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Jungle of Stone

Jungle of Stone, by William Carlsen

Overall, I was not impressed by this book. I was hoping for a book that taught me about the Mayan people – their culture, religion, and lives. Instead, I received a summary about Stephens’s life. It was more about Stephens’s life than about the Mayan civilization. Also, I think that part of my disappoint about this book stems from the fact that my previous book, “Till We Have Faces” by C. S. Lewis, was phenomenal. There was little chance that any follow-up book would be comparable.

“Jungle of Stone” read more like a history book. Honestly, the most enjoyable parts were seeing Catherwood’s drawings of the ruins and temples. I want to learn more about the Mayans and their art. I don’t want to hear about the war between Carrera and Morazan. The political happenings of the time period are not interesting to me. I don’t want to read a historical textbook. I don’t want my story littered with minor, irrelevant historical details.

After reading the Introduction and first two chapters, I outlined my expectations for the book. First, this book makes me realize that there are entire histories, civilizations, and myths that I know nothing about. There is nearly an infinite amount of content in this world that I could potentially read about. I have read a fair amount of the Greek and Roman literature. But there are many civilizations that I have not begun to explore, and I would love to know more about:

  1. Japan / China / Eastern cultures

  2. Egypt (3000 BC -> 30 AD)

  3. Maya (1000 BC -> 1000 AD)

  4. Aztec (1300 AD -> 1500 AD)

  5. Inca (1300 AD -> 1500 AD)

This story is primarily a tale about two men, who are largely credited with discovering and documenting the Mayan ruins in Central America

  1. John Stephens

  2. Frederick Catherwood

The beginning of this book has an Indiana Jones feel to it. Catherwood and Stephens go on an expedition into the dense jungles of Central America in search of ancient relics. The author’s description of the jungle make me want to visit Central America and experience the jungle for myself. I think this would be an incredible trip. My initial impression was that this book was going to be an adventure story, littered with historical information. I think that was a correct impression. However, I also had a goal to learn more about the Mayan civilization, which I know virtually nothing about, and in amassing this knowledge I was disappointed.

On the organization of this book. There are sections of the book that are highlighted with gray hieroglyphics on the edge of the page. These sections are asides from the primary adventure tale. For example, there is short biographical aside about Stephens’s life. Before this bio section, the primary plot concluded with Stephens and Catherwood viewing the structures and ruins of Copan for the first time. After the adventurers initially view Copan, the author gives us a short biography about Stephens.

Stephens was a lawyer, politician, and author. He was not married and did not express any romantic interests within his journal writings. Stephens was intelligent, which seems a prerequisite for success and power. He received a nice head start in life from his parents, which is another massive benefit. His father was a successful business man, and thus the family had money. At age 13, Stephens went to college at Columbia, where he graduated with a law degree. He became well-studied in Greek, Latin, and classic literature. This is interesting. The most successful people in the 19th century were all university educated and enjoyed classic Greek and Latin literature. “All people” is an exaggeration here, but nevertheless I see a theme. There must be some reason that smart people are attracted to classic literature? Is this still true in the 21st century? Anyway, Stephens was incredibly intelligent and he had a wealthy father. The combination of intelligence and family fortune is a recipe for great success.

Although Stephens graduated with a law degree, he did not seem to be passionate about low. In college, he was a skilled speaker, debater, and writer. After college, he practiced law, but he did not keep any notes, so we know nothing about this period. But we do know that he was much more interested in and involved in politics. We also know that Stephens was often homesick, he never wrote about girls/love, and he was constantly battling sickness, which is a common theme throughout the book.

Stephens never married, and he traveled the world alone. Seems somewhat lonely to me. He visited many ancient civilizations, taking notes all along the way. It’s a miracle that Stephens survived all of his adventures. He was constantly plagued by sickness, war, imprisonment, and bandits. Many people who visited the lands that Stephens did never returned, because they died of illness or injury. When Stephens returned to America after many years of travel and hardship, he published a book about his Central American adventures. Good thing he took detailed notes during his trips. His book was a massive success, and he earned a financial fortune and much popularity from it.

