The Phases of Wisdom: How Mayan knowledge still plays a role in modern agro-ecology

By Isabella Alves


Juan Arriaga Morro stands over the central post of his solar observatory on December 31, 2016, at his farm Casa del Sol. The observatory has four ribbons for the cardinal directions, white for north and air, black for west and earth, yellow for south and water, and red for east and fire or the sun.


Arriaga stands up after tying a yellow ribbon onto a stake that marks the point where the sun rises during the summer solstice at his farm. Arriaga set up the solar observatory to measure sunrises for his own purposes and for teaching others.


Arriaga gathers the ribbons he uses in his solar observatory. Arriaga uses the observatory to measure where the sun will rise and fall at different times of year, as well as for teaching visitors.

SANTA CRUZ, Costa Rica — The phrase respect your elders has a strong meaning for Juan Arriaga Mora. He listens to the wisdom passed down from his many grandmothers, most of whom lived hundreds of years ago and never met.

Arriaga runs a tree nursery and business called Casa del Sol, house of the sun, and uses wisdom passed down from what he calls his “Mayan grandmothers.”

One way he incorporates Mayan knowledge into the nursery is by using a solar observatory built like Mayans did all those years ago. Red, black, white and yellow strings in the shape of a square all meet together at a center point in a green patch of grass off a dirt trail lined with trees near the entrance of his nursery. Each color and corner represents a different direction and element.

The markings show the “dance between the sun and moon,” Arriaga said. The red signifies east and represents fire and the sun; the yellow signifies south and represents water; the white signifies north and represents air; the black signifies west and represents the Earth. Arriaga said each element represents something that humans cannot recreate and cannot live without; it shows how humans are “part of a whole.”

The sun was once used to keep track of life, Arriaga said. Many aspects of Mayan culture revolve around the sun, and they had festivals on equinoxes to celebrate.

Arriaga identifies himself as an agro-ecologist and practices many of the Mayan techniques in his work, but he said he thinks Mayans wouldn’t have identified with agro-ecology. Instead, they taught “respect and harmony with nature” and incorporated that into their daily lives, he said.

But that harmony has been thrown off balance. Arriaga said the elderly generation is leaving a polluted world behind for younger generations. Many of the elements present in the solar observatory, like the water and air, are being polluted and cannot be replaced.

“We don’t have anywhere to refill,” Arriaga said. The younger generations are the world’s “seeds of hope,” Arriaga said, and he hopes that they can treat the planet better than his generation, for a better world.

Edited by Nadav Soroker and Jalyn Henderson

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