Printed in the Summer 2017 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Pateros, Christina, "Earthkeepers: Nurturing the Earth the Andean Way" Quest 105:3(Summer 2017) pg. 26-29
By Christina Pateros
Light-headed, I was struck by the intense energy that came up under my foot, through my leg, and up to my head. I stayed standing, mostly steady, while the teacher’s arms caught my neighbor before she collapsed. I felt the heat. The three of us, with one foot each on the bundle of flowers and leaves beneath, were called from the class of eighty, gathered in a room in Utah’s Wasatch Range of the western Rockies, to cleanse more deeply. I, along with the others, had blown my prayers into a set of three dried bay leaves as our teacher guided us in this earthkeepers’ ceremony, known as kuti despacho, born long ago in the Andes Mountains of South America.
That ceremony in December 2010 was my seminal experience not only of the power of intention, but of the intensity with which Mother Earth can cleanse hoocha (heavy energy) away, revealing lighter, brighter, empowering energy. I became a believer in the magic of the unseen that night. And the clearing and the healing—they continued.
This intense cleansing ceremony, which we practiced for what felt like hours, is part of the traditions of the earthkeepers of the Andes, in Peru and Bolivia primarily. The Peruvian regions are the home of the quiet, gentle Quechua people, whose spirits exude kindness, love, generosity, and innate strength.
Fundamentally simple, the Quechua traditions and way of life focus on Pachamama, Mother Earth, whom they feed with respect and love. Eating a meal with Quechua friends always begins with the first sip of the drink poured out in gratitude to Pachamama.
As direct descendants of the Inca, the Quechua people are proud to be Pachamama’s children. “It is seeing through the heart; more heart, less brain,” Odon (Medina Calsin) reminds me as the energy of his words enters my heart space and quiets my busy head. His message vibrates with the deep love he has for his land, his country, Pachamama, his family, and the paqos (healers) with whom he is closely connected. It’s genuine. It’s passionate. In the sacred valley of Peru, it’s simply the Quechua way—to love Pachamama, Mother Earth, first, with all your heart. “The rest follows and flows,” says Odon.
To be an earthkeeper is to know that everything has a spirit and that all is sacred. Animated. With energy. This is the shaman’s way of being and knowing—seeing the beauty in life. Odon speaks of directing energy with intention and following the heart: conscious action with love.
With square Incan features, and a face revealing his age—he is in his forties—Odon is a native of Cusco, the center of the former Incan empire. We met on an Appalachian mountaintop in North Carolina in November 2016, as he worked side by side with Don Mariano Quispé, interpreting Don Mariano’s Quechua language for the thirty-eight of us gathered in community to learn and pray. Don Mariano was guiding ceremony in his heavy, fringed alpaca poncho of black and red and pink and orange, an item of clothing that reflected his place in the tribe and in our allyu (community) as medicine man.
The Quechua words flowed from Don Mariano’s tongue as his sun-drenched, leathery face spoke volumes of compassion and his eyes expressed a connection to unseen worlds. This mentor of Odon and so many others is a humble, slightly-framed farmer with the wisdom of an elder and the heart of a child.
A seventy-something (no birth records are kept in that region) paqo from the high Andes, Don Mariano is a special earthkeeper. He is Q’ero, one of the Quechua people who live in mountain villages so high that in the 1500s the Spanish conquistadors, who decimated the Inca royalty and the Quechuas at lower altitudes, could not find his ancestors. He is also a seer, a kurak akullak.
The Q’ero are an indigenous tribe numbering in the hundreds: farmers, weavers, and healers. They are family people who revere and honor Pachamama with all their hearts. They live simply in sync with the earth, growing papas (potatoes) and choklo (corn), in ayni: sacred reciprocity, giving before taking, in right relation and in harmony with all living things. And Pachamama is at the heart of all of their life.
Pachamama is so honored and revered in Peru and Bolivia that every day is truly Earth Day. But there’s an annual bonus of a month-long August birthday party in her honor, with parades, performances, and fireworks-filled celebrations.
Pachamama could be translated as “earth mother” or “cosmic mother.” Asking for permission first and conveying deep gratitude to the animated mother is the Quechua way of life. The Andean vision holds that when we leave our physical vessel, our bodies return to Mother Earth, our wisdom to the mountains, and our souls to the stars.
Pachamama’s children include the animals: two-leggeds, four-leggeds, creepy crawlies, finned, furred, winged, stone people, tree people, and plant people. The willka mayu, or sacred rivers, flow, reflecting the cosmos, planets, and stars: as above, so below. A powerful force in her own right, Mamacocha is the mother of the waters, the oceans. There is a seductive dance of nature that takes place as the waters fertilize the seeds planted in Pachamama’s belly.
