Burning milpa, not just slash and burn
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Sunday May 10, 2020

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Burning milpa, not just 'slash and burn'

Milpa was not just ‘slash and burn’

I recall when my grandfather led the preparation of a milpa. He knew when to cut and when to burn. It was a ceremony, tradition, a ritual, if you may. It meant food for the family. It meant respect, care and protection for and of our forest, animals and everything that would provide and sustain our families throughout the year.

Preparing the area for the milpa followed a process. It was a pattern, it was systematic. Before a tree was cut, it was preceded with an offering and a prayer asking the Gods for a good harvest.

It was hard work. We, the kids chopped the underbrush while my grandfather, father and uncle cut the bigger trees. Not all the big trees were chopped, it would provide shade. Some sticks were put aside to construct the ‘Troja’ which is a house to store the corn and other produce. Also, some were cut for firewood or ‘leña’. The sticks were also used to construct or repair our houses After the chopping was completed, it was left to dry.

Every evening my grandfather would sit outside. He used to tell us stories and at the same time listening to the sound of birds and winds. He observed the stars and moon. During the day, he would observe the sun and clouds etc. What he saw or felt I will never know. But he was waiting for a sign, the right time to burn the milpa. When the day approached to burn, he would call all of us and say in Spanish (and sometimes in Maya) ‘la luna tiene casa, el viento trae agua, tiempo para la quema”.

That week we would prepare a fire path. While some chopped the line, others swept the dry leaves. The broom we used was of a special type of tree called ‘chilimish”. (Hope I said it right). Before leaving the milpa, an altar out of bush sticks was set up. The sticks were tied with bejucos (vines)

The day before burning, it was a family affair. My grandmother and mother prepared the pozole or atole, bread, tortillas, chile sauce etc. The jicarras and clay pottery were packed in a basket or kostal. Very early we were on our way, we had to walk at least an hour/hour and a half to reach at the place. Upon reaching the milpa, we prepared the material to light up the fire. It was palm leaves or ‘huano’. An offering was prepared from the food items that we brought. My grandfather led the ceremony. After the ceremony, we had breakfast while conversing.

Setting the milpa on fire was carefully planned. We worked with the wind. It was our ally. My grandfather had his huano lighted first and led the charge. Methodologically the fire was set moving from that point going around the whole milpa. They kept checking on each other making sure they were safe. This they did by shouting at each other. By the time they met on the other side of the milpa, the fire had moved from the edges and was burning towards the centre of the milpa. Before we left the site, we went around checking that everything was out. No lot of smoke, no forest fire.

The foregoing is a synopsis of the milpa custom/tradition that we practiced about 5 decades ago.

Photograph courtesy Belize Yucatec Maya, text by Weizsman Patt

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