I’ve been reading a terrific book called I Contain Multitudes about microbes and their pervasive role in all of creation, not to mention my own gut. So a recent story in the New York Times immediately caught my eye: “Could Ancient Remedies Hold the Answer to the Looming Antibiotic Crisis?” As I dug into the story, I felt flickers of recognition.
The primary researcher who was quoted, Cassandra Quave, didn’t ring a bell–until they mentioned work she had done on the Napo River in Peru (been there!) with a local shaman called Don Antonio Montera (I know him!) and the fact that she had lost a leg as a child. How could I have forgotten that cheerful young blond with a pink plastic leg, swinging across a bridge in the jungle trailed by her pet capybara?
I was there with a group of ethnobotanists, my goal being to interview Don Antonio Montero Pisco for a magazine I was involved with at the time, Herbs for Health. Part of the process, it seemed to me, should be to partake of ayahuasca with Don Antonio. Because how could I write about this most fundamental psychotropic herb without experiencing it myself? So a few of us did that. It was a grueling experience, but boy, did I feel good afterward!
So good that when we left the jungle and headed for Cusco, I got confused and lost my luggage. Shambling around Cusco in borrowed clothes (it was cold!), I looked around the side streets trying to locate the shop of a young woman I had heard of who had the very best textiles: Nilda Callañaupa. This was about the same time the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco (CTTC) was moving into its impressive new home on Avenida del Sol, but I didn’t know that. So I never connected on that trip, but I also never forgot.
Eight years later, my friend and colleague Linda Stark (now of ClothRoads) and I found ourselves on a tour sponsored by the CTTC, led by Nilda along with Chris Franquemont. We traveled to remote mountain villages, to Ollantaytambo, to Machu Picchu. We talked about textiles. We talked about books. About making books to record the ancient knowledge that lives in the textiles of the Cusco region.
And so it came to pass that I worked with Nilda to publish Weaving in The Peruvian Highlands in 2008, and Faces of Tradition: Weaving Elders of the Andes with Nilda and Chris in 2013. There have been others.
And today, here I sit, noodling over the notes that my colleague Karen Brock and I recorded last December when we traveled to Cusco and Nilda’s home village of Chinchero to record some of the magical skills and lore inherent in the cloth we have come to love. Let’s see: tanka ch’uru. If ch’uru means snail shell, what does tanka mean? Roughly translated, maybe something like symmetry. You put two ch’urus together and they make a new symbol, a new meaning, an Andean Cross. Is that even close? All I know is that life makes relationships, odd symmetries that you would never dream of.