In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
April, 2004
Regional Report

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A walk through the jungle and Mayan ruins of Belize is like a religious experience for this California gardener.

Jungle Walk

I walked in the jungle of Belize last week. Sweetie and I took a Caribbean cruise to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. We had never been to the tropics before, and standing in the jungle was like communicating with a great, living, breathing creature. Only having seen photos or movies about tropical forests, I had no idea they were so profoundly moving.

The area we visited in Belize was inland from the coast. After taking a long bus ride from Belize City to the boat docks on the New River, we boarded an excursion boat that was headed to the Mayan ruins of Lamanai. The 1-hour boat ride inland reminded us of our own Georgiana Slough in the Sacramento River Delta, except in the tropics all the plants were different or unfamiliar.

Trees overhung the narrow waterway, providing cover for kingfishers, egrets, and herons. Visible from the boat were incredible plants, such as a great, creeping cactus that climbed toward the sun in overhanging tree limbs. It looked like a flattened, multi-headed yellow python. Tillandsias and bromeliads grew in abundance all along the river. Palmettos were evidently the enemy, because there were long, burned out patches where they had been fired on, unsuccessfully. Little palmettos were sprouting from the base of their stricken elders. Palmetto must be the tropical version of eucalyptus.

Amazing Jungle Plants
The Lamanai site was at the edge of a large lagoon, which we later found out was the quarry for the nearby Mayan pyramids. After disembarking from the boat, we followed a narrow, rocky path into the dense tropical forest. The jungle was hot and humid, of course, but to me it was like a temple to life. The surrounding plants and trees seemed to breathe in and out, almost as if they had a pulse. Huge leaves, gigantic leaves, were everywhere. Palm leaves 20 feet long hung over the rocky path.

The green light under the forest canopy was like being underwater -- no direct sunlight penetrated the dense foliage. The same hue of dark green was everywhere; rocks, roots, palms, climbing plants, even the air seemed to radiate green. No flowers here, just thousands of years worth of compost and plants that could survive in the dim, humid atmosphere. Trees of unimaginable age stood guard over the path, their twisted roots creating natural steps along the rocky surface, and their crowns high above and unseen. Hidden howler monkeys made evident their displeasure at having been disturbed.

Walking out of the jungle into the clearings where the Mayan pyramids stood was a shock. It was like walking out of a dark movie theater into direct sunlight. We stood blinded and blinking, wanting to return to the seclusion of the foliage. Although the pyramids were impressive, I found the jungle even more so. I felt at home among the plants.


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