually deeded a 100% interest to himself, forcing the aging Pico to move in with one of his daughters.

Today, the Pio Pico State Historic Park is a lovely corner of Whittier. There were only a few other visitors while we were there, probably because most Angelenos have little or no notion of the history of the land on which they live.

 

 

Looking South

I Am Looking Forward to My Next Trip to Latin America

It has been not five months since my return from Guatemala, and already I am looking forward to Yucatán and Belize—which is still more than six months in the future.

(Incidentally, I would never refer to it as “the” Yucatán unless I were wearing a pith helmet and those stupid zip-off pants/shorts worn by travelers who fear to venture more than twenty yards from their hotel room without an escort.)

I have been to Yucatán four times in all, the last time with Martine in November 1992. During my visits between 1975 and 1992, I have visited about a dozen Maya archeological sights. Since then, scores more have been developed, including one of the largest at Calakmul in the State of Campeche. In addition, I hope to visit Cobá in Quintana Roo, Ek Balam and Kinich Kakmó in Yucatán, Edzna and several Rio Bec sites to be decided later in Campeche, and Yaxchilan and Bonampak in Chiapas. In addition, I plan to revisit some of the sites I have already seen such as Chichen Itza, Uxmal, and Palenque.

There is something calming about seeing what remains of an ancient civilization—one that had the ability to adapt itself to changing circumstances and survive in the 21st Century.

Yucatec Maya Girls Today

The Maya population is scattered across five Latin American countries: Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador. A large number of Maya have found their way to the United States from Guatemala and Honduras, because of dire conditions in their countries of origin, though Maya from Mexico tend not to migrate to the United States. That is despite the long Caste War against the Ladino (Spanish speaking) population that ended only in the early 1900s and the Zapatista Revolt in Chiapas during the 1990s.

 

A Beneficiary of Global Warming

Habanero Chile Peppers

If you are looking for a hot time tonight, you could do worse than biting into a habanero chile, also known as a Scotch Bonnet or a Jamaican Chile. Although you can theoretically get hotter chiles from specialty food retailers and farm scattered farms, the hottest chiles I can normally find in Southern California are the habaneros. (For more information of the Scoville Heat Unit rating of the hotness of various chiles, click here.)

As I plan for my Yucatán/Belize vacation, I have taken to reading the website of The Yucatán Times. One interesting story I found related to a university study of which crops would benefit most from global warming and increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. You’ll never guess which crop would benefit the most. Of course, it’s the habanero chile, which is so fierce that I would not use more than one-half of a small pepper to heat over a gallon and a half of soup.

Following is an excerpt from the article:

However, people who work with habanero pepper expect higher production, due to the conditions that will prevail in the State, as was observed with the study that was carried out by specialists of Technological Agricultural Institute (ITA) and the Scientific Research Center of Yucatán (CICY).

“The Capsicum chinense harvest will improve as the conditions of temperature and concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) increase,” Garruña Hernández said.

He explained that the favorable result was obtained in different theoretical models of climate change simulated under controlled conditions in growth chambers located inside the CICY greenhouse.

That is to say, “in the laboratory it was possible to regulate both the temperature and the concentration of CO2 in the air, and the results with this emblematic product of the Yucatan Peninsula were remarkable,” he said.

Garruña Hernández indicated that habanero crops were grown in different environments, with temperatures of 30, 35 and 40 degrees [Celsius], similar to those registered as a result of climate change. At the same time, different concentrations of CO2 were maintained, CO2 levels are increasing, also as a result of climate modifications.

Are you thinking of biting into a habanero chile any time soon? See this video for the grisly result.

Note that the Mayan name of the chile means “the crying tongue.” Unless you are a real chilehead, be warned.

Where There Are No Rivers

Cenote at Chichen Itza in Yucatán

Even Los Angeles has a river. Never mind that its banks are mostly of concrete and that it runs dry most of the year. There are some parts of the world in which rain sometimes falls in great profusion, but where there are no rivers to be seen. The operative phrase here is “to be seen.”

The Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico, which I plan to visit next winter, is a solid block of limestone into which the rainfall seeps. There is quite a bit of water in Yucatán, but almost all of it is below sea level. Thanks to the giant meteor which caused the Cretaceous Extinction some 66 million years ago, numerous holes were punched through the surface of the limestone causing waterholes (usually referred to as cenotes). Many of these cenotes are interconnected through extensive subterranean caves.

Many of these cenotes make for excellent swimming holes in the subtropical climate of the peninsula, and they are a steady source of water for drinking and washing to the local population.

Where matters get more complicated is in the region known as the Puuc Hills, which rise several hundred feet above sea level, yet which sustained a large Maya population in ancient times. During rainy season, water is collected in stone cisterns called chultunes. During the dry season, these sources tend to dry up, and the local Maya must go hundreds of feet down to get at the subterranean rivers and wells. There is a famous illustration by Frederick Catherwood (around 1840) that shows the descent of hundreds of feet at the well in Bolonchen (see below). Shown here is only a portion of the descent to the wells, which continue for several hundred feet from the base of the stairs.

