By BENJAMIN SWIFT
As we sat around the fire near Ocongate, Perú, Fabian, a shaman and native to the area, shared his wisdom with us: “Before we enter, we must ask the mountains’ permission. We must have permission to venture into its sacred realm, to walk across its glaciers, summit its peaks, sleep in its basins.” We, a group of 12 gap year students and three instructors, were preparing to venture into the realm of a great Apu, a mountain spirit. Before we could enter, however, we had to do more than pack our bags and bargain for potatoes. We had to knock on the door of this mountain spirit and request its blessing.
Our request for entry meant a ceremony. Our group of 15 foreigners gathered around a fire with Fabian and his wife Patricia. Fabian played his handmade wooden flute and Patricia’s raspy voice rang into the cold, starry night. Later, once we had begun our trek, we found ourselves on the ascent of a pass with a threatening thunderstorm looming in the distance. In order to ensure our continued safety, Fabian held an impromptu ceremony alongside the trail, using coca leaves to ask the storm to hold off until we reached camp. As we traveled through the mountains, Fabian bridged the gap between humans and nature, making our excursion a conversation and two-way interaction with our surroundings.
In the pre-Hispanic Aymara and Quechua cultures of Bolivia, Perú, and Ecuador, ceremonies are commonly performed for a wide variety of purposes. On the streets of La Paz, Bolivia, one might encounter material—like musical instruments or herbs—which can be used to help summon lovers, bring good luck, or please the Pachamama (Mother Earth). Ceremonies aimed at serving Pachamama stem from the Andean cosmovision (system of beliefs) that the earth is hungry and needs constant sustenance. For example, in a sheep sacrifice ceremony, the first blood of the dying sheep is poured onto the ground to feed the earth before the rest is collected for various dishes.
Throughout Quechua and Aymara tradition, the concept of ayni (reciprocity) heavily informs ceremonies and traditions. Ayni is the belief, on many levels, that positive actions will lead to positive outcomes for the individuals involved in the long-term. Whether these actions are from individuals to individuals, people to nature, or nature to people, ayni drives these values of unconditional kindness in Quechua and Aymara culture. Kindness in interactions may be reciprocated by nature, or kindness to one person might be reciprocated with hospitality from another.
The Andean cosmovision values kindness towards everything seen as living. When Fabian interacts with the mountain spirits and treats them with respect as living beings, he draws upon the concept of ayni, with the belief that his actions will be indirectly reciprocated, ultimately forging a better world for everyone. U.S. culture has historically viewed nature as a resource to take advantage of, harness, control, and exploit. Land is treated as a resource or investment that must be manipulated to extract riches that result in a profit. Even for those of us who enjoy spending time in an unspoiled and natural world, our Western culture suggests we treat it as our playground where we climb, ski, or traverse. Even if, as environmentalists and outdoor enthusiasts, we value the preservation of our natural world, most of us have never stopped and thought about our respect for nature and our place within it. Even though there are environmentalists and outdoor enthusiasts who follow the principles of ‘Leave No Trace,’ humans are still, and will always be ,outsiders. This divide does not mean that we should all adopt the Andean cosmovision, begin conversing with the mountains, or cease exploring our wild places for fear of our impacts on them. Rather, we should think more critically about the outdoors and about what our role can and should be in protecting them.