September 5, 2013 | Vol. 117 -- No. 20

Running on civilization's circular tracks

Write to the Point

It’s interesting how a train of thought can develop.

For instance, nearing the end of our 12-mile round trip hike along the Dungeness Spit north of Sequim last Saturday, we noticed a sea lion swimming towards us. He or she may not have noticed us standing in the grayish, post-sunset twilight along the shoreline because it was definitely swimming with the purpose of making landfall.

Once the animal noticed us, it pulled up, went into a holding pattern and followed us, maybe out of curiosity, as we walked further along the beach, hoping our appearing to exit the area might lead to the sea lion coming onshore. It didn’t, and he or she eventually swam off.

It got me thinking of my last face-to-face with an animal in its natural habitat. That was this summer while on a mission trip to Guatemala. When visiting the ruins of the ancient Mayan city Tikal, we saw a spider monkey and its young swinging through the forest canopy above us.

It was the first time I had ever seen a monkey in the wild. Both the spider monkey and the sea lion seemed to have the same look on their faces – the look of “what are you doing here, it’s my world,” which struck me as interesting.

The encounter with the sea lion took place in a wildlife refuge while the face-to-face with the monkey was set among the ruins of a dead civilization. Both are places where humans come, but do not occupy, for various reasons.

I started thinking about Tikal. Carved out of the jungle sometime around 900 B.C., Tikal eventually grew into one of the most powerful of the Mayan city-states, reaching 90,000 people at the height of its power between 200-900 A.D. before it was abruptly abandoned.

There are a number of hypothesis for why Mayan civilization collapsed and cities like Tikal, Copan, Palenque, Chichén Itzá and others were abandoned. These range from ecological disasters to economic revolution to constant warfare and the destruction of trade routes.

But these challenges could have been met and solved, given the sophisticated nature of the civilization, if it weren’t for one thing, at least in my mind. That is the people lost faith in the ability of the instruments and institutions created to run their society to solve these problems.

They lost faith in government, religion and culture, and in the end felt the only way to move forward and survive, at least as families and individuals, was to leave, melting away into the jungle, the plains and the highlands of southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras.

And as the Maya left, nature returned to the areas human civilization had forced it out of, burying the buildings, temples and monuments in dirt, covering the area in forests and leaving animals like the spider monkey to once again roam freely.

As I thought about Mayan civilization I began seeing parallels to our own. Today we are facing many challenges to our world. Some are natural like drought, increasing weather severity and geological events.

Others are manmade such as constant war and violence, destruction of individual rights and freedoms, increasing economic pressures on those incapable of shouldering such burdens, pollution, over consumption and wasting of natural resources. Some manmade events are factors leading to the creation of natural challenges.

All are beginning to create cynicism and negativity towards the instruments we have created to run our society: government, religion and economic institutions. And as we grow more cynical, we lose faith, we attach motives to lay blame on others, and society disintegrates into a culture of “me” rather than “we.”

So I wonder thinking back to my encounter with the seal lion. Was it waiting for us to vacate the beach that night – or permanently?

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