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Don Berto’s Garden

Language, biodiversity, and a story of salvation

by David G. Campbell
Illustrations by Molly Bang

Published in the November/December 2007 issue of Orion magazine




I WRITE THESE WORDS WHILE SITTING on the right bank of the Mopan River in far western Belize, beneath a tilted cot tree that droops over the water as if it were sketched by a Chinese master—just a splash of green and stroke of new light—and where scissor-tailed flycatchers turn in the roiled air above the rapids, feeding on caddis flies. It is a wonderful place to sit in the shade and write on a late June afternoon, when the heat is deadening, rolling over the land in refracting billows that make the horizon seem crawly and the air over the river skim-milky with humidity, when the wind noses its way through the valley and the leaflets of the puk-te tree shuffle in it.

I have spent countless lovely days here, observing uncountable small wonders—foliation, competition, predation, pollination, nectar-sucking, raiding, burrowing, and stinging. These events saturate all of one’s senses. Listen: the breeze fast-tapping a myriad of tapered cohune palm leaflets onto themselves. Look: the slanting afternoon light percolating through the pale green leaves of the cot tree that shades me so generously. Feel: the heated land breathing moisture into the air. Listen again: the low grumble of thunder… all is waiting, anticipating the deluge, aching for relief. Now a prehensile breeze, descending from the white and gray storms that gather over the Maya Mountains, reaches this retreat, presaging an afternoon storm. Above, the cry of the ubiquitous kingbird and the lonely tobacco dove, the near-silent pattering of the stingless bees among the tamai flowers, the hard buzz of a fly.

To an untrained eye, this place may look just like any other patch of subtropical forest. But don’t be deceived: this place is a garden, named Masewal, and it is singular in all the world. As far as I know, it has more species of trees, shrubs, bushes, herbs, and grasses than any domestic garden on Earth: 318 species of flowering plants, 250 of which are native to Belize. That’s about 15 percent of the indigenous floristic diversity of the whole country, more species of native plants than live in the forest that surrounds it. Every plant is here for a purpose, used as medicine, food, thatch, fiber, because it attracts butterflies, birds, and mammals, or just because of its beauty. Masewal is a welcoming place, a fifteen-acre giving-forest where children play, use it as a classroom, learn how to observe, and to revere.

Masewal means “the people” in Nahuatl, and it is a declaration, after years of colonialism and exploitation by foreigners, that this land once again belongs to the native people, to the Maya. It is located on the western edge of Bullet Tree Falls, a modest riverside village of about seventy Yucatec Maya families, only a kilometer or so from the Guatemalan border. Thirty-one years ago, Don Heriberto Cocom, a Yucatec Maya bushmaster (or herbalist) created this place. Now seventy, Don Berto has become the patriarch of Bullet Tree Falls and the keeper of his people’s traditions as they are embodied in his forest garden, where he nurtures his plants, prays to them, and reveres them. Don Berto is also a guardian of the Yucatec Mayan language that co-evolved with this forest. The fragile relationship between the two—language and biodiversity—is one of mutual salvation.

I FIRST MET DON BERTO IN THE SUMMER of 1994, when Don Polo Romero, Karen Lowell (a chemist), four of my Grinnell College students, and I were in western Belize conducting ecological surveys of the Maya forest. Naming the parts of a forest is the essential first step in any analysis of its biological diversity. Although I had spent years working in tropical forests all over the world, the lowland forests of Belize were a new biota to me, and I found it challenging to identify some of the species of trees in our study sites. It was Don Polo’s job to help me. For decades he had lived in the forest, where he learned to identify most of the plants, working as a bushmaster and chicle-tapper. Without his knowledge, our research would never have succeeded. And yet between just the two of us, Don Polo and I couldn’t possibly have identified all of the species we encountered; from those we didn’t know, we collected specimens of leaves, flowers, or fruits.

“Let’s take them to Berto,” Don Polo said. “He knows more names for plants than any person I know. He understands the forest.”

So just after dawn one morning we walked down the jungle road to Masewal, specimens in hand, seeking Don Berto. We found him sitting under his champa (thatched shelter), grinding allspice seeds with a stone mortar and pestle, singing quietly to himself as the rain tapped gently on the roof of woven cohune leaves. Everything about Don Berto bespoke humility and modesty: he was short, stick-thin, bespectacled, and he wore a bristly gray moustache, wrinkled shirt, grass-stained baggy pants, sandals, and a green baseball cap.

“I heard that you were in town,” he said, smiling. “Let’s see what you have got.”

He took the first specimen and carefully examined it as if it were a portrait of a beloved grandchild. “Oh, well, yes . . . this is a cot tree. I recall, a few years ago, that I planted one just over there”—he gestured, then began leading us to a shady trail in the forest—“Follow me, I will teach you how to know it.” All morning we walked under the cool canopy of Masewal, matching our specimens with their living counterparts. Don Berto taught us names in Yucatec Mayan for all but one of our unknown plants, patiently explaining things in the distinctive and lyrical English dialect of western Belize—a Mestizo language that bears the traces of both Mayan and Spanish syntax.