Catherwood was an artist and architect. He was married and had 3 children. Unlike Stephens, Catherwood did very little writing. Hence, most of this book is written from Stephens’s perspective. While Stephens was a talented writer, Catherwood was a skilled artist. The two men made the perfect pair. We know significantly less about Catherwood’s life, since Stephens rarely wrote about him. We do know that Catherwood was interested in Greek and Gothic architecture - he traveled to Egypt and was consumed by the archeology there. When he married, Catherwood was struggling financially, as he would for the entirety of his life. He did not have the same type of financial success as Stephens. However, Catherwood eventually got into the business of creating panoramas, and this provided him, his wife, and his children with adequate income. It’s not clear how Catherwood and Stephens met. But when Stephens offered to pay $1500 + $25/day for Catherwood’s artistic services on an expedition to Central America, the architect signed the contract and left his family. He went on an adventure filled with death, war, disease, and injury. I find it incredible that he was willing to leave his family for this adventure. But to accomplish great things, and change the world, I suppose that you need to be willing to take risks. Catherwood risked his life and his family. In the end, he lost those things.

The major Mayan ruins explored by Stephens and Catherwood include:

  1. Copan

  2. Palenque

  3. Uxmal

  4. Chichen Itza

  5. Tuloom

Unfortunately, a fire destroyed many of the artifacts that Catherwood and Stephens brought back to America from their adventures. The fire also destroyed Catherwood’s panoramas. It was a massive financial loss and ruined Stephens’s dream of opening a museum.

The Mayans flourished for about 650 years, before their population became too large, and they faced famine, drought, and war. These disasters were their downfall. The Mayans practiced blood-letting and genital piercing. They ate mostly vegetables and did not have any domesticated animals. They had gods that they worshipped through art. They played ball games. Overall, we know very little about the Mayan culture, only what we can conclude from their pottery, hieroglyphics, and temples. But it seems to me that people are people, whether they are Mayan, Greek, or American. We create, fight, and play.

Most notably, this book got me excited about other cultures, specifically Mayan and Egyptian, and their artworks. These civilizations put so much effort into art. Obviously it was important to them. Art was used to express their relationships with gods and with one another. Art was also used to express emotions.

What else stood out to me? Mostly that I want to learn more about Egypt and that culture’s religion and stories. I was also struck by Catherwood’s experiences. Catherwood and Stephens were in Central America for about 10 months during their first trip. During this time, Catherwood’s wife had an affair. When Catherwood returned home, he and his wide decided to separate. I saw this coming when Catherwood decided to go on the expedition with Stephens. Throughout their adventures, Catherwood is repeatedly plagued by malaria. I honestly felt bad for him. His wife left him, and he was constantly sick.

How do we reconcile the Central American civilizations with the Christian religion and with God? Christianity explains the European people, plus the Greek and Roman cultures. But how does this merge with the Central American people? Based on the artwork, it appears that the Mayan people were not influenced by Greek, Roman, or Egyptian cultures. Their artwork is wholly their own creation. Moreover, how do we reconcile the Christian stories with Eastern religions, such as those in Chin, Japan, and Korea? As far as I know, there is no mention of the Eastern world in Biblical texts. How do we make sense of Christianity, in light of the Eastern and Central American worlds? Was God present in these civilizations? Did God only reveal himself to the people of the Middle East? Does Christianity only thrive because it is the dominant religion of the European and Middle Eastern people, who are the world powers? I don’t know how to answer these questions. I don’ know how, or if, God had any role in the Central American and Eastern worlds. I don’t have an answer, and this is frustrating! I don’t understand. It makes me want to sit on this couch and simply read until I am able to find a satisfactory answer.

Overall, I was not impressed with this book. The best parts were Catherwood’s drawings. The last few chapters talked about the Panama Railroad, and they had nothing to do with the Mayans. I was disappointed. These chapters were more of a summary about the last years of life for Stephens and Catherwood. Catherwood would always struggle for money and be a sort of faceless figure in the background. On the other hand, Stephens remained single, accumulated a personal fortune, and was a powerful figure. Stephens was responsible for constructing the Panama Railroad. He was tasked with organizing all aspects of the project including budget, personnel, logistic, and contracts. That’s power. Catherwood was more of an artistic type, with no money and no power. However different the men were from one another, they had a strong and genuine friendship. That’s special.

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