The Mountain’s Blood

In today's post, Chilean-born artist, writer and researcher Felipe Viveros travels into the mountains of central Chile's Biobío Region to learn about the role of women in struggles over land, to connect with his Indigenous heritage and to meet Ñaña Amalia, a Pehuenche elder who he describes as 'an ancestor in the making'.
is a Chilean-born multi-media artist, writer and independent researcher. Felipe’s work focuses on the intersection of deep ecology, storytelling and systems change.

Nepey ñi güñüm piuke
lapümü ñi müpü
ina yey ñi peuma
rofülpuafiel ti mapu.

The bird of my heart has awoken.
Spread its wings.
And took my dreams
To embrace the Earth.

– Leonel Lienlaf, Mapuche poet

 

It’s early morning. A cacophony of birdsong wakes me as the sun peeks through the mountains, lighting the adobe walls of the kitchen. The rush of the river below blends with the birdsong. I can make out the rustling of windblown lichens, grasses and ancient trees. As my eyes adjust to the light, the sun pierces the smoke hole in the roof, lighting tiny particles floating in the air above the smouldering remnants of last night’s fire; a microscopic world in constant motion. 

Today, I took several buses, a four-hour train ride, and then hiked for a couple of miles to this mountain village, gradually leaving behind the noise of city life as I climbed. I came from a place of concrete houses and asphalt streets, where walls divide, and trust is in short supply. My fellow students and I spend our time smoking, talking about poetry, drinking cheap red wine, and analysing post-dictatorship life in Chile. A country that feels schizophrenic, wounded and deeply disturbed after years of a bloody military regime that forcibly imposed an evil experiment in neoliberal economics. Yet still, in spite of all the inequality, the years of terror and repression, the resistance thrives stronger than ever. 

But that all feels a lifetime away. Now, I am lying on the dirt floor in the kitchen of Ñaña Amalia, an Indigenous Pehuenche elder, struggling to grasp this wild cacophony, mountains blanketed in monkey puzzle trees, and wilderness. 

Half asleep, fragments of the previous night come back to me – a blazing fire and dark shadows as Ñaña told stories that I can no longer remember, making offerings to the fire, recounting a life I have never imagined living. Or maybe those memories were just a dream. 

My bare feet soften as I stand. The feeling of the dirt floor beneath me is soothing, the blankets of my sleeping nest left behind. I stir the glowing red embers that were buried in fine grey ash overnight, adding twigs and bits of wood, and finally a kettle of water. The orange, red and yellow flames blaze.

I had doubts as I took the long and treacherous journey up the mountains. What was I hoping for? Perhaps an Indigenous remedy for capitalist modernity? My cousin insisted that I make this trip, because she knew here I could find some respite from my existential crisis, a remedy for my heartache. She was right, of course. The moment I stepped into this place, I took a deep breath and let the fresh mountain air fill my being.  

I barely knew a thing about these mountains before I arrived. But as I climbed the steep valley, the story of the Indigenous women leading the struggle suddenly became clear. They call themselves Mapu Domuche Newen, or ‘Women With the Power of the Earth’. For years now, they have ferociously resisted the construction of a multi-million-dollar hydroelectric project on their vast territory: a land where not many dare to venture, particularly now as the tension is high and there are regular clashes between the police and the underground Indigenous resistance. 

At school we were taught glimpses of the short and violent history of how our country came into being. A rotten history of domination plagued with colonialism, deception and war – initially against the many first nations people who have been living in these geographies for millenia and then against neighbouring countries in an endless tide of conflict and conquest. The same old tales once again. History also taught me about the brave Mapuche warriors who fought back with wit and stealth, who knew the land like the palms of their hands and made the lives of the colonisers bitter.

The river clears my mind of my life in the city, and for a moment, I and the river are one

Ñaña Amalia enters the kitchen and asks us how we slept as she mixes fresh herbs for our morning cup of maté (ylex paraguaiensis).

‘Did you have any dreams, peñi [brother]?’ she asks as she moves slowly around the fire, stoking it with her cane.

I assure her I slept well. Then, with some hesitation, I tell her about my dream. About sitting by the fire, dazzled by the darkness, and the dancing flames – and by her silhouette against the fire.

‘In it you were teaching us how to speak to the fire; the power of the ancients.’

She remains quiet, sipping her maté.

‘That’s special.’ she says at last, nodding. 

After a short pause she changes the subject, asking after my cousin Tina who originally introduced me to this family last summer. I realise that for Amalia and her people, dreams aren’t something you would share with a wingka (non Mapuche) like me, and that, at least for now, its message will remain concealed.

After breakfast, she suggests I take the path down the mountain and to see the river. ‘You will hear it,’ she says.

I venture down a narrow path, mostly used by the goats and cows Amalia and her family keep for sustenance. The steep path takes me through pale green moss and among giant monkey puzzle trees; a parallel universe where few humans set foot and none have mapped or conquered. Here the land is sovereign, dark, with moist soil, abounding butterflies and millenary forests.The sound of the river rising and fading.

Amalia’s ancestors have lived here for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, and they still speak the language the land speaks. They are able to listen to the fields they’ll plant or forage, and converse with the monkey puzzle trees before harvesting their seeds to make flour and feed the ancestors in ceremony.

