According to Maya myth, in the beginning the earth was square, with the celestial realm above and the underworld, Xibalba, below. The World Tree stood at the center of the cosmos. Four other trees, one at each corner, supported the sky.

Each side of the square earth represented a direction and color: east (red, the rising sun), west (black, death), north (white), and south (yellow). The center was green, the color of new growth and life itself. [i]

This World Tree, with its roots in the underworld, its trunk in the earthly world, and its branches in the celestial world, provided a channel for the souls of the dead to travel.

This poster from the 1920's contains the words: “Take care of the tree that gives shelter and valuable food to the people of the fields and the mountains, also beautifying the countryside.”  ©University of Texas Press

Perhaps this World Tree myth inspired Mexican people to first call Miguel Angel de Quevedo The Apostle of the Tree. Certainly he earned such a title. Although his traditions and era were far removed from the Maya myth, his work might ultimately be the foundation for saving the Maya jungle.

Quevedo's first love echoed a fundamental Maya fascination: astronomy. He studied at Flammarion's Institute of Astronomy and Meteorology after moving to France to live with his uncle (following his parents' deaths). At his Uncle's insistence, Quevedo put the stars aside to become an engineer.

Quevedo's first engineering job involved him with draining the Mexico City lakes in 1889. While supervising the construction of the Grand Canal, he advised against draining all the water from the lakes and against cutting all the forests around the city. Unfortunately, an injury forced him to quit. He later witnessed flooding and health problems resulting from indiscriminate cutting, draining, and building.

For the rest of his life, Quevedo dedicated himself to conservation; his successes are vast, a partial list of which includes:

  • creation of the Junta Central de Bosques (later the Mexican Forestry Society) to lobby on behalf of Mexico's forests
  • improving the ratio of Mexico City parks to urban area from 2% to 16% (a change from 2 to 34 parks)
  • creation of a nursery system (viveros) of cedars, pines, acacias, eucalypti, and tamarisks that resulted in the planting of 2.4 million trees by 1914
  • establishing schools to train more than 1,000 foresters
  • encouraging the provisioning of land owners with seeds and instructions for reforestation
  • establishing forest zones and reserves around cities and ports
  • promoting the suspension of public land sales (official in 1909)
  • persuading delegates to the constitutional convention to include a conservation plank in the constitution (1917, Article 27)
  • directing the Mexican Committee for the Protection of Wild Birds
  • creating the Mexican National Park System (32 parks were created between 1935-1942)

As a conduit for World Tree thought, Quevedo headed a Mexican delegation in 1935 to first discuss with the U.S. the creation of an International Parks Commission; his earlier work had first alerted Theodore Roosevelt (in 1909) to the Mexican conservation efforts. Quevedo's insights today are directly applicable to denuded mountains in the US west where, in Roosevelt's time, no one anticipated such problems with flooding and climate changes.

It was under the Presidency (1934 – 1940) of Lázaro Cárdenas, proclaimed conservationist, that Quevedo was most successful. Although much of Quevedo's labor was destroyed or neglected during the industrial development in the latter 1900s, renewed conservation interest has built on many of his programs.

Perhaps it was written in the stars that today his words would whisper through stands of trees in Mexican National and City Parks, echo through national laws and organizations supporting efforts to protect the environment. His name is rooted in past conservation efforts and branches into the green movement today: Miguel Angel Quevedo: The Apostle of the Tree.



[i] The Maya – Life, Myth, and Art by Timothy Laughton

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