Over the course of our trek through the Cordillera Real, we’ve been bombarded with unimaginable beauty in many forms: glaciers, rolling grey-green mountains, peaks covered in windblown snowdrifts, red clay mountains dusted with snow, and thousand-foot tall cascades of clear water cut into the mossy cliff walls of mountains whose peaks can’t be seen without an uncomfortably craned neck, falling in rivulets and trickling into rivers filled with trees whose roots stretch out through the spaces between smooth white underwater stones. It can be overwhelming. We’re all naturally drawn to beautiful things and places, but once inside these kinds of places, things become more uncertain: What do we do now? What are we supposed to do with all this beauty?
We on this program come from a society that emphasizes consumption and the philosophy that everything worth doing must yield some kind of personal gain. The people we’ve met here, our trekking guides in particular, don’t appear to have any trouble “managing” the beauty. In fact, they would probably find the very idea laughable. But for us, it can be hard to see a glacier and not think: what do I do with all of this? This isn’t to say that what we hope to gain from, say, a mountain, is necessarily bad, like extraction of its copper deposits or something. It’s just a matter of abstract possession: we want to absorb and incorporate the thing into ourselves, into our very essence, where it will be free to whisper the secrets of the universe into our ears. But the truth is, the mountains don’t have all the answers; and even if they did, it’s doubtful that they’d feel like sharing their eternal truths with tiny pole-wielding backpackers scampering across their backs.
The cultural difference in how we appreciate beauty stems from the American desire to possess the things with which people here in the Andes merely try to coexist. Common expressions of confused awe among our group when confronted with intense beauty have included: “I just want to eat it all up,” or “I wish I could drink that entire glacier.” Hearing these expressions, I hardly bat an eyelid. Often I can relate with the sentiment. But I know that if I went up to Don Felix, one of our guides, and said “Yo quiero comer la montaña,” he would just laugh awkwardly and assume that what I was trying to convey got lost in translation.
Being part of a consumptive economy doesn’t just mean we watch bad TV and eat Hostess cakes. It pervades the way we interact with the natural world and surely contributes to our country’s blasé attitude towards environmental protection. I want to clarify that there’s nothing wrong with wanting to hold the image of a beautiful, powerful mountain frozen immemorial in a photo. This is not exploiting or stealing from the beautiful thing–rather, it is meant to trigger a memory of a feeling that exists only within ourselves, completely our own, hardly different from a redolent smell that reminds us of what it felt like to be a child. On the other hand, the influence of our consumptive economy can be seen clearly in the impulsive desire to conquer part of the mountain’s essence and claim it as our own. Likewise, we instinctively ask: What does this place have to offer me? Spiritual guidance, a moment of clarity, contact with the other world, or what? This extractive mentality creates friction between ourselves and the distant, uncaring, unyielding mountains whose secrets and lessons lie embedded within a thousand feet of solid rock. So, recognizing this instinctively egoistic approach to spending time in beautiful places, what can we do? How is it possible to be presented with such overwhelming beauty and not go crazy with the American desire to exert control over the place and capture some of its essence to imprison deep within ourselves and distill into a single simple truth that would allow us to navigate life and death fearlessly?
We have to begin by recognizing that we are not the center of the universe, and that powers and truths exist that we no right or need or means to access. This process of humbling ourselves and detaching from the desire to possess all that is good and beautiful in the world will allow us to enjoy moments in beautiful places more fully, without the haste and stress that always accompany moments from which we hope to extract some personal profit. This process, in practice, looks like Just being there, on or around the heart-breakingly beautiful mountains, and asking for nothing, just as the mountains ask nothing of us. It means moving through the mountain’s glow and aura just as we move through a body of water, without trying to grab hold of what we know will only slip through our fingers.
The Cordillera Real is really like a boundless sea. To cope with its abundance of distant and unattainable beauty, we just have to dive in, and feel the mountains surrounding us, on our skin and in our eyes; the warm sun and the cold wind, nearby fields and far-off peaks. All that’s required of us is to be there and to feel everything, quietly; saying nothing, asking for nothing. This doesn’t mean being passive or unconcerned: it mean surrendering our bodies and minds to be deeply engaged in a conversation of absolute silence.