The sky is within reach – I can open my hand and slip it through the envelope into sacred time. We climbed above today, with the Andes supporting our bodies, allowing us to step upon their shoulders to peer between the high sun scorched rocks into the Sun Gate. Below us, a ways, and quite some ways beyond, down from the trail we have ascended, is Machu Picchu. The season of its purposes is hidden now, and upon its trellises and lawns, its bricks of temples and tombs, walk the remnants of pilgrims who over centuries sought meanings here. The guides tell us what they know. The mystery clings more deeply. Who was loved and who or what was sacrificed? What worker, centuries ago, paused to wipe the sweat from his eyes, his hands covered in red brick loam, fashioning walls from the rich earth– what did he dream as he stood in the thin air and saw, perhaps, as we did, a great brown hawk dive from a white cloud? The dreams seemed to have lingered here, the dreams of centuries, swept together in the morning mist to be burnt up in the heat from the equator. Did those men, before the day’s work, climb to the Sun Gate and whisper prayers for their wives, their children, their ancestors? Did women climb the steep cobbled steps, bringing incense from plants, food ground from pulpy stalks, water from the stone cisterns? Were their dreams lifted above the blue skyline upon the approach, heard by the great Pachamama, mother of all living things, and answered in the risen moon when the sun fell below the dark peaks?
To climb in Machu Picchu is to be in the presence of ancient dreams and memories of an empire wrought from the rugged mountains of the Andes. It is to know, in some way beyond the reason of the mind, that human beings found and created a mystery here. They found a sacred place above the rivers and valleys that unfold toward the sea, that kept them safe from surprise and attack. They created a city of temples and crematoriums, of food bins and political courts that held together two million (and some say twelve million) people in the fifteenth century. Their descendants and the neighbors of their descendants still carve lives of beauty and mystery in the crevices of the great shadows of mountain peaks. Many of the New Age seekers in our present time wish to draw a line of mysticism through the craggy hillsides of Machu Picchu, but there is no definitive knowledge that these ruins housed more than the chieftain and priest who governed the Inca people – that Machu Picchu was something of an estate, perhaps a hub of social, scientific and political governance, and perhaps a place where the concubines of the leaders were brought for their services. And yet. And yet, to be in this place of exquisite beauty, with the high altitude making each breath meaningful, it is easy to draw the connection between the study of the stars that took place by the ancient astronomers, and the stars of our imaginations, the dreams of our destinies, the hopes of human life and felt sense of spiritual blessing.
Present day Manchu Picchu reminds us of the urgency of preservation. Our band of explorers were there to take in a World Heritage Site and consider the effects of climate change on the earth. We stopped in Manchu Picchu to see something tremendous, and in the mindsight of that awesome view, to understand a holy task in preserving not only ancient ruins of human endeavor, but also the deep reality of natural beauty. It does not really matter if the remains of Machu Picchu tell a story of human political and cultural activity alone or of mystical and spiritual practices. What matters is the apprehension of the profound beauty of the earth and the way human beings are woven into that story. As we enter into that grasp of reality, we become pilgrims, not only of anthropology or adventure travel, but as witnesses to a spiritual imperative to save the earth from degradation. We can stand at the Sun Gate today and make our prayers not to gods or goddesses who will bless us if they choose, but to the divine forces that knit together creation, perhaps as we might understand, organized by the Creator God of the universe, and ask that we might be so moved, so thrilled, so taken by the strength of this majestic place, that we would do what we can to preserve the earth, to remember those who have walked here before, and to leave a footprint for future generations to track, a footprint of care and concern for the wonders of this precious earth.