An agouti, unconcerned by our presence, nonchalantly crossed the path. “You see,” said Don Berto, pointing to the rodent, “from when I started to work on the land, I planted fruit trees that would attract birds and four-legged animals so that they may feed. I now have many birds: brown jay, kiskadee, wild chicken, and also a few toucans that fly in from the Guatemalan side. Well, I am still planting and, you know, the trees are flowering and bearing a lot of fruits . . . a lot of food for the animals.” Don Berto gestured down the trail ahead: “For instance, those taskab trees, piche trees, these that they call zacpan, and also these that they call shna’-corts. Yes, succotz, and also the uyamche, manax, the ton-chi, and aguacate. They all bear a lot of good fruit.

“And I have the armadillo and the deer coming. Well, last year I had a tapir here for about a month. He used to walk on this trail where we are now. Also I had a spider monkey. Yes, he was there for about a month—August, or so—and he came and eat the ripened fruits of the craboo to get fat.”

Don Berto paused to make a small clearing around a sapling. “This is a chicle tree,” he said. “The seed, we mash it and we boil it and we drink it. That is for cough. But we also boil it when we hear that there is a hurricane coming. That is for making the wind follow another route.”

He paused again to pull a liana off of a small tree. “This is a zubul tree, what the Maya once used for washing. No more, I guess; we buy our soap now. The husk, when it is fresh, you just mash it, and then you soak it in water. Then you add a little bit of ashes. It makes soapy water. The next day you can use the water for washing your clothes.”

Don Berto pointed out an earthen tube protruding from between the buttresses of an amate tree, swarming with tiny gold and black bees. “This is a Maya honeybee hive. They are not bad like the African bees. No, they don’t sting. That’s why I passed the trail here close to them. When I got his land in 1972, I found them here, and I protected them from not getting burned by sweeping away the sticks and leaves . . . and they are still here.”

TODAY DON BERTO AND I ARE FRIENDS, but the roots of our relationship grew slowly. This is understandable. For centuries foreigners have come to this forest to take things: archaeological treasures, mahogany, logwood, chicle, a myriad of local remedies. They came as colonial bureaucrats, as missionaries, or as landlords who ensnared the Maya as cheap laborers in peonage schemes. But over the years Don Berto and I grew to recognize in each other a common bond, a vocation that is elemental to all cultures: we were both teachers. For fourteen years now, I have brought Grinnell College students to learn from Don Berto. They have come from all over the world: the UK, Japan, Barbados, Burma, Guatemala, the Bahamas, Mexico, the U.S., and, of course, Belize. For sure, my students (including the Belizeans, who were city kids with little exposure to the biological diversity of their homeland) and I were neophytes in a strange land, but we were respectful and eager to learn. What maestro could resist that?

In a sense, everybody is a newcomer here. Don Berto and his neighbors arrived from Guatemala and southern Mexico only four generations ago, fleeing involuntary conscription into petty wars. The immigrants found the Mopan River valley to be a natural larder: a forest where about 80 to 90 percent of the tree, shrub, and herb species had some utility to humans, as food, cloth, medicine, thatching, or construction material. Many of these species were ones they had known in Guatemala and Mexico, and they were like old friends, growing in a vast forest that seemed to have been planted for them. But by whom? For four hundred years this valley had been largely unoccupied, its original inhabitants annihilated by Western diseases, genocide, and slavery.

Don Berto’s father, Susano, was a Maya “snake doctor” trained in the use of forest plants as cures for snake bites, skills that he learned from his immigrant grandfather. Don Susano was also a believer in the spiritual properties of plants and of the embodiment of the Maya gods in those plants, a reverence he taught his son. To Don Susano, the Mopan River valley was a place where the gods had stocked the forest explicitly to serve his people, and where, therefore, the healers were obliged to say a prayer, always in Mayan, to a plant before cutting it. In turn, the cures for ailments were whispered by the gods to the bushmasters, also in Mayan, on the wind.

“So, while we were in the jungles,” Don Berto once told me as we shared coffee and a taskab fruit in his champa, “I used to hear how my father was questioning the herbs: for what it does cure, and how many doses you used? So, whenever somebody was bitten by snake, my father went and cured this person, and I would go along with him and watch.” While in the forest, Don Susano also taught his son how to succor individual plants that he wanted to encourage. There were several ways to do this: making a depression in the soil to collect rainwater, opening a light gap, clipping off vines, constructing stone barriers and clearing breaks to ward off seasonal fires, chopping down invasive and poisonous species. Every evening, Don Susano returned with a few striplings of beneficial species to sow in the sheltering woods behind his house. This is how young Berto learned how to transform the forest into a garden, and the garden into a forest.

