She Cultivates Ancient Wisdom by Joan Koerper

She cultivates ancient wisdom: Inland author’s work points to agriculture in natural harmony.

When author and archaeologist Anabel Ford traveled the world with her family, retreating to their Wrightwood cabin beginning in 1960, she could only dream that her fascination with Meso-American and Maya prehistory would lead to great discoveries. It did.

In 1983, Ford and her team uncovered the ancient Maya city of El Pilar, which had lain dormant for more than 1,000 years.

Ford’s book, The Maya Forest Garden: Eight Millennia of Sustainable Cultivation of the Tropical Woodlands,” co-authored with Ronald Nigh, a professor at the Centro Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social in Chiapas, Mexico, published in June, is the result of 44 years of excavation and research into El Pilar’s domestic architecture, gardens and traditional forest crops.

“I set out to answer fundamental questions,” Ford said. “How did the Maya successfully establish a flourishing civilization in the Mesoamerican tropics? Would their strategies for survival be an alternative for us today?”

The findings counter the longheld assumption that the collapse of the Maya civilization was due to overpopulation and deforestation.

“There was no extensive deforestation in the past,” the authors contend. The forest gardens have been productive for 8,000 years. When crisis stuck, the Maya left their cities and took refuge in their life-giving forest gardens.

Simply put, a forest garden is an unplowed, tree-dominated agricultural field sustaining biodiversity and animal habitats and producing a wide range of plants that meet human needs: shelter, food, and medicine.

The forest garden is part of the traditional Maya land management system known as the Milpa Cycle. Cultivated year-round, up to 90 percent of plants in the Maya forest garden are useful.

Gardeners maintain it with local resources such as organic material, household compost and manure, which enrich the soil and productivity.

Intercropping, or cultivating two or more regional vegetables at the same time, is core to the Milpa system. The Maya annually rotate small plots of vegetable crops and plant short-term perennial shrubs and trees in stages.

Present-day Maya farmers practice slash and burn, a tradition the Serrano and Cahuilla Indians of the San Bernardino Mountains once included in their land management efforts.

Ford’s research reveals a carefully human-orchestrated, complex, dynamic, symbiotic, and integral relationship with the tropical woodlands that has consistently nurtured the Maya.

This led Ford, director of UC Santa Barbara’s Meso-American Research Center, to champion sustainable cultivation, indigenous ecology and farming methods used in the Maya forest garden. It also shaped her vision for the future of El Pilar, which straddles Belize and Guatemala.

She helped form the Maya Forest Garden Network, connecting forest gardeners whose knowledge and approach to gardening can be traced to ancient times.

Ford, who earned her doctorate at UC Santa Barbara in 1981, also built an international interdisciplinary team including local villagers, scientists, university students and government administrators who are working to rescue the rain forest, curtail looting, and recover the cultural heritage of the Maya forest region. Ford transformed El Pilar into a living museum and research center: the El Pilar Archaeological Reserve for Maya Flora and Fauna. Several thousand tourists a year step back in time under the forest canopy and observe the gardens and wildlife of El Pilar. Ford continues her hands-on work at El Pilar and travels worldwide to promote the wisdom of indigenous conservation and the living future of the Maya forest. Still, somehow, she finds time to spend at the family home in Wrightwood, continually inspired by the forest she first explored as a child.

The Maya Forest Garden: Eight Millennia of Sustainable Cultivation of the Tropical Woodlands

By Anabel Ford and Ronald Nigh. Left Coast Press, 2015.

Learn more about El Pilar.

This article was published in the Press-Enterprise, Jan 3, 2016; Section: Life; Page Z2