The word ‘condor’, the name of the iconic vulture who has come in many ways to represent Patagonia to me, comes originally from the Quechua name for the bird, “cuntur”. I was surprised to learn this – though I suppose I should not have been. I had incorrectly concluded that somehow the word condor was born of the latin word condonare, whose English derivative is condone. I have ever thought of vultures, and scavengers in general, to be of a most condoning nature: neither blaming, nor judging, but impartially accepting that which the world has left behind. The similarity in phonetics, however, turns out to be little more than coincidence, and another misinterpretation of some part of Indigenous culture by its European conquerors.
I have seen condors en route to every summit I have stood upon in my favorite place on this planet: Cochamó. They turn a speculative eye upon the climbers that dot like lichen those shining white walls from time to time, season to season, year to year. As they glide past you, sometimes so close you can feel the breeze shed from their wings, they cock their heads to one side to stare at you. Their flight pattern remains fixed, but they will follow you with head and eye until you are out of sight. I am not sure what dictates this behavior – perhaps fear, curiosity, or an attempt at intimidation. Their fear is unwarranted in the case of the climbers I have come to know in Cochamó, but I imagine those eyes have seen their fair share of death and destruction. I can’t help but wonder if the Condor is less condoning than their appetite for waste might make them appear.
The Spanish word, ‘pasar’, has two English translations that carry vastly different connotations. Pasar can mean ‘to happen’, or ‘to pass’. In the case of the latter, it can mean to pass by. For example, one might say, “ha pasado la plaga” – the plague has passed. What is not certain until there is further context for the statement is how the plague has passed, be it with massive casualties, or no victims at all. I have always found this subtlety fascinating in the case of the well-known song, El Cóndor Pasa – written by the Peruvian composer Daniel Alomía Robles in 1913, and modeled after traditional Andean folk songs. I like to think of the title as “The Condor Happens”, which – though awkward grammatically – lends itself to the pleasantry of trying to imagine what exactly goes on when a condor “happens”.
Paul Simon’s release of “El Condor Pasa (If I Could)” on his 1970 album, Bridge Over Troubled Waters, furthered the misinterpretation of the indigenous original. Apparently, Simon received bad beta on the song’s origins, was sued for copyright infringement, and eventually settled out the differences with Robles in court. There was no bad blood, apparently, just another example of something indigenous lost in translation by someone of European descent. Personally, I rather like the Paul Simon version – at least from a musical standpoint.
To the tune’s fluty backdrop, Simon wrote a series of catchy aphorisms which seem to have little to do with one another, yet taken on their own feel deeply meaningful. To this day, I do not understand how the passages connect. Like the story of “El Condor Pasa”, from one moment to the next, it seems that the meaning changes. But the final two stanzas have long stuck with me:
I’d rather be a forest than a street.
Yes I would,
If I could,
I surely would.
I’d rather feel the earth beneath my feet,
Yes I would.
If I only could,
I surely would.
I suppose it is a little sentimental, but I think of those lyrics as being true to the song’s indigenous origins. It is a childish personification, I admit, but I can’t help but imagine the Condor thinking those words, as they fly by.
There are so many ways to read El Condor Pasa. I don’t know which is the most correct. “The condor happens”? “The condor passes?” “The condoning happens”? “The condoning passes?” And how do you say “the cuntur remains”? There will come a time in the not too distant future when many of our most cherished lands – especially those in the ever-more popular regions of Patagonia – face the imminent threat of western civilization’s standard misinterpretation of wilderness: that it is something to be capitalized off of. Roads will be built to places where there once were none. At the end of the road, they’ll have to build a parking lot; and around the parking lot they will have to build buildings; and to the buildings they will have to bring electricity, fluoridated water, and extravagances like air conditioning and refrigerators. Somewhere in the process, the beautiful pampa that provides pristine pasture for the locally farmed cattle, and the gauchos’ horses, will become paved. Somewhere, somehow, the forest will turn into the street, and the people who come to visit will no longer feel the Earth beneath their feet.
Recently on social media, the Patagonia Ambassador Colin Haley spoke out in favor of accurate naming. “Many people who know me are aware of my preference for indigenous mountain names in favor of colonialist names,” he wrote. “…I think that any name that was known to be used by indigenous people in the past trumps a colonialist name that was applied hundreds of years later.” Haley’s post went on to quote Theodore Winthrop’s 1862 diatribe regarding the proper name for Mount Baker: “Kulshan, misnamed Mount Baker by the vulgar,… is an irregular, massive, mound-shaped peak, worthy to stand a white emblem of perpetual peace between us and our brother Britons. … Its name I got from the Lummi tribe at its base, after I had dipped in their pot at a boiled-salmon feast. As to Baker, that name should be forgotten. Mountains should not be insulted by being named after undistinguished bipeds, nor by the prefix of Mt. Mt. Chimborazo, or Mt. Dhawalaghiri, seems as feeble as Mr. Julius Caesar, or Signor Dante. (You can find the article Haley cited here.)”
It is not a new idea to restore to indigenous places their proper names, or to right our wrong interpretations of wilderness. That said, this is an excellent time to renew our efforts. As social media grows and the ubiquitous hashtag effectively distills entire ranges and experiences down to catchphrases such as “#vidapatagonia” (in the Spanish conqueror’s native tongue, no less), we’d be prudent to modify our typical vernacular to respect and protect the mountains our social media blasts purport to cherish. When we make trips into the mountains, when we post about them to social media, we should take the time first to learn about their indigenous histories. Figure out the names of the first human inhabitants to gazed lovingly up at those snowcapped peaks, and figure out the names that they originally bestowed upon them. The way we interpret the world around us dictates how we perceive it, and how we perceive it dictates how we act towards it. If we truly want to protect wilderness, we can start by fixing our interpretations of it – restoring mountains to their proper names may be the first step.