Stories From the Land

by Sophia, Civic Semester Participant

One brisk morning, we hiked up to Pumacocha, a sparkling dark blue lake nestled between the peaks of Andean mountains. We were led by Mario, the oldest son of the campesino family we were staying with. This particular campesino community consisted of high-elevation potato farmers, intent on preserving ancestral practices and a remarkable potato variety. Along the trail, Mario pointed out plots of land that he had prepared for sowing, and explained to us his seven year rotation system to allow the soil time to heal.

As a city girl, born and raised, Mario’s proximity to nature and knowledge of its inner workings astounded me. He taught us that a thin, white petal strewn across the grounds near Pumacocha would soothe throat inflammation if chewed, and that the stones riddled with holes and chambers along the path were volcanic rocks from long ago.

When Mario tells his stories, he seems to conjure them out of thin air. There appears a boundless, everlasting quality to his words, and to his ability to remember them. I realize that oral accounts based on memory fueled storytelling for most of human history, but I somehow cannot trust my own mind’s ability to recall. Instead, I write, stringing words together, crafting a rhythm I will recognize later.

Mario mentioned to me once that he grew up in a house not far from the one he currently inhabits. I began to understand that when Mario tells his stories, he is reminded of them by place. A striking peak along the hike prompted Mario to tell us the story of the woman and her basket—frozen in stone—in perpetual watch over the surrounding mountains. Two rounded peaks near Pumacocha in the shape of a feline’s ears lifted Mario’s finger up high as he pointed out the shape of the puma. For Mario, the land holds his stories.

When I plunged into Pumacocha, I was sure my body was burning. It was a miraculous sensation, to feel so full of blood and tissue and nerves. I thrust my head underwater for a brief moment before flinging my extremities above the surface and propelling myself away from land. I thrashed and gasped and heaved as the piercing liquid numbed my senses. There are moments so visceral, I do not worry about forgetting.

All my life, I have moved from school to school, from city to city, from continent to continent. I am not grounded in place, so I choose to write. Perhaps my reliance on writing is simply exacerbating the fragility of my memory, but perhaps it is not. I am certain I will forever remember Mario and Pumacocha, with or without such written proof.