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Modern Mushroom Lovers Visit the Ancient Cacao Groves

Tucked among the high mountains of Guatemala, Lake Atitlan glistens like a crystal. It is the deepest lake in Central America, and it still holds the memories of the people who came before. For thousands of years, the Lake has fostered the Mayans—one of the richest and most vibrant cultures the world has seen.

Last Friday on the Mayan calendar was 7 Q’anil—a day that emphasizes the importance of the seed. The natural world’s gift to humanity is beheld in the seeds. They are the currency of cycles complete, and from them we receive all of the nourishment we need.

In permaculture, we view the world through the lens of our ancestors. The natural world is our teacher. We see how the cycles of nature deposit gifts, and we work with these cycles. We design systems that are based on low energy inputs and maximize yields. Bill Mollison, the visionary behind permaculture, stated in the Principle of Cyclical Opportunity, “Every cyclic event increases the opportunity for yield. To increase cycling is to increase yield.” Agroforestry, for example, represents an incredibly productive system because with good maintenance, the system can improve productivity and fertility each year.

The Fungi Academy, a school of mushroom cultivation in Tzununa, was in for a treat on 7 Q’anil. We crossed Lake Atitlan by boat, then drove up through Flower Mountain and down to the low-land jungles by pick-up truck. The land is still cultivated to this day with sapote, rubber, nancy, and, of course, cacao. As we wove through the mountains, I shared a story from the Ancient One—the Nawales.

“The powers of Sun and Moon ruled all that was buried as seeds in the cavernous Underworld destined to sprout again on the Face of the Earth, growing strong and tall to then flower-up and dance in the wind. It was then that all the plants formed their seed, seed that would eventually be planted again. This was the way of the eternal cycles of life, death and rebirth that began and ended, again and again and again.” 
— The Nawales: The Ancient Ones (Stanzione, 2016)

We shared the story of the Nawales on the same road the Ancient Ones traveled up and down with their packs heavy with goods for trade in markets far and wide of Latin America. The world was frothing for the Mayan’s goods crafted by through careful cultivation—from seeds to products.

Odylia Suhul, the director of the Nuevo Amanacer women’s collective, still tends to the cacao orchards that her father and her father’s father tended to. For over three thousand years, the Suchitepequez Mountains have been growing cacao that has been prized for its richness, deliciousness, and medicinal benefits. The fruits grow healthily and abundantly without any synthetic chemicals.

The Fungi enthusiasts were keen to explore the orchards. Like children in a candy store, they pranced among the grove foraging mushrooms. In the hot, humid jungle, various fruiting mushroom bodies manifested in various shapes and sizes. Below the thick blanket of leaves, the mycelium (mushroom roots) formed a thick mat, indicating healthy soil. A flappy fungus known as “oreja del perro” by locals, or coloqially as “monkey ear” grew casually in the undergrove. Naturally the group riled up on collecting the spores to grow back at the Academy.

And this was a lot of how the Nawales, the Ancient Ones, lived their lives. They observed the natural world, they cherished the gifts they found, they found new ways to alchemize them in ways of higher value, and they traded them for more novelties. They knew that through synergy with the Earth and the various people, we are abundant. Odylia guided the group through the bountiful fruit forests, and the fungi lovers shared their knowledge and passion of mushrooms.

Then, something amazing happened. I had planned a lesson on permaculture for the Fungi Academy, but the Mayans wanted to listen too. It wasn’t the type of lesson, though, where one person teaches—we all learn from each other. Because deep in the cacao forests where the people live off the land, the ancient wisdom still exists. The Mayans never strayed far from their roots. The flowers and fruits of their way of life continued to shower upon us. What more could I share with them other than the whole world is yearning for the resurgence of their wisdom?

“There was no end to this sacred cycle of sprouting, growing, flowering, seeding, dying and rebirth on the Face of the Earth. There was nothing in the world that came to life that did not eventually die, just as there wasn’t anything that came to life that died that was not eventually born again. This was the way of everything that existed in the Nawales’ world, a world that was governed by the divine movement of the Sun, Moon, and Earth, all of which created constant change in the lives, deaths and rebirths of the countless beings that lived and died in and on the Face of the Earth.”
— The Nawales: The Ancient Ones (Stanzione, 2016)

The Earth is an alchemist. We are all alchemists. We are alchemizing all of the time, whether we realize it or not. When we are mindful of our power, of our alchemy, we craft circumstances for ourselves and the world around us that are favorable. Like building a kingdom, we are only as strong as the foundation that supports us. From the ground, we grow. All we’ll ever reap is what we sew.