Cultivating Space: Andean Wisdom in Modern Life

November 2013

“One must relish the taste of the rains, listen to the corn growing, observe the colour of the winds – feeling onself at all times accompanied by our deceased ancestors. The nurturing of the chacra is the heart of the Andean culture which, if not the only activity carried out by the peasants, is the one around which all aspects of life revolve.”

– Julio Valladolid Rivera, “The Spirit of Regeneration”

At 29 years old, I’m living alone for the first time in my life. With no design savvy to draw from—my childhood spent exploring the West by pickup instead of learning to bake apple pie or coordinate a living room ensemble – I find myself coming up short when it comes to putting together a space.

When I moved into my apartment last winter with nothing more than bed, chair and bookcase to my name, I was excited to decorate my own space for the first time. So I began buying cheap pieces that caught my eye and throwing them into various slapdash arrangements. I bought and sold three couches on Craigslist; picked out a dozen different curtains, which I hung, then promptly returned to a bewildered store clerk who’d already seen me three times in a week.

I spent endless hours on my space, constructing combinations of color, texture, pattern. But nothing felt quite right. It was cardboard; contrived. And I started to feel like a consumer cog, loading things into shopping carts, shuttling them back and forth, moving them around my house. The whole process felt empty.

One day while trying to sort through bookshelf clutter, I ran across a book that my friend Sierra had loaned me. “The Spirit of Regeneration,” a book about Andean indigenous culture, had been collecting dust under piles of decorating magazines – Elle Décor, Dwell, Better Homes & Gardens. I felt guilty for the enthusiastic assurance I’d given Sierra that I would read it. So I did.

It was incredibly complex – detailing a culture and value system built over thousands of years. For the Quechua and Aymara of the Peruvian Andes, it explained, agriculture is life. Earth and heaven and every living being and natural element are considered a part of home. Home is not a dwelling with four walls.

Coming from an American perspective, it was hard to grasp the non-linear sense of time or viewing potatoes or corn as ancestors. The ideas of ayllu and chacra seemed distinct at first. Your ayllu are your kin, your family and ancestry; your chacra is the land that your people cultivate. But the more I read, the less clear these lines were. Suddenly ayllu includes everything from the pine tree in your yard to your daughter to the bucket that you use to collect water every day. Chacra is a field marked off for cultivation, but it’s also all that is nurtured or cultivated, including llamas, corn, potatoes, community. It’s where life is created, recycled, formed.

It’s clear that whatever term is used, land/space is a living, breathing ancestor and only through mutual nurturing are the lives of the indigenous and the life of the land supported. In one passage, an Andean stone sculptor doesn’t create a form, he helps the stone find it’s natural form through their relationship. To call it give and take even seems elementary, because that would be expecting a result, keeping score.

The Andean concept of place is not a result. It’s an endless cycle of nurturing, a life-long relationship that ebbs and flows and is fed not out of obligation but nature. “The ayllu is made ready, it is nurtured, it is not a given.”

I had been trying to construct a space, but I had to cultivate it. So I turned my attention to what was around me: scrubbed the floors to a squeaky shine, vacuumed all the hard-to-reach spots, cleaned out the closet, cooked long dinners, and typed letters on my old Olympic. I spent two weeks cleaning out the cobwebs and waiting for vision to befall me. In reality, it was more a slow warming up than a bolt of lightning. Like not quite knowing how you feel until you suddenly feel different. Until you feel at home.

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