Notes on Patagonia

This essay also appears in Issue 6 of the Australian publication The Lifted Brow.

Lago Argentino 01/31/09

Pink puffs of Chilean flamingos aglow in the dusky light; black-necked swans drifting on the silver brimming water; a silvery grebe with its long narrow nozzle of a bill darting across the mud; the strange opaque color of the water (due to calcium carbonate from the glaciers), as of frosted glass; the horses being watered by the two horsemen; quarreling, sportive stray dogs here with us among the purple tufts of bending grasses along the margins of the huge lake—and away in the distance the jaggedest, most savage-looking mountains I have ever seen, whether here in the Andes or in the Rockies or the Sierra Nevada or the Himalaya: a heap of diorite shards like a palisade erected by God in anger to keep two worlds apart … The feeling of the human or at least European presence here as some thin imposture on the alien landscape. A terrifically windy country also.

We seem to be the only tourists out bird-watching; the rest are shopping in town.

Perito Moreno Glacier 02/01/09

The texture of the glacial wall, from a distance, like a block of hard cheese, though the ice is unearthly blue, color somehow of the afterlife; a stranded iceberg in the middle of the bay with a look of dark blue molten glass. And now the glacier calves! Ice shears off in a great sudden flake and explodes into the water below with a colossal sound of detonation.

Everyone speaks in a hushed voice, as in a museum. There is inevitably a funereal quality to visiting a glacier today. At length in a group of twenty people, after another great flake of ice has plunged into the bay, making for a huge cavity, then a surge of frigid water where it fell, it seems no one is speaking at all. The sound of the calving like a heavy artillery range …

The milky blue of the water reminds me of Dudh Kun (Milk Lake) which I circumambulated at the base of some Himalayan peak when I was 18. My first big trip abroad. On this trip, my friend who is younger than me has gray in his beard.

The glacier is like an enormous avalanche in freeze-frame; the impression of tremendous violence carried out with voluptuous slowness—something like the passage of time in general.

Uppsala Glacier 02/02/09

Millennia of advancing and retreating glaciers have scoured, scarified, and cross-hatched with cracks the faces of bare rock.

The amazing breadth and flatness of Uppsala as it flows in the great valley it has carved … The glacier has lost twenty kilometers in length over the past twenty years. By coming to see it I speed it toward its disappearance.

Mt. Fitzroy 02/03/09

Four Andean condors soar above the cliff face. We walk in slowly swaying forests of stately southern beech, and stop to observe a woodpecker madly at his work. A tock-ing sound like a crazed and happy clock.

Imagine if I had been told, at 18, what at 36 I’d be. “You will wear Levi’s cords and wool sweaters, you will live in Buenos Aires and go backpacking in Patagonia, you will be some kind of writer.” I would have liked this image. And yet of course I am unhappy. But this too my younger self would have liked: melancholy was glamorous to me.

Calafate-Rio Gallegos-Ushuaia 02/06/09

Why did I leave New York? I wanted to do few things and do them well, to know few people and well: I was sick of surfeit. And now it seems to me that at least as important was the desire to say few things and well. I am so sick of people talking, and I didn’t like being a chatterer either. Of course Argentines are talkers too, but at least in listening to them I learn a language.

My friend believes he and his girlfriend might want to try to have a child. Of course (he works for an environmental NGO) he has ecological reservations. I ask whether his main concern is for the damage his children would do, or the damage—in a half-wrecked world—that would be done to them? In fact he doesn’t know the answer.

Beagle Channel 02/07/09

In my recurrent dream, there are three or four women and I love them all. Only one can I save. I dither and save none.

Darwin sailed here.

Cerro Cóndor 02/08/09

The Indians of Tierra del Fuego declined over three generations from a population of 3,000, to 1,000, to 100. They had lived here 10,000 years.

The native Patagonian hare is being outcompeted by introduced species of rabbit. Canadian beavers, also introduced, have no natural predators here, and are thinning the forests and clogging the streams.

Purple tufts of seeded grass—rice grass or wheat grass? what?—against a ground of kelly green; drab green olives in a blue metal bowl slowly filling with rain; the feel of my windpants against my bare legs. Sensations of physical joy—olives, rain, my warm socks—together with gusts of guilt. I am terrible about keeping up with my friends; I have hurt badly one or two people I love; I collaborate with all I do in the destruction of the world.

To watch a garza bruja—a night heron—stalking for bugs … What deliberate, slow, Satanic elegance, totally malicious. Humanity, by contrast: the most destructive of all creatures, and the only kind with a conscience. And the moral development of the West has been in stride with its destructiveness. We will extend rights to all, once we have wiped them out. How well you mean is almost an index of how much harm you do.

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