The Log Stairway at the Wells of Bolonchen (Representing Just Part of the Journey to Get Water)

Many place names in Yucatán contain the particle chen, which means well. In addition to Bolonchen, there is Chichen Itza, which, translated, means “The Mouth of the Well of the Itzaés.” A quick glance at a detailed map of this part of Mexico will turn up hundreds of other examples.

 

Serendipity: Daguerrotypes

A Daguerrotype Portrait

John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood were not known as photographers, yet I was greatly interested by Stephens’s description of offering to create daguerrotype portraits of some of the female inhabitants of the City of Mérida in Yucatán on their second trip to Mexico around 1840. The following excerpt is from Volume I of Incidents of Travel in Yucatan.

The ceremonies of the reception over, we made immediate preparations to begin. Much form and circumstance were necessary in settling preliminaries; and as we were in no hurry to get rid of our subjects, we had more formalities than usual to go through with.

Our first subject was the lady of the poetical name. It was necessary to hold a consultation upon her costume, whether the colours were pretty and such as would be brought out well or not; whether a scarf around the neck was advisable; whether the hair was well arranged, the rose becoming, and in the best position; then to change it, and consider the effect of the change, and to say and do many other things which may suggest themselves to the reader’s imagination, and all which gave rise to many profound remarks in regard to artistical effect, and occupied much time.

The lady being arrayed to the best advantage, it was necessary to seat her with reference to a right adjustment of light and shade; to examine carefully the falling of the light upon her face; then to consult whether it was better to take a front or a side view; to look at the face carefully in both positions; and, finally, it was necessary to secure the head in the right position; that it should be neither too high nor too low; too much on one side nor on the other; and as this required great nicety, it was sometimes actually indispensable to turn the beautiful little head with our own hands, which, however, was a very innocent way of turning a young lady’s head.

Next it was necessary to get the young lady into focus—that is, to get her into the box, which, in short; means, to get a reflection of her face on the glass in the camera obscura at that one particular point of view which presented it better than any other; and when this was obtained, the miniatured likeness of the object was so faithfully reflected, that, as artists carried away by enthusiasm, we were obliged to call in the papas and mammas, who pronounced it beautiful—to which dictum we were in courtesy obliged to respond.

The plate was now cleaned, put into the box, and the light shut off. Now came a trying time for the young lady. She must neither open her lips nor roll her eyes for one minute and thirty seconds by the watch. This eternity at length ended, and the plate was taken out.

So far our course had been before the wind. Every new formality had but increased our importance in the eyes of our fair visiters [sic] and their respectable companions. Mr. Catherwood retired to the adjoining room to put the plate in the mercury bath, while we, not knowing what the result might be, a little fearful, and neither wishing to rob another of the honour he might be justly entitled to, not to be dragged down by another’s failure, thought best to have it distinctly understood that Mr. Catherwood was the maestro, and that we were merely amateurs. At the same time, on Mr. Catherwood’s account, I took occasion to suggest that the process was so complicated, and its success depended upon such a variety of minute circumstances, it seemed really wonderful that it ever turned out well. The plate might not be good, or not well cleaned; or the chemicals might not be of the best; or the plate might be left too long in the iodine box, or taken out too soon; or left too long in the bromine box, or taken out too soon; or a ray of light might strike it on putting it into the camera or in taking it out; or it might be left too long in the camera or taken out too soon; or too long in the mercury bath or taken out too soon; and even though all these processes were right and regular, there might be some other fault of omission or commission which we were not aware of; besides which, climate and atmosphere had great influence, and might render all of no avail. These little suggestions we considered necessary to prevent too great a disappointment in case of failure; and perhaps our fair visiters were somewhat surprised at our audacity in undertaking at all such a doubtful experiment, and using them as instruments. The result, however, was enough to induce us never again to adopt prudential measures, for the young lady’s image was stamped upon the plate, and made a picture which enchanted her and satisfied the critical judgment of her friends and admirers.

Our experiments upon the other ladies were equally successful, and the morning glided away in this pleasant occupation.

“Wind, Water, Stone”

A Poem for a Very Windy Day

As the lights are going out in parts of Los Angeles because of high winds, I am reminded of a poem by the Mexican Nobel-prize-winning poet Octavio Paz (1914-1998) entitled “Wind, Water, Stone.”

Wind, Water, Stone
By Octavio Paz
Translated by Eliot Weinberger

for Roger Caillois

Water hollows stone,
wind scatters water,
stone stops the wind.
Water, wind, stone.

Wind carves stone,
stone’s a cup of water,
water escapes and is wind.
Stone, wind, water.

Wind sings in its whirling,
water murmurs going by,
unmoving stone keeps still.
Wind, water, stone.

Each is another and no other:
crossing and vanishing
through their empty names:
water, stone, wind.

The poem makes me think of the game of Paper, Stone, and Scissors. I love the final stanza which brings the three elements together into a satisfying whole.