When the Earth moved


I found myself lulling into a deep sleep a few minutes past midnight when suddenly my body flew into panic mode and woke me up! My bed was vigorously swaying left to right, and the walls around me were rocking in the opposite direction at a similar rhythm. I had never experienced this before, but I knew instantly that I was experiencing an earthquake. It was the early hours of Saturday 27th January where the news would later share that a magnitude 6 earthquake had rippled out from the Esquintla Department, western Guatemala, reaching as far out as neighbouring countries El Salvador and Mexico.

Guatemala is a prime location for regular seismic activity. Situated between the tectonic North American, Cocos, and Caribbean plates, its mountainous and volcanic topography reflects the ongoing geological activity among these three plates. Due to the unpredictable nature of plate tectonic movement, it is currently not possible to predict when and where an earthquake may strike. In contrast, with volcanic activity, there is a slightly higher chance of forecasting what a volcano might do based on its eruptive history and the measurement of volcano-tectonic (VT) earthquakes. The higher the frequency and size of VT events occurring at a volcanic site, the greater the likelihood that magma is moving toward the surface and eruptive activity is imminent.

Indeed, measurements made by scientists at volcanic sites have become the norm when learning about geological tectonic activity. However, these methods are rooted in Western ways of forming knowledge, deriving from the Enlightenment period when the natural world and its phenomena became consistently rationalised. As a researcher who has studied physical volcanology at MSc level in the UK and has Central American heritage, this way of connecting with the earth and its journey hasn’t always resonated with me. Therefore, I have returned to Central America, specifically the Northwestern Highlands of Guatemala, to reconnect with my own ancestral roots of knowing the earth.

According to the Maya, who have lived here for thousands of years, the earth and all its many processes is regarded as sacred. Their worldview sees nature as being alive, including inanimate objects like rocks and stones. They have developed a way of living with the natural world which is based on a deep adoration for it. In this context, I am here to do the same – to further develop a relationship with the more-than-human and understand these deeply profound connections that the Maya have with the natural world.

In the early hours of that Saturday, as the earth rocked me back and forth in my bed, I began to understand this concept on a deeper level. Of something powerful originating from the land underneath me – an identity and existence that demanded respect. I sensed something else that exists beyond boxed-in precise measurements, an aliveness that does not respond to logicising but feeling. I did not know what to do, but maybe that’s what I needed. To do nothing. It was a profound experience that moved me deeply (and literally!) and am looking forward to exploring this concept further over the coming months.

Ps If you are someone with Mayan heritage who would like to talk further about this topic, please get in touch. I would love to chat!.

My name is Cecilia and I’m from the UK. I am biracial with Mesoamerican and English heritage. I’m a PhD fellow in Environmental and Sacred Geography from the University of Cambridge and am here in Guatemala researching the relationship Maya with the volcanic landscape.