Trudging through the dense tropical forest of El Pilar, an ancient Maya city located on the Belize-Guatemala border, Dr. Anabel Ford was set on one task and one task only: finding water. Ford, who is recognized as the archaeologist who rediscovered El Pilar, knew that finding water in the Maya Forest was rare. Having led the mapping of the region, however, she also knew that there was a small stream nearby and she was determined to find it. Asking her partner, a master Maya Forest gardener, to lead her to the stream, Ford was astounded when he found the running water in less than two minutes.
“It seemed like magic and so I asked him how he found it so quickly,” Ford said. “This man, who knows everything about the area and is completely at ease in the forest, told me he found water following a bug – a bug that I was paying no attention to and was probably mindlessly swatting away from my head. If this man’s subtle and symbiotic relationship with the forest is not magic, then I don’t know what is.”
Ford’s interest in the magic of the Maya Forest began when she was an anthropology student at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). Inspired to learn and understand the culture of the Americas and understand its place in today’s society, she made it her personal mission to travel to each region of the Americas. Her journey made a detour when she discovered the Maya Forest in Central America. Entranced by the tropical setting, majestic palaces, towering pyramids and sprawling plazas, Ford joined a project there and has been infatuated with discovering the civilization’s story ever since.
“I am completely fascinated by finding the origins of complex societies and finding the common threads that tell stories of how humans impact the environment and how the environment impacts humans,” said Ford. “If we can understand this relationship and the way people managed landscapes in the past, then we can understand how to do so in the future.”
Now in a research position at UCSB, Ford works with students and continues her research of the Maya civilization with the goal of preserving the forest and finding sustainable solutions that can be replicated today in societies around the world.If we do not look to the world around us and take the lessons learned from past societies, then we won’t be able to keep our own community of Santa Barbara healthy and beautiful amidst crises, such as the droughtDr. Anabel Ford
“If we do not look to the world around us and take the lessons learned from past societies, then we won’t be able to keep our own community of Santa Barbara healthy and beautiful amidst crises, such as the drought,” said Ford.
It is Ford’s dedication to bringing and sharing the findings of her work back to Santa Barbara that earned her the Educator of the Year Award from the Goleta Chamber of Commerce in 2000. This and other accolades, such as an award from the Rolex Awards for Enterprise, increased coverage of her work locally. She was encouraged from individuals in the Santa Barbara community to start her own nonprofit, Exploring Solutions Past, to put what she learned from her research into action. The nonprofit’s three main goals are to promote the Maya Forest as a peace park, to treat the Maya Forest as a garden and useful part of our ecosystem, and to respect the Maya Forest as a place of cultural heritage.
“To have this all come to fruition would be fabulous, because, even something as simple as recognizing that trees are an asset that provide shade to keep things cooler and increase moisture for growing can have a widespread impact in improving our ecosystem and slowing global warming,” said Ford. “This connects to honoring our heritage because we learn what is useful to our society and apply solutions.”
Whether supporting Santa Barbara’s nonprofit sector, helping a UCSB student with research or hiking through the Maya forest in search of a stream, Ford’s commitment to helping the community, and the world at large, is what anyone would call pure, big-hearted magic.