I have a wool hat that is coarse and uncomfortable. The weave is thick and simple. The only notable color in the otherwise natural scheme is orange, and I don’t particularly like to wear orange clothing. But I wear the hat. I wear it because I bought it from a small roadside vendor in a town high up in the Andes. Most likely woven by a shepherd lady, or elderly woman who had worked the land, this hat had been fashioned by hands that had seen weather and work, years of toil. And yet it became mine before I had ever grown a beard. I wear my hat every winter, throughout the winter, because it has a story.
The town where the hat was made, sold, purchased, and worn is nestled up against some of the highest peaks in the Peruvian Sierra. Like fangs tearing at the heavens, these glacier wrapped mountains force themselves into every visible horizon. Their presence is an attack on the subconscious of each human who might have the effrontery to stand in their presence. They refuse to be ignored. Every moment of sight is orientated by the cloaked sentinels of the heights. Their statement is clear. “We are here.” Simple, yet intimidating.
But the cultivation of the landscape stands in defiance to the menacing stone. The terraces and furrows of the slopes demonstrate that there is a livelihood to be had on the very walls of the world. Ox and plow have marched across these lands and toiled to sustain families. Children have harassed and hugged the mules which continue to bear the burdens for their masters. Sheep follow their aged protectors from mountain to pasture, eating their way through the meager provisions. The mountains claim permanence, however the people have claimed dominance.
There are moments, however, when the mountains fight back. There are moments, mere seconds, when thousands of tons of ice, dirt, and stone come hurtling down upon the unsuspecting villagers. When village life is cut off and all that is left is a silence beneath the stone. The heart of the mountains cannot be sculpted by man, no matter what scars they carry upon their skin.
Yet the people come back. They plant orchards and gardens where children once played, where people once slept. They embraced the silence yet took back their land. The mountains had spoken, and the people had listened; but then went back to work.
No matter who claims victory, it is shared. No one would be able to survive the threats of these icy, ancient sentinels had they not been raised in their presence. The people of this region seem to have grown from the mountains themselves. Like twisted pine they push up from the stone. Their memories and customs sink like thick roots, binding them to the earth. Their skin is thick and leathery as they move throughout their day in the biting air. They stand and work as with a bent into the prevailing winds. People of the mountain they will always be, until they are buried beneath the same soil from which they grew.
But lest the towering cliffs rejoice in conquest, the mountain people have one last taunt to throw at the mountains. Generations come and generations go, but their most defiant provocation is constantly hurled at the silent peaks. The people laugh. From the first cooing and giggling of the child in the home, to the smiles and antics of the “abuelos” which bring it about, there is a long song of mirth. A melody flows from the cumulative voice of a people who know the hardships of the mountains. Laughter. Dancing. Song. The mountain may claim their body, but they were made a little lower than the angels. Their joy proves it. And when I wear my hat, I like to imagine that I add my voice to their song.