In the academic world, such practices were first described in the 1960s by the ecologist Arturo Gomez-Pompa, who worked with the Maya in arid northern Yucatán. He argued that the forest had been manipulated and tweaked by the Maya, using the same techniques that Don Susano taught his son, until only the most useful species survived. In the 1990s, archaeologist Anabel Ford proposed that domestic forested gardens, known as pet kots, may have been the direct antecedents of the Maya Forest, that after innumerable burning seasons and the cyclical abandonment and re-establishment of gardens, the entire landscape of the Yucatan had become, in Ford’s poetic invocation, a “feral forest.” The Yucatec Maya had a word for this, too: kannan k’aax, translated as a “well-cared-for forest,” implying that it was a human creation and embodied a deep historical relationship between the Maya and their biota. It is no surprise, therefore, that the shaggy, forested boundary between a pet kot and the kannan k’aax is not distinct; each is derived from the other.

During the past four summers, Don Polo, Karen, my students, and I have tested this hypothesis by conducting exhaustive botanical inventories of domestic forested gardens—created by Yucatec, Mopan, and Kekchi Maya—all over Belize. So far we’ve amassed an astonishing total of 672 species of flowering plants in only 30 gardens, in all totaling less than 30 hectares. They rank among the most diverse domestic gardens on Earth, by any measure deserving to be designated as conservation “hotspots.” Most of the species in the Maya forest are represented in at least one of those gardens, validating Ford’s hypothesis. The garden plants were used by the Maya for a variety of purposes, but the majority were used as medicines. Yet as exciting (and controversial) as is the search for new medicines in the botanical pharmacopoeia of Earth’s tropical forests, our purpose hasn’t been to test the validity of the Maya cures, a task that would take teams of chemists decades to accomplish. Instead, we have studied the reverence of the Maya for the diversity of their forest, and therefore their inspiration to be its curators.

THE OFFICIAL LANGUAGE OF THE COLONIAL administration of British Honduras, as Belize was known before 1981, was English. In a colony where the people spoke three dialects of Mayan (Yucatec, Mopan, and Kekchi), as well as Spanish, Creole, Garifuna, even some Hindi and Arabic, English was not just the language of conquest, but of unification.

“Only Father and Mother, Grandfather and Grandmother, they used to speak in Mayan,” Don Berto explained, “but when we children went to school—there were only about forty of us—it was strictly prohibited to speak Mayan. We were permitted only to speak English, and we were punished if we spoke Mayan.

“That is why,” Don Berto continued modestly, “maybe, I can speak a little bit of English.”

Regardless, while collecting plants in the forest, father and son spoke only in Mayan. There was a practical reason for this: there were almost as many indigenous Mayan nouns for plants as there were species in the forest, far more than in English or Spanish; those were, after all, European languages that evolved in other biotas. Moreover, Don Berto’s father, Don Susano, wasn’t sure whether the gods could understand prayers spoken in a foreign language. The clandestine retention of indigenous names and the invocation of Maya prayers, in the shelter of the beneficent forest, were the principal reasons that the Yucatec Mayan language survived in western Belize.

Before I started working in Belize, I spent a decade in another vast forested region: the Amazon River valley. Like the Mopan River valley a century ago, much of Amazonia is an empty place of holocaust, where entire pre-Columbian nations have disappeared. But unlike Belize, the mores and languages of those nations have vanished as well. In a place where there are no names for the abounding species, there can be no inventories, let alone prayers. This aphasia, I believe, explains the terracide that occurs every burning season in Amazonia. It is impossible for humans to love a biota that is not defined in words, and it is easy to witlessly give away a species for which there is no name, a species we never knew existed—or have forgotten.

WHEN DON BERTO WAS TEN YEARS OLD, a wanderer came to the village: Don Eligio Panti, a middle-aged Guatemalan Maya from San Andres, Petén. For the people of Bullet Tree Falls, it was as if Don Eligio were a visitor from the past. He spoke two dialects of Mayan—Yucatec and Mopan—and could name most of the plants of the forest. Like Don Susano, he was a bushmaster who could cure snake bites, but he also knew how to treat a much wider variety of other ills, both physical and mental, using the plants of the forest. Don Eligio lived with the Cocoms for five years as an honored guest, and in repayment for their generosity, he made young Berto his apprentice.

“I would go to the bush and then collect some herbs,” Don Berto said as we walked through his forest garden one rainy morning last January, “tie them one by one into bundles, and then I went to see Don Eligio, and I would ask him what were their names? What they were good for? As time went on, I saw that it was important for a person to learn the correct Mayan names, and the Spanish names and the English names, too, of the herbs. Otherwise, how could I learn how to use them? How could I pray to them? And how could I teach their names to others?