 

Pehuen (monkey puzzle tree), sacred to the Mapuche. This species has been around for 245 million years, when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth. Photograph by Felipe Viveros

 

I resist the temptation to jump into the glacial rapids, turning my gaze upward instead to the peaks where trees give way to glaciers, the source of this and other rivers. I imagine the ancestors of the people living here today taking offerings to the gods and goddesses of the mountains. I can almost hear the words and incantations mustered in medicine songs travelling across many worlds, giving thanks for the rain, the sun, retelling the original stories – giving thanks for this precious gift of life.

The wind in the trees and the presence of the river clears my mind of my life in the city, and for a moment, I and the river are one.

 

*

Food is nearly ready when I return. Amalia, sitting outside the kitchen door by the fire, offers simple barley soup with vegetables from the garden and local meat – it tastes delicious. The combination of fresh mountain air, the deep silence of the valley and the hearty soup leave me deeply touched. I can only begin to imagine what life has been like in these mountains since the arrival of Endesa – the giant electric company behind the dam project. According to Indigenous law, Mapuche land cannot be sold but exchanged for land elsewhere, so the company uses unscrupulous surveyors to convince illiterate families to relocate in exchange for food baskets and roofing sheets, leaving traditional lands free for ‘development’. As I think of this process, I feel the sickness of modernity creeping through the valley, leaving a trail of death, greed and loneliness in its wake.

‘The sun rises from there,’ Amalia says, pointing east towards the top of the mountain. ‘Our ancestors’ ceremonies always face that direction, welcoming the rising sun.’ The conversation continues, and she smiles as she tries to comprehend our world, just as we struggle to understand hers. While I usually wake to the sound of sirens and boom boxes, for her it’s mostly silence, or the owl’s hooting at night. She tells us many things: the generations of resistance to the colonisers, the winters when snow can pile three metres deep, the dear old fire, and the constant voice of the river in the distance.

Just as it’s getting dark, a different river emerges in the sky. Without the bright lights of cities, the stars are blazing.

 

Pehuen and stars. Photograph by Victor Auvelez


‘We call them
lamngñen [our sisters],’ says Amalia, pointing at the vastness of the night sky with her cane. Behind the kitchen, her daughter Luisa is tilling the soil of their small patch of land in the darkness. When I ask, she tells me that the new moon is the best time to plant.

I am not sure who I am any more, I think to myself. A mestizo who grew up amongst the city chaos that doesn’t belong. Here though, I feel at ease, and Amalia is an ancestor in the making. Not a blood ancestor of mine but clearly a mentor. Back in the kitchen I can hear the sound of the smouldering fire. 

‘Can you throw some more logs to the fire?’ Amalia asks, and I do. The stars are our sisters, the fire our teacher, the river of life flowing through our veins watering our lives inside out. Apart from the sound of Luisa’s hoe, only the voices of the nocturnal creatures who are just starting their day are audible. As the darkness envelops us, my heart races and a primordial warmth, like a gentle smile, runs through my blood. I can literally feel it. This land so vibrant and deeply cared for, where ancestors’ remains lay buried. Volcanic rocks, wild fragrances – alive. 

It is no coincidence that women are leading the struggle. They are the ones who have kept stories and ceremony alive. They are not just survivors – they are the living voice of the land, remaining indomitable against the occupiers, centuries of colonisation, blood baths and pillage. 

Just as in the old days, I bear witness to the women tending sacred fires, feeding the community and weaving invisible threads that connect the heart of the Earth with the ancestors. Their offerings and rituals encompass the multitudes of life.  Mutual care is at the heart of this culture, which is kept keenly alive in, and through, these women.

 

Mutual care is at the heart of this culture, which is kept keenly alive in, and through, these women


For hours we sit around the fire drinking maté, laughing away and telling stories. There is none of the rush and fear of the city. Just time that expands to make all conversation possible.

‘Can you take the pan out of the fire, peñi?’ Amalia asks, with a glow on her face. She knows too well that piñones’ (the monkey puzzle fruit) are the ultimate comfort food. Mildly sweet and highly nutritious, this chestnut-flavoured seed is the perfect treat before sleep.

If the apocalypse is coming, I don’t want to be glued to my screen watching catastrophe unravel. I would rather be here, between the sky river and the earth river fed by the glacial lands of the gods and goddesses – the land of the ancestors, where people speak of dreams and listen to silence. Kume peuma, peñi.’ says Amalia as we wave goodnight. ‘It means to have good dreams,’ she adds, as if she knows the portal of the dream world has just opened.

In a few days I am going back to town, yet I know my time here has changed me. I’ve never met anyone who cares for the land the way Amalia does, from carefully tending the living fire to feeding the ancestors with their favourite food – her relationship to the land is beyond words. And it is these seeds of wisdom that I can feel germinating within me, accompanying me wherever I go. So that even when I return to the city, I won’t forget to feed the fire. I won’t forget to guard my dreams. I won’t forget these people, the food, the stories or the laughter. But most of all, I won’t forget the river; the blood of the mountain. 

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 25

Our Spring 2024 issue is an anthology of non-fiction, fiction, poetry, interviews and artwork inspired by the struggle for land rights, and by the living land itself.

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