This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center.
When the glacier finally melted, the last of the green turned yellow and brown and the dry season came like an omen. Its white-blue ice had given water to all thirteen communities of Quispillaccta in Peru and, to women and men wise enough to receive them, messages: Plant here; plant that. The glacier’s death was that of a friend, and the earth mourned during those hard years of the ’70s. Lagoons dried. Crops failed. Sheep and alpaca and cow collapsed. Those who could organized their herds and shepherded them to lower land where it was warmer and wetter. Those who couldn’t leave Tuco, who were stuck above 14,000 feet on the edge of the Pacific and Atlantic basins, fought over what water remained. Powerful rains still came every spring, and what a solace they were. But the great glacier was gone, and after a decade that ended in drought followed a decade of political violence. The Shining Path, a Communist guerrilla front, sprang from the region in 1980, and its battle with the military and police caught Andeans living in between. Mass graves. Unmarked. Now the powerful rains that come every spring are falling in a few days, torrentially, pounding the earth.
These events, you should know, were foretold. Yes, the world burned before. There is no record written of it, just a story, older likely than Christ and passed through time from mouth to ear as a warning. Before the Spanish, before the Inca, before even the Wari there lived in the Andes the Aya. The Aya disrespected their mother earth. Wisemen warned them. But as the Earth warmed, they marched from vast grassy plains to cool mountain caves and stone homes along shady rivers, and they continued to disregard nature, law, community. They continued as a second sun rose alongside the one then a third alongside those two, their fate now bright and hot and horrible.
This is how the story came to me, from an oral historian in Quispillaccta. He told me you can find the Aya’s bones in the hills and by the rivers blackened from the heat of three suns. Science tells us how the Earth is warming, but Andeans, if we’ll listen, will tell us why.
Those who live among nature say time is cyclical. The sun trudges an endless track—or perhaps it’s the moon that sets the path—and as they walk, these keepers of time, the dry season rolls into the wet and then again into the dry. As the world spins, fixed events return. Dionisio, eighty-five, remembers the death of the great glacier that once lived in these arid hills, the highest of Quispillaccta. “All this bad time, all these extreme changes,” he said one night from his home in Tuco, “start with the melting of the ice of the glacier.”
The natural world is alive. It watches. It listens. It speaks to those willing to hear it. One bright day in August, my fixer, a local journalist, and I accompanied two sisters and their nephew, who live in Quispillaccta, up a long hill whose tall yellow grass shivered in the wind like the flank of some great blond bear. As we hiked, Marcela said she did not know the personality of this particular mountain, just its duty, to guard the state reservoir shimmering below, flowing water to cities with dishwashers and flushing toilets and irrigated grass. Before we had walked far up the flank of this deity, on a dusty road, Lidia, her sister, showed us how to kneel and touch a finger to the dark dry soil, bring it to your brow, and draw a tiny cross, then touch your tongue to the taste of ash. In this way you say hello, she said. We hushed our voices as we neared a cluster of boulders close to the top littered with gifts: a yellow plastic wine bottle, chocolate candies, a mechanical pencil, coca leaves. Lidia pulled a plastic bag from the swaddle across her chest and removed for us each a handful of coca leaves. We spent some time in the lee of a boulder pairing the most round and intact leaves because a gift to a friend should be thoughtful. Wind gusted. Grass rustled. Marcela raised a bundle to her mouth and blew on it three times and lowered it, gently, into a hole in the boulder where water had pooled.
We walked along a creek through a low valley shaded in eucalyptus and up an old packed stone path onto a vast grassy plain where the sun shone so brightly shadows had gone extinct. Marcela and my fixer walked ahead of me, and Amancio, Marcela’s nephew, walked ahead of them with a branch, poking at sunbaked cow shit. After we’d been walking for an hour, Amancio told me the Aya lived atop this plain long ago until the heat became too great and they moved to the cool banks of the far river. From the edge of the plain, it was visible far below, gunmetal in the shade. Look, Amancio said, pointing to the plains on the other side. Burgundy boulders like lumps of wax. Only a great heat, he said, could melt those stones. We walked down the plain to the river and along its bank until we came to an overhanging cliff that sheltered a small adobe hut. A hole in the front illuminated its contents. Andeans respect the dead. They call them grandparents. Silently, in a tribute to its occupants, we passed coca leaves across the threshold.
We sat on the cobblestones of the riverbank eating mangos as Marcela talked about the curvature of time. The oral historian who told me of the Aya had said humanity’s end is unquestionable, but Marcela did not think so. Time repeats challenges, she said, not outcomes. We can learn from the Aya. When she and her siblings returned to Quispillaccta as the political violence of the 1980s quelled, they began building lakes down their valleys, and the community has built some sixty since. The lakes contribute about one-fifth of the volume of the state reservoir guarded by the mountain.
On our hike back up to the plains, I thought about what she said. We will survive if we change—if. In our world now there is evidence of an ending similar to the Aya’s, but how does one ponder annihilation? It is like watching the sun. When the zagging path hit the plain we found our own paths in the grass. Marcela picked up a stone, crescent-shaped and rounded along its curve. A tool for crushing grain. She handed it to me. It was warm, as if its creator had recently dropped it.