Monday, June 25, 2012

Nature Takes Over

The remains of a hacienda are barely visible beneath trees and undergrowth
If you travel around Yucatán enough, you notice the ruins. They may be Mayan. They may be Spanish or even newer. What all the wreckage has in common is that nature is in the process of returning some project or enterprise, some structure that at one time served a purpose in human society, back to its basic elements. Nature takes everything back, of course, but here in the tropics the process can proceed with drama and speed.

It starts out with erosion, rain, sun and neglect. A tiny seed extends its root into a small crack or joint in masonry, or sprouts in an accumulation of dust and leafy debris that has built up in the corner of a neglected roof. Naturally adapted to survive on scant resources, the tiny plant sends roots in all directions in search of the food and water it needs to grow.

Nature supplies abundant rains that dissolve the minerals and organic remains to provide the nutrients that the plant needs to thrive. Often in just a matter of a few years the tiny plant has become a substantial tree. Smaller shrubs, plants, fungi, insects and animals also colonize the space.

Pre-Colombian Mayan ruins at Xcooch

As roots that penetrate crevices grow and thicken, they displace stones that were carefully worked and crafted to fit tightly together, and dissolve cement and mortar. Insects and animals burrow, further displacing or undermining carefully-constructed foundations. Eventually even the strongest roofs and walls crumble and fall. As thick layers of leaves and other residue accumulate, it can be hard to recognize that something was ever built there.

Alamo tree roots slowly disassemble walls of hacienda buildings in Uayalceh

At Kabah, the partial clearing of trees reveals rubble of an ancient Mayan building

This is not just a phenomenon that occurs in the countryside. Neglected buildings in the city suffer the same fate. It is not unusual, even in Mérida centro, to see structures that are rapidly being razed by plants and the weather. One of the more curious things I've seen was in a modern house downtown that had been abandoned for perhaps eight or ten years. An alamo tree had taken root on the roof and its roots penetrated through the walls and into the building. On a kitchen counter where some discarded phonebooks were stacked I discovered this interesting sight.

I am awed with the rapid rate of decay and destruction of human works caused by nature in the tropics. I am equally impressed by the enduring quality of many ancient Mayan structures in Yucatán. Against all odds, an amazing quantity of ancient ruins remain in good enough condition to allow us to admire their beauty and sophistication, and to provide glimpses of what life was like here long ago. It's a tribute to the architects and builders of long ago that we still can appreciate some of the riches of that civilization.


  1. A timely reminder that we merely rent the stage for strutting. Nature will soon strike the set and a new production will be performed long after we are gone.

    1. Yes, it's a humbling reminder to say the least.

  2. Marc, There was a program on the History channel called "Life after people"
    showing what would happen the days, months, years, decades, and centurys after man vanished from our planet. It was very intresting.

    Life After People is a television documentary series where scientists, structural engineers and other experts speculate with the thought experiment about what the Earth might be like if humanity instantly disappeared, as well as the impact humanity's disappearance might have on the environment and the artificial aspects of civilization. The program premiered as a two-hour special on January 21, 2008 on the History Channel[1] which served as a de facto pilot for the series that premiered April 21, 2009. The documentary and subsequent series were both narrated by James Lurie.

    The program does not speculate on how humanity may disappear, only that it has, and that it has done so suddenly, leaving everything behind including household pets and livestock that have to fend for themselves. The rest of the speculation is based upon documented results of the sudden removal of humans from a geographical area and the possible results that would occur if humanity discontinues its maintenance of buildings and urban infrastructure. Lurie's narration thus begins: "What would happen if every human on Earth disappeared?
    "This isn't the story of how we might's the story of what will happen to the world we leave behind."

    1. George, I don't see much television, but recall clearly one episode of this series which I was able to see. It's very interesting and I enjoyed it. The startling part in the tropics (at least startling for those of us who grew up in northerly climates where things happen more slowly) is how very quickly signs of human presence can be erased.

  3. I love the phonebook foto, Marc. I wonder what number the roots are searching for!

    I have some pictures of a fine old home now in ruin on c.66 in centro. Once the roof let go, the trees came in to reclaim their place at the table. I remember wandering down an obscure path at Uxmal only to find a building utterly overtaken by trees. It gave me a glimpse of what it must have been like for Catherwood, way back when.


    1. Yes, Eric, we've talked about the ruins of Mérida and Yucatán before. There is always something interesting to see.

  4. It is interesting and humbling to think of all the great strides made by man that will inevitably succumb to the doggedness of nature. We are fleeting by comparison.


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