My friend, Silverio, and I were exploring the northeast corner of the Mexican heartland state of Querétaro. Climbing into the Sierra Gorda, we came to Las Ranas, the archeological site of a pre-Hispanic Totonaca town, featuring nicely excavated and restored pyramids surrounded by elaborate, walled stone terraces stair-stepping up to the crest of a steep, thickly forested hill. What an odd name, we thought: Las Ranas – The Frogs.
Turns out we’d arrived pretty close to the site’s surprisingly early closing time. The two disheveled guards told us sternly to make it quick, and that we’d better be out by 4:00. We hoped that deadline would be measured in “Mexican time.”
With overexposure threatening the earth’s remaining wild places, we now have to regulate people’s access to many of them. Parks and nature preserves close for the night. Wilderness areas limit the number of people allowed to enter or the length of time they can stay. In a way this is sad, but I suppose it’s a good thing, considering how many of Nature’s gifts we’ve already managed to love to death.
Still, I’ve often wondered if Nature isn’t one step ahead of us. Do you think she might, out of sheer spite, decide to wait until these places empty out and close their gates for the day before letting down her guard and revealing her best?
We wandered among the immutable gray stone structures. One was an arena of sorts, site of the ancient pelota game (which looked, in artists’ representations, like a precursor to soccer). Silverio told me this game, though not played any more, remains an important symbol to many Mexicans. I’d heard elsewhere that the Aztecs took it so seriously that losers were routinely sacrificed to the gods!
By the time we’d worked our way up to the highest spot on the site, I noticed that the few other visitors had all left; it was already after four. The prospect occurred to me of being locked overnight inside what might be a pretty eerie place in the dark. Should we rush out?
Then we remembered we’d actually parked outside the gate and could easily scale the flimsy fence. We looked at each other, at the timeless structures surrounding us, and then at the gorgeous view across the lush gorge. What the hell, we decided, they’ll just have to come get us. (In fact, we didn’t see them again.)
Now that we had the place to ourselves, everything felt different. It was that rare sense of privilege you experience when you have something really good and really popular all to yourself. We sat in silence for several minutes, soaking in the stillness, communing in our own ways with whatever spirits might still dwell there.
Suddenly an incredible drama started to play out. In the distance, from the bottom of the gorge, we heard a faint, eerie murmuring sound, like people whispering—lots of people.
Then, like a tsunami, the sound swept up the hillside toward us, swelling in its intensity.
Within about ten seconds, the wave had crested right over us, filling the treetops, inundating us in a raucous chorus of dry, raspy twittering. Then the wave ebbed, sweeping back down the hillside and fading back to stillness. It all took less than a minute.
We scanned the treetops to see if we could find what had produced that incredible deluge of sound, but then we remembered the site’s name: the frogs.
So it was frogs—specifically tree frogs. Could it really be that their ancient ancestors had once serenaded the Totonacas in this very spot six centuries ago? Had they always acted like this, waiting every day until they thought they were alone before speaking out so unanimously?
Were they addressing the spirits that dwell here? Or were they the spirits?