by Mary Judith Ress,
Santiago de Chile,
It´s not easy for me to enter into an animal spirit.
During the last Masked Dance Trance, I was chosen by Bear. Bears run in my lineage: they were sacred to the Celts. When my mother lay dying in her hospital room, she pointed out to me that there was a bear in the corner. He was there keeping her company, she said.
I believed her.
I kept my beautiful bear mask until it fell apart, then I burnt it in a quiet ceremony, as prescribed.
This time, I am summoned by Turtle. Deep into trance, I waited for my animal spirit to call me. As usual, I saw only eyes—the eye of my huge protector who is always there. Then, just for an instant, the eyes of small critters who looked at me with such love and compassion that a sob bubbled up.
Then nothing for awhile.
Eyes again. Ah, yes. The long neck, skin rippling with ancient furrows. You look at me. “Come along now. Creep under my shell. Help me hold up the world.”
Now the bright green turtle mask stares back at me from my dining room table, complete with the checkered pleat I pinned on my back to represent his shell. I am to listen to his spirit.
Turtles are sacred in indigenous traditions all over the Americas. The Iroquois believe that we live on the back of a giant turtle—and that the United States is Turtle Island. The Mayans believed the Turtle´s shell reflects the seasons and the movement of the stars. It`s back, made up of 13 plaques, tallies the year`s thirteen moons.
Simply by looking at a turtle, you can´t avoid admitting that this is an ancient being, with its reptilian skin and deep-set eyes—and its ability to go inside its shell and stay there as long as it wants.
We inherited a turtle when we lived in Lima. I told my sons that Anthrax must be at least 500 years old. Now my little granddaughter tells me stories about Anthrax. We imagine him still alive, hiding under the banana tree in what was once our backyard, pretending to be a rock.
The message I received from Turtle was this: I plod along slowly but surely—and in the end, I win the race. I wear the mantle of accumulated wisdom encrusted on my back. Therefore, there is no hurry. In due time, we will arrive where we are supposed to be.
San Pedro de Atacama
Never have I seen such red-brown bleakness. Sand sculptures shaped over centuries by the wind bear witness to eerie imagination.
Fields of gnarled spaghetti lie in tangled repose under the relentless desert sun.
Tableaus of las tres Marias, Lost Girl on a Horse, Wild Dog crying for its Mother.
Moon Valley cradling Death Valley. Geysers gushing out of rocks, four thousand meters above sea level.
Flamencos feeding beside ghostlike lagoons of blue salt water.
And yet, this tiny town in the midst of the high Atacama Desert is currently the most visited tourist spot in Chile. It is home to the Very Large Telescope project Alma and everywhere the night sky rains down the universe´s immensity. Young astronomers open up the Milky Way and the Magellanic Clouds with their laser beams. I shudder. They are awakening the sky gods from their long sleep.
We drive into the bowels of this foreboding desert. Rainbow Valley. Petroglyphs dating back 15,000 years. Engravings of llamas pregnant with new life—the collective yearning that this animal, which could provide meat, wool and transportation, would become abundant.
There, in a rock high above us, the carving of a shaman calling the animals. We climb up, into the rocks. I have flashbacks of my years of hiking the pathways of Huarochiri. But now I am old, and feel the unsteadiness of the years. My legs shake, I am out of breath and my heart beats faster than usual.
But it is worth it. There, on the other side of the cliff, is an ancient ceremonial site. Tribes from as far away as the Amazon rainforest came to clan gatherings here. Caves welcomed those who had come. Room enough to sleep and to eat. A field for sport. A ledge to shelter from the sun those who wanted to learn. All this is depicted in the etchings. Surely there was once a river here, water and vegetation. Just as in Nazca, the rock sketchings mirror the animals reflected in the constellations. For the people who once lived here, Scorpio was indeed a llama, Orion clearly an Andean poncho. As above, so below.
Life in Rainbow valley fifteen thousand years ago.
Atacama, Atacama, what secrets do you guard so diligently about who we once were?
Mary Judith Ress, Santiago de Chile, November, 2016.