Walter F. Morris Jr., whose friends call him "Chip," has a full dark beard, long hair tied behind his head, a knapsack on his back and the look of an idealist left over from the early '70s.
His hands are strong and hard used. With them he rebuilt a house; pulled himself onto the back of a truck going his way into Belize; delicately restored a several-hundred-year-old Maya weaving; bathed and fed his infant son Benjamin; and, most recently, wrote a history and a paean to a people, "Living Maya," published by Harry N. Abrams Inc.
Morris has about him the receptive air of one who thinks he's about to hear a glorious story. And he has, he has:
His friends the Maya -- a people who have inhabited parts of Mexico, Guatemala and Belize for many millenniums -- told him how the Ancestors, the givers of the visions, called the shamans and the weavers. A Maya seer revealed the vision of the fiery cross that cyclically descends on his people. He's heard what the shepherdwomen say to the men who try to seduce them, and he's been taught the role of chicken soup in Maya medicine.
These living Maya, who preserve the old traditions and talents, have helped Morris understand the ancient Maya. The Maya wrote books in phonetic script 1,500 years before Columbus. Their farmers cultivated corn, beans and squash before anyone else. Their mathematicians used zero and placed numbers in eclipse cycles, while accountants on other continents still added with Roman numerals. Their construction people built roads, pyramids and palaces without wheels, beasts or metal tools.
Back in 1972 at Columbia University, Morris, who was majoring in Chinese, decided the curriculum wasn't what he wanted. "I looked at a map, and I thought, 'What about the Yucata'n?' So with a friend, I hitchhiked through Mexico. He knew an anthropology undergraduate student in Chiapas, Mexico. So we headed there, thinking we'd stay a few days."
Chiapas is the southernmost Mexican state, beginning at the Soconusco Coast on the Pacific, rising over the Sierra Madre mountains and crossing the Grijalva River to the Lacandon Jungle (called the Petan in Guatemala) on the Guatemalan border.
In the Chiapas Highlands, Morris found a million Maya living in small villages, where they keep their own laws, laid down by their ancestors. As he writes:
Maya kings were believed to have the power to defeat the Lords of Death and return in dreams and visions to advise the living. The Maya abandoned their stone cities many centuries ago, but they remained on their land and still listen to their ancestors in dreams.
In the Maya's classic period (A.D. 100-900), the Maya kings were thought divine. But at the end of their millennium, "the cities were abandoned and the portraits of the kings defaced." The Maya joined with the Toltec people in an empire that stretched from the Gulf Coast to Honduras until it too crumbled. Still, the Maya continued to record the movements of the sun and the stars and to record their history and their rituals in hieroglyphics.
Once in Chiapas, Morris found his life proceeded as if the Ancestors were leading him by the narrow steps of a pyramid to a landing where he could help.
The first six months he was in Chiapas, working in the fields, carrying wood, wearing Indian clothes, he learned, "I would never be a farmer. I didn't have the physical strength for it, and it wasn't me."
And he realized, too, "I would never be an Indian. After years, I might have looked like one to everybody -- but to an Indian.
"It was an important moment. I decided I was going to enjoy being an outsider. To make the people trust me took time and working hard. Most of all, I had to make sure that others benefited from what I was doing.
"I tried to do what was useful."
But first, he had to learn the Maya languages (too different to be called dialects), rituals and textiles, rich and diverse, even in neighboring communities.
Morris learned the many ways the Maya say "hello," but he found it very difficult to learn to say "goodbye." He stayed for 13 years.
For two years, he lived in San Andre's Larra'inzar in the house of Mol Sanate, "the sage and clown" of the village. Morris' effort to learn the local Batz'i K'op, or "True Speech," was helped and hindered by Sanate's 3-year-old grandson, who learned the language faster and rolled in the grass in laughter at Morris' pronunciation.
"I thought I'd do a paper about the language," Morris said. "So I took many notes and worked on them in a room I rented in a small town, in from the country where I lived. But one day, when I came back, the room was cleaned up, the notes were gone. Someone must have used the notes as toilet paper, or something -- they were of no other use to anyone but me.
"So I went back to my friend who'd taught me the ritual greetings. I said, 'Can you explain it to me over again?' And he said, 'Sure, just as soon as I finish making fireworks.' But soon I realized, he was making fireworks from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m., and it would be three months before he'd stop for a coffee break."
Morris decided he'd better find another interest. "Then another friend showed me an extraordinary huipil, in the toad design."
