Guatemala Vuelta

“Geology is too important to be left to geologists.” – Patrick Corbett

Guatemala. Although by name the land of many trees, I encourage you to consider it fauna not flora. You will find it alive and bristling, breathing its hot breath. From its sinuous green skin spring spines of sheer earth, steep and sharp. The spines punctuate the beast’s iridescent green back in a chain weaving north-west to south-east.

Look closer. This green is not harmonious or uniform, but instead an undulating hide of shifting scales and accords. Borders shimmer into and out of being with every turn under the sun. Look closer still: there are people on the beast’s back! They are so many, and varied in colour, voice, height, and all the rest. This is a place of multiplicity, then: many trees, many people, and many hazards. Look at how many people cling on to the most precarious parts of the beast! But the people are skillful and courageous; they have woven themselves to the spines to hold themselves to home. The threads they use are fine and strong at once. At some places they have created wonders, and share them with those who enquire.

Let’s walk with trepidation over the beast’s back. Along the way we pause three times, asking the people at each place for their tales. What can we learn?

Where we first set foot is eastwards, where the land is most familiar. At this first spine we find a patchwork quilt rubbed smooth with memory. The heavy drapes of the quilt catch the atmosphere so you feel surrounded by warmth – or perhaps it’s because you are where the fire is. Each patch houses a community of people, and each community recounts a different journey to join this quilt. Some patches are frayed now, others intact. Shouldn’t a familiar thing feel simple? Yet El Fuego still resists understanding, still shows contradicting seams and cross stitches, paradoxes paramount in its fabric, from the observers who close their eyes to the road that cannot be rebuilt for the first time.

El Volcán de Fuego: a patchwork quilt seamed with contradictions.

A tenuous thread links us to the second spine, where we stand at the centre of the beast’s back. Here we find a hidden jewel: an embroidered purse with a sapphire nestled in its depths. The skill of the weavers is obvious. How they hold themselves to the vertiginous spines of the beast! How they struggle, and sometimes win. At other time, though, the beast succeeds in flinging them off.

Laguna de Atitlán: the sapphire jewel in the corazón of Guatemala.

Towards the tale end of our walk, we lose our bearings. Are we at the head or tail of the creature? Such is the mysterious nature of our final stop, where we find our view ahead obscured by a curtain. The curtain is beautifully braided, but the braids shift as we watch. The spine we face is shrouded in mist. Where are the people? They move across the shifting braids like darting fish. Here we hear of encantos, of myths and legends, and we can well believe them. For this is the place where a century ago half of a volcano vanished into thin air.

Volcán Santiaguito: land of encantos, mitos, y leyendas.

As visitors to this strange land, we try to weave the threads together. Between these three wonders, and the people that inhabit them. What can we learn by talking with them? Why do they live on the spines of the beast, and what would induce them to leave? They tell us of how it affects them, living with the beast day-to-day. Can we find ways to make this risk smaller? You see it wouldn’t do much to study only the spines on earth on which they live. To understand and to move forwards, we have to understand the people on the spines and the ties that bind. Geology is indeed far too important to be left to geologists alone.

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