“But when I left school I didn’t know how to read and write Mayan,” he explained. “So I paid a friend who was going to Mexico to bring back books written in Spanish and Mayan, including a dictionary for both languages.” In this way Don Berto learned to read and write the forbidden language.

Besides denying the Maya youths the words to name the parts of their forest, and therefore the tools to curate it, the British authorities made it a crime to plant gardens of trees. In effect, they outlawed being Maya. The reason was narrowly legal. During colonial times most of the forests in western British Honduras were Crown lands leased to expatriate landowners in London or Belize City, concessions that were granted for the purpose of generating foreign exchange through the extraction of chicle and mahogany. The Maya were given small homesteads on which to live, in exchange for rent and labor.

But they were not allowed to improve the land. The planting of trees meant permanence and could be construed as a declaration of entitlement to the property. Every year, when the rent collector knocked on the door, he was accompanied by a thug who chopped down any new fruit trees that had been planted in the backyard or along the riverside.

Self-governance was instituted in British Honduras in 1964, seventeen years before the country won its independence. During this time, small landholders were given the right to acquire title to their homesteads. By then land reform had become politically expedient, and in any event, the market for chicle had collapsed and the wild mahogany trees had been nearly eradicated. But the way of the forest garden had been lost, too, teased out of the fabric of language by schoolteachers and made criminal by the land barons.

“When I got this land,” Don Berto said, “there was a lot of birds, curacao, guan, also the tapirs, the jaguar, deer, a lot of animals, winged and four-legged, too. It was a rich place at that time. And then I decided to cut everything, and burn. I burned everything. It became to be nothing.”

He paused, obviously troubled by this confession. “Eh, well . . . it was the tradition. We had the necessity to burn the land in order to get food. You know, to grow corn, other kinds of plant, like vegetables and so. But when I saw that I didn’t have the materials for my shade, I said, ‘I have to let the jungle grow back again.’”

So Don Berto began to construct his forest garden on the denuded land. He built it in the same way that a forest would regenerate itself: tier by tier, each year getting a little closer to the sun. First, he brought saplings from the nearby forest, and later, when these grew tall and began to provide a modicum of shade, he brought in the understory shrubs, herbs, and epiphytes. Within two years he was able to stop farming and make a living by selling medicines extracted from his garden.

“I said ‘Well, what will I do now? How can I distribute my knowledge, as Don Eligio once taught me?’” Don Berto recalled. “I began to search in my mind what was the best thing to do, but nothing real was coming until I said, ‘Well, I’m thinking of making a trail. That will solve the problem, because people will come. They will come one by one, and that one will spread the word, and then the next one will come.’”

It was down this meandering trail that Don Berto guided Don Polo and me many years later. Today a representative of each plant is labeled in yellow paint on a wooden plaque, in four languages. A typical example: succotz (Mayan), urraco (Spanish), monkey apple (Creole), Licania platypus (Latin). But the translation of a Mayan name to Western nomenclature is not always one-to-one. Much of the Mayan taxonomy has to do with a plant’s uses, and not its floral anatomy as in the Linnean system. For example, bils (cordoncillos in Spanish) are shrubs and trees in two genera, Piper and Koanophyllon, belonging to two distinct families, Piperaceae and Asteraceae, respectively. What do they have in common? Extracts of both are used as soothing baths. And it gets more interesting: the Maya often refer to a plant as being “male” or “female,” but that assignment has no relationship to its true gender (i.e., whether it has stamens or stigmas or both), but instead to its curative properties.

Masewal has become a classroom where men, women, and children from the two local elementary schools, secondary schools, and the University of Belize learn the tradition of forest gardening. The garden provides Don Berto’s neighbors—Maya, Creole, and Mestizo—with native seeds and seedlings, and the strip of burned milpas along the riverbank has become forested once more. “Look around.” Don Berto gesticulated in every direction. “Teofilo Melendez, Guadaloupe Landero, Lucas Medina, Arnoldo Relendez, Marcelo Medina, Pascual Pot, Julia Bol have all started forest gardens along the river. They learned to do this from me,” he said proudly.

Last year, the Belizean government began providing salaries for primary schools to hire Mayan-speaking teachers, but there were so few local speakers in Bullet Tree Falls that they had to be recruited in Mexico. This year, Don Berto’s daughter, Yolanda, and his nephew, Alfredo Pinero, have started to apply that language to identify the parts of the forest.

Don Berto anticipated my next question: “Well, yes, they will. They will learn the prayers, too. Yes, as long as they are interested, I will teach them.”

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David G. Campbell teaches biology and environmental studies at Grinnell College. In 2005, he received a Lannan Literary Award for Nonfiction for his book A Land of Ghosts.


Molly Bang has written and illustrated many children's books, as well as a book for adults called Picture This. She has also worked with public health programs in India, Bangladesh, and Mali.

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