Andean cosmology calls the mountain spirits by name. These apukuna are like powerful ancestors, and are prayed to loyally for protection and guidance. As I hiked, in my first meeting with the mountain Apu Salkantay in the Peruvian highlands just months following the Wasatch ceremony, I found myself nearly breathless, hands frozen and face barely visible around my insulating alpaca chullo (knit hat). This mountain seemed to speak to me with each icy step I took. The rocky path was sleet-drenched before me, high above me, and far below me. The messages I received were supportive and loving, and at nearly 16,000 feet, you wish for that to be the case.
“Trust” was a big one. “Breathe” another. Simple, but the messages resonated. I felt well, but with an oxygen-deprived brain, the whole landscape looks different, and when you receive silent messages, your reality shifts. Was it that I had truly been graced with meeting an ancestor who longed not only to guide me but also to provide a strong foundation beneath me? Perhaps this mountain, with her collective wisdom, was offering me support to find the courage to ask, with my heart, what my soul was longing for. One thing was clear: when walking alongside glaciers on steep, slippery paths with long drops one step off, you learn to trust yourself, the others around you, those leading you, and the earth below you. Even if you never did before.
In those days on the mountain, I learned to ask for guidance from this powerful apukuna. Asking this mountain spirit was akin to asking a grandparent whom I had never had gotten to know as a young one.
Having the honor of being led on the mountain by my Western teacher, and by paqos Don Francisco, Don Pablo Cruz, and Don Pasquale, was extraordinary. It was these three with whom I immersed into the gift of the ayni despacho ceremonial practice, the sacred ceremony honoring reciprocity and gratitude to Mother Earth.
These Q’ero brothers, caretakers of the earth’s animals, plants, people, mountains, and waters, practice as ceremonialists. While working with the earth entities, they also align with the energy of long-past ancestors. The earth spirits and helpful ancestral spirits inform them as they blow their prayers of gratitude into coca leaves, the most sacred of plants in Quechua culture. They ask Wyra (wind), Inti (the fatherly sun and fire element), and Mamakilla (the silvery, grandmotherly moon) for guidance and wisdom, but only after thanking them first, always giving and offering before asking or taking.
These Q’ero earthkeepers, also known as pampamesayok, called the condor for connection to the hanakpacha (shamanic upper world), where the stars dance with the moon and the sun and the clouds. The sacred condors answered the call, appearing in the skies above us as we trekked to our base camp at 13,000 feet altitude. The majestic death-eating vultures circled high in the updrafts above us, winged omens leading us on our way.
In the daily ayni despachos with the Q’ero paqos, we prayed together for right relation to all that is, to Creator, Great Spirit and to the mountain spirits. The paqos called them by name, especially thanking Apu Salkantay for protecting us on our journey. The three led us in prayers of thanks to Pachamama and prayers to ask our hearts to be open, to feel balance, and, in the ultimate act of love, to offer our gratitude for our connection to all that is.
With tears streaming down my cheeks, I cried at every despacho ceremony, and still do today. In years past, the tears revealed sadness and shame. These ceremonies of ayni and honor, on Apu Salkantay’s belly, taught me that after I have cleared out old stories and old ways of being, my tears flow when my heart is open to love. These paqos see the tears, welcoming them, as they know in their own hearts that not only are we connected to Mother Earth, Pachamama, but we are truly connected soul to soul to each other and to every living thing.
So with each step up and down that Andean mountain, I asked the rocks to show me the way, to give me guidance. And I held a stone in my hand, blowing my prayers into it as I gasped for oxygen to fill my lungs. I learned the beginnings of simple lessons that I practice to this moment: give before taking, express gratitude before asking, and say thank you to Mother Earth for all that she provides to support life on our planet and in our world. Thank the air, the water, and the fire. And ask for guidance and protection and for the wisdom and presence to live as purely, with grace and love, as do my teachers, the Quechua earthkeepers.
And I’m reminded to lose my mind, as I had on the mountain, so that I can come to my senses, letting my heart lead.
Christina Pateros is an earthkeeper, journeyer, teacher, guide and artist in shamanic practice with clients and students in Chicago, in sessions at the Quest Book Shop in Wheaton, and in Boulder, Colorado. As a painter, her goal is to reflect the beauty of the world around her and through her, creating art as good medicine for the soul. She is currently writing her first book, The Amazon and the Vine, a memoir chronicling her dance with death. See more at christinapateros.com, whispering-stones.com, and spiritfilledjourneys.com.