Where They Sing to the River: Sierra Nevada, the Heart
of the World
With the Arhuaco on the Sacred Magdalena River
Under orders from the Spanish Crown, Rodrigo de Bastidas reached the coast of South America in 1501. Sailing westward from the Guajira, his eye drawn to the snowcapped mountains that soared higher than any in the known world, he met the Tairona, the most elaborate civilization encountered by the Spaniards up to that time. Dazzled by their gold work, which was among the most beautiful ever produced in the Americas, he called for the establishment of a series of trading posts and then pushed on, continuing his explorations of the northern shoulder of the continent. On the first of April, he came upon a river of such power, fury, and violence that it disgorged fresh water, brown and laden with silt, miles into the sea. Bastidas described its estuary as the bocas de ceniza, even as he christened the river Río Grande de la Magdalena, in recognition of the date of his discovery, which was the day of conversion of the saint María Magdalena. As he noted in his log, the river was “very grand indeed.”
There were, of course, already many names for the river—Yuma, Guaca-Hayo, Karakalí, Kariguaña, and others—all of which spoke of the great cultures and chieftains that thrived along its length, across lands that remained for the moment beyond reach of the Spaniards. Their attention was focused on consolidating their hold on Santa Marta and pacifying the Tairona, the first act of the Spanish conquest. In a war as savage and cruel as any subsequent campaign in Mexico or distant Peru, the invaders set fire to farms and homes, destroyed temples and sanctuaries, shattered or burned all sacred objects. Captives were crucified or left to die hung from metal hooks stuck through their ribs. Priests were drawn and quartered, their severed heads placed in iron cages to rot. In obscene public spectacles, Spanish friars, known to the Tairona as “black robes,” let fighting dogs loose to disembowel all those accused of having sex as the Tairona had always done, in the open, in full daylight. Children conceived in the dark, they believed, were at risk of being born blind.
Those Tairona who escaped death fled the coast, retreating high into the forests and hidden valleys of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, a mountain redoubt that came to be known to them as the Heart of the World. Avoiding sustained contact with outsiders for nearly three hundred years, the survivors and their descendants embraced the good fortune of their salvation, even as they transformed their civilization into a devotional culture of peace.
To this day, the peoples of the Sierra Nevada—the Kogi, Wiwa, and Arhuaco—remain true to their ancient laws, the moral ecological and divine dictates of the Great Mother, the Madre Creadora, and they are still led and inspired by a ritual priesthood known as the mamos. In their cosmic scheme people are vital, for it is only through the human heart and imagination that the Madre Creadora may become manifest. For the people of the Sierra Nevada, humans are not the problem but the solution. They call themselves the Elder Brothers. We who threaten the Earth through our ignorance of the sacred law are dismissed as the Younger Brothers. They believe and acknowledge explicitly that they are the guardians of the world, that their prayers and rituals literally maintain the cosmic and ecological balance of the planet. For generations, they have watched in horror as outsiders have violated the Madre Creadora, tearing down the forests that are the skin and fabric of her body and poisoning the rivers, the actual veins and arteries of her life.The survivors and their descendants embraced the good fortune of their salvation, even as they transformed their civilization into a devotional culture of peace.
Though the mouth of the Río Magdalena lies well beyond the Black Line, which marks the extent of their traditional lands, the peoples of the Sierra Nevada nevertheless take responsibility for the river, recognizing as they do that all things are connected. When it is necessary and spiritually auspicious, they embark on pilgrimages to Bocas de Ceniza to make offerings, ritual pagamentos, and prayers. As Jaison Pérez Villafaña, a close Arhuaco friend, explained when I once accompanied him and a party of twenty or more men and women from the mountains to the sea, “We do not call the Sierra Nevada the Heart of the World simply because it occurs to us, but because the rivers that come from the mountains join with all the different rivers to bring cold to the sea. Every animal that lives in the forest, on the mountain, on the earth also lives because of the sea. One feeds on the other, and that balance is the one we know and respect. Everything in balance. The air becomes wind, the wind condenses into clouds, the rain falls from the clouds and runs over the earth through the rivers to the sea, where it arises again, carried by the wind.”
Ice is formed that it may cool the sea, which in the absence of fresh water would become too hot. Yet if the sea becomes too cold, Jaison said, it won’t be able to yield its energy to give light and life to the world. When a river meets the sea, these two energies merge, just as coca, the sacred hayo leaves, brings together the poporo, a gourd from the mountains, with lime, derived from shells found in the sea. Rivers are like people. When they are small, they must be cared for. When they grow and come together with other streams, they must learn to socialize and get along; and as they increase in strength, they must give to the greater community, yielding some but not all of their water. As they age, reaching their final years as they enter the oceans of the world, they are seeking a return to the Madre Creadora, for the sea is the uterus of all origins. “We know,” Jaison concluded, “so much more about life than the Younger Brothers. We never destroy a river, for to do so would be to destroy ourselves.”For the people of the Sierra Nevada, humans are not the problem but the solution.
The Arhuaco make no distinction between the water found within the human body and what exists outside it. “Our blood that flows through our veins,” a young woman once told me, “is no different from the water that flows through the arteries of life, the rivers of the land.” They see a direct relationship between urine, blood, saliva, tears, and the water of a river, a lake, a wetland, a lagoon. And in this, they are undoubtedly correct. Humans are born of water, a cocoon of comfort in a mother’s womb. As infants, our bodies are almost exclusively liquid. Even as adults, only a third of our being has solidity. Compress our bones, ligaments, muscles, and sinew, extract the platelets and cells from our blood, and the rest of us, nearly two-thirds of our weight, stripped clean and rinsed, would flow as easily as a river to the sea.
From Jaison, I was astonished to learn that traditionally Arhuaco mamos made pilgrimages not just to the mouth of the Río Magdalena but to its very source. Traveling more than a thousand miles upriver, they conducted ceremonies and made offerings, singing to the water, assessing its health and well-being at every point along its flow. It was their way not only of caring for the river but of ascertaining how other indigenous nations measured up as cosmic stewards. Rivers, the Arhuaco maintain, are a direct reflection of the spiritual state of a people, an infallible indicator of the level of consciousness a community possesses. Rivers, simply put, are the soul of any land through which they flow.They see a direct relationship between urine, blood, saliva, tears, and the water of a river, a lake, a wetland, a lagoon.
As the mamos made their way to the source of the Magdalena, over the many weeks and months of the journey, the first thing they did upon arrival in any settlement was to offer prayers to the river, gauging its condition, singing songs in its honor. Thus, from their perspective it follows, as the mamos say, that for Colombia today to free itself of violence, to cleanse and liberate its soul, it must also return life and purity to a long-suffering river that has given so much to the nation. When I shared with Jaison my own plans to visit the headwaters of the Magdalena, he said very simply, “To clean ourselves, we must clean the river; to clean the river we must clean ourselves.”
When I left Bocas de Ceniza, ultimately heading south to Cauca and the first phase of an intermittent journey the length of the Magdalena, the wisdom of the mamos stayed with me, as it always does. Whatever weight one gives to their words, however one chooses to recognize, celebrate, or even dismiss their contributions to the patrimony of the nation, one thing is indisputably true: Imbuing water with a sense of the sacred as they do is not contrary to science but, rather, an acknowledgment of the complexity and wonder of ecological and biological systems that science alone has illuminated.
Excerpted from Magdalena: River of Dreams: A Story of Colombia by Wade Davis. Copyright © 2020 by Wade Davis. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.