The large rectangular blouses, called huipiles, that Highland women wear are warm and beautiful and bear elaborate geometric designs that describe the Maya cosmos. The sun's course through thirteen layers of the sky and underworld and the creation of clouds by the Earthlord with the help of his servants, the toads and snakes, are composed in a harmony that entices the earth to flower. Weavers capture that moment when the world is renewed.
Weaving soon became to Morris something more than the way the people covered themselves. Fabric became the device for "looking through a culture, or around it. Textile design holds everything together. It gives a structure for history."
During the next three years, he traveled to 49 communities. "For three years, I never slept in the same bed three nights in a row. I carried all my possessions on my back."
Morris worked awhile for the Mexican government, but it was mostly interested in production, he said, so he helped the local weavers to establish three weaving cooperatives. The first two failed, but the third, Sna Jolobil, already does about $70,000 in business a year, much of it to European tourists.
He collected the names of the designs and learned their meanings, which wasn't easy. The weavers cannily wouldn't name or explain the design unless he bought the piece, and then did so reluctantly, as though revealing a secret formula.
"When I found a rare piece, I put it aside, but what I couldn't afford, I sold to collectors or museums. The rarest pieces I arranged to be copied. Some of the saints in the churches wore their huipiles for more than 100 years. But the weavers learned to duplicate them exactly."
Out of this research came "Flowers, Saints and Toads: Ancient and Modern Maya Textile Design," the exhibition he organized for the Textile Museum here in the fall of 1985. The exhibit (partly funded by the National Geographic Society) was perhaps the first to show the continuity of the Maya textile tradition.
In his book, Morris writes:
The female saints, who were the first to weave the designs of each community, come back in dreams to show women how the patterns of creation can be woven into their huipiles. If it is woven without a flaw, the huipil is considered to be well dreamt.
The hidden part of daily life, the Maya learn and live in their dreams.
Morris first said he never had such a dream. Then, he stopped and thought again. "Well, maybe. Certainly my analysis of contemporary weaving designs and their relation to pre-Columbian designs came to me in a guiding vision. I suddenly knew how the designs work with each other. And I have dreamed about my animal spirits."
The Maya learn more than weaving designs in their dreams. Some are summoned by the Ancestors (who dwell in nearby mountains, as opposed to the Saints, who are stars in the sky) to learn how to set bones, deliver babies, play music, gather herbs and recite prayers to cure the ill. A chosen one is known as h'ilol, "one who can see."
Furthering a Dream
For his interpretation of the secrets of Maya textile symbolism and his founding of Sna Jolobil, Morris was awarded a five-year MacArthur Foundation grant -- $31,000 a year, a thousand for each year he had lived when the grant was made.
He spent it to set up exhibits of Maya weaving and to publish brochures about the textiles, and he blew a little bit on getting married. The grant also carried a bequest of $15,000 to the Sna Jolobil, and that went a long way, providing a building and even a car for the weaving cooperative.
But in six months, the grant will be over. "I was broke before I got it -- most of the time I was living on $50 a month -- and I'll be broke when it's finished, and this time I have a mortgage," Morris said. But he's not too concerned. He's good at getting grants, and his book, illuminated with fine photographs by Jeffrey Jay Foxx, has been well received.
And he doesn't feel the need to go back to Chiapas the way he once did. "For the last few years, I've been weaning myself away -- first I'd go back for eight months, then six, now last year for only three."
The big change in his life -- the way back from Chiapas -- came when he walked into a library in San Cristobal and found a young woman reading a catalogue, just a listing actually, of a textile exhibit he'd made. "I told her she must be bored stiff to be reading that, and I could suggest something better. She told me to go away."
But he didn't. They were married 18 months ago and now have a son. They bought a house, more than 100 years old, in Killingworth, Conn. They've all been living in the one-room garage while he's been remodeling it, doing all the work himself -- and taking his three months at caring for Benjamin. "Marla, my wife, took care of him the first three months, now it's my turn." She's a pediatrician and a psychiatrist, now finishing up a fellowship as a child psychiatrist.
And how are the Maya in Chiapas? Morris says they have roads, trucks, tape decks, plastic jugs, photographs and tourists.
But the Ancestors are still sending the old dreams, the sacred visions. And in Chamula, Chiapas, the cycle is swinging back -- the Maya are once again building pyramids to the honor of their ancestors and the glory of their gods.