Rising Creek Digressions X – a (not-nearly) weekly blog by Tim Hare
Photos by Tim, Sam, and Betsy
If the Farmette’s llama picked up its name in Peru, it would be spelled variously Cusco, Cuzco or Q’osco, the name derived from Quechua, a language which had no written script. While ‘Cusco’ is the most common English spelling, ‘Q’osco’ gives a better idea for how it would be pronounced in the Andes, especially if the person saying it has a mouthful of coca leaves. It starts deep in the throat, moving briefly to the tongue before sliding again down the throat. The word is often translated as “navel”; the famous city in Peru from whence the Farmette’s llama’s name is derived was the center of the Incan Empire, both geographically and cosmologically. During its time, “Inca” was the name for the king, not for the kingdom, which was actually called “Tawantinsuyu”, or the “Land of the Four Quarters”, which all converged in the capital of Cusco (let’s stick with this spelling for the sake of the blog).
If you wander the cobblestone streets of the chic San Blas neighborhood of Cusco today, you’ll likely find yourself staring into the eyes of a Quechua girl asking “Sacame una fotito?” while holding a leash attached to a llama, who has likely turned its aloof head to the side, revealing its prissy profile. The girl will hold out her palm hoping for money in exchange for a photo of her colorful dress next to the llama. These snooty, smart, beautiful and fluffy creatures are the postcard animals of the Andes.
Biologically, llamas are sometimes referred to as a New World camelid, which is a fairly ethnocentric classification; the World was only New to European settlers, not to the millions who already lived here for millennia. Camelids originated in the Americas, crossing the Bering land-bridge to form the humped camelids of their Asian, Middle-Eastern, and North-African relatives when the oceans rose and isolated the Americas; on each side of the ocean they maintained the long neck, multiple stomachs, snubbed nose and princess personality. Also in the group of American camelids is the domesticated alpaca (shorter, furrier, softer, and fatter); as well as the wild guanaco and vicuña, which both elegantly graze the slopes of the Andes in different regions.
The Inca are not responsible for domesticating the llama, but by the time Tawantinsuyu came to dominate the Andes, llama and alpaca husbandry, were an integral part of mountain life. They were the only large domesticated mammals of the pre-Hispanic Americas. Used for wool, packing, fertilizer, fuel and ceremony, llamas were literally the thread that held Andean society together. In many parts of the Central Andes they still are.
Llamas have recently made their way north in large numbers, by no migration of their own. Outdoor adventurers and North American farmers have found a useful niche for them, especially in the cool mountains of this continent. As pack animals they have been used for thousands of years and, indeed, were the only beasts of burden of the pre-Columbian Americas. They hauled potatoes, coca leaves, quinoa, and other Andean crops along the impressive network of ancient roads. If you have had the fortune of visiting some of these old trails, you will immediately understand the agility required to maneuver the steep staircases that plummet into the lowland Amazon rainforest from passes over 16,000 feet high. Llamas have evolved as an ideal inhabitant of the mountain environment, with soft padded feet that delicately move across rock and tread softly on trails. For this they have found their way into wilderness outfitting, where they have a softer footprint on our trails than mules, donkeys, or horses. Llamas carry around half the load, and they probably won’t let you ride them, but their personality more than makes up for these deficits.
In addition to their traditional role as livestock, llamas have found a niche within other herds and flocks as guard animals, especially for goats and sheep. They spit fiercely, and are also swift, large, and amazingly agile. Their snooty upturned nose can turn into a snarling downturned one that could potentially chase off a coyote or fox, especially if they have the chance to hurl a wad of green, phlegm-filled, partially digested cud at the potential perpetrator. But our darling Cusco on the Farmette shouldn’t intimidate you too much; we are yet to see such antics. In fact, we kind of wished he did a bit more cud-hucking at the foxes that snatch away a fat bounty of poultry each season.
While not a gallant guard-llama, he is a tall, proud and handsome fellow, with a stark-black coat (unless it is matted and dread-locked in dirt) for those that haven’t made his acquaintance; he made his way to Lyons as a rescue from southwestern Colorado a few years back. He spends his days skipping around the field with the goats, batting his eyelashes at cooing visitors, and taunting you to pet his thick coat, which he keeps barely out of reach of most hands.