In Patagonia Day 8
Time is heaped up helter-skelter in Patagonia. As the Beagle circled the land and Darwin took numerous excursions into the interior, the great naturalist puzzled over the geology he encountered. I always associated his thought with biology—mammals, birds, earthworms—but most of the Voyage is about rocks, specifically speculation about the strata of fossil shells high up on table land— uplift, erosion. There is much more Lyell than Malthus in The Voyage of the Beagle. In Patagonia, time is right on the surface. Water, wind and geological upheaval expose dinosaur bones, mixing them (at least in the imagination) with more recent but still long extinct species: toxodon, mylodon, megatherium, astrapotherium and the macrauchenia. And those are mingled with modern monsters—bones from the great whales hunted in these waters. Bones, fossil or just old, small but often large, adorn the lobbies of hostels, crowd restaurant coffee tables, turn up in unexpected places. Here dinosaur bones dine with whales and with humans.
Bruce Chatwin starts In Patagonia with a similar jumble, as his grandmother identifies the piece of mylodon skin (mylodons are extinct ground sloths whose imaginative profile decorates every street sign in Puerto Natales) with that of a brontosaurus. Both are ancient by human standards, but in geological time, the mylodon is fresh as a daisy. What is fascinating in that opening chapter is Chatwin’s leap from historical extinctions to possible human extinction through nuclear war. He notes that his interest in Patagonia was rekindled in school when Cold War planners explained blast zones and possible safe regions. Maps had to be redrawn and the strategy re-articulated with each new development of increasingly devastating bombs, so Chatwin looks to his atlas and discovers the end of the earth, the place out of the circles of destruction. Nuclear war hovers over his book, sometimes explicitly as when he speaks with an elderly Argentinian who may have known Butch Cassidy: “The old man had come out and was standing behind me. ‘No one would want to drop an atom bomb on Patagonia,’ he said.” But also implicitly as the book is haunted by fossils and by isolated survivors, people dispossessed of their own history, keeping it alive with simple details—songs, clocks, paintings—in their own distant versions of a bomb shelter. In Patagonia is a chronicle of those isolatos and in some ways is a meditation on the end of the earth taking place at the end of the earth.
Chatwin recounts childhood bullying when he spoke of his family’s (mistaken) ownership of brontosaurus skin, then turns to his schoolboy fear inspired by the bomb. This puts in sharp relief the impact of schoolyard terror, something particularly poignant in the USA today given the impact of the most recent school shooting and the political firestorm it has ignited. Most heartbreaking in the news was a student describing his as the “school shooting generation.” Theirs is, in so many ways, much more palpable than that of the “bomb shelter generation,” but the latter is the context through which to read Chatwin and perhaps understand some wanderers who have Baudelaire’s malady, the horror of one’s own home.
Chatwin’s childhood atlas search for a blast-free space brought home sharply the nuclear-meteorological stories of my youth. Of course each region has its own narrative, but in Shenandoah County, Virginia, it went something like this: even though Washington DC was only 100 miles away, the prevailing winds —usually coming strongly from the west—and the mountain range would shelter the area from any fallout. To the west was West Virginia and no one would waste a warhead on it. Those of us in Woodstock would survive the initial blast; it was the aftermath that was ambiguous. Of course each house had a basement supplied with canned goods—Chef Boy-R-D sold a generation’s worth of raviolios in those years. As children, even though we had to practice hiding under desks, we were more or less sheltered from the bomb shelter mania as the threat remained nebulous (unlike today’s gunfire threats). It was only occasionally we were reminded of possible extinction, living instead in a world where it seemed (at least as children) that nothing could touch us. The sight of a rifle prompted questions about the hunt, not schoolhouse drills.
Apparently the US government subscribed to roughly the same narrative as they built a number of secret facilities west of Washington DC designed to house those who might be left were armageddon to occur. One that remains famous is the Greenbriar, a luxury retreat that still has a direct train line to DC. Another that is less clear is a mountain somewhere near Strasburg Virginia which is supposedly hollowed out and ready to receive the Congress. To bring this closer to my story, there are parts of my father’s life that remain ambiguous to me. Coincidentally, he was born in Greenbriar County near what would be that Cold War facility. He went to Virginia Military Institute during WWII—class of 45, though they accelerated the program in those years—so he transitioned immediately to medical school at the University of Virginia. On graduation did his residency at Johns Hopkins (he loved to relate a story about steaming a bushel of oysters in the autoclave one night on emergency room duty). He was commissioned in the Public Health Service and was on a career that would have taken him to Washington and the offices of the Surgeon General (I well remember the uniform in the attic cedar closet). Instead, he overshot and took up a rural surgery practice in small-town Shenandoah County. I heard a number of explanations for this move, including the idea that the valley would survive a first-wave atomic attack, but what is burned in my memory is a small, old-fashioned suitcase that remained in the hall closet in our house on Summit Avenue in Woodstock. Of course we asked about it. Children explore every inch of the house where they grow up, and I knew it as well as Chatwin did his mylodon skin. I finally got an explanation which I first heard with amazement, then later with a teenager’s skepticism. Supposedly my father was the official surgeon for the underground facility near Strasburg about 15 miles away (it was probably the Mt. Weather facility in Bluemont). Of course this was a story I could not tell, and as the Cold War slowly thawed, it faded from my memory, becoming a tale I gave little credence until in my own middle-age, raising my children in the shelter of the shadow of that same mountain range. he died and I sorted out his papers including the documentation of his appointment (just now, here at the end of the earth, I try to remember the exact papers, and all I can say is that they confirmed the childhood legend).
Chatwin provides a new perspective on wanderlust. Professionally he found himself in the middle of writing a scholarly book on nomads that he knew no one would ever want to read, and while on an assignment to write something also inconsequential, he fled to Patagonia to seek stories that would help him make sense of his own. Fleeing is of course a survival instinct, but fleeing-from always brings a fleeing-to, and the world is every bit as immanent where you find yourself as it was where you were. The bomb-shelter generation’s watchword was “alienation,” a sense of displacement usually ascribed to stifling middle class values, the American business ethic, and a certain nomadism built into an emerging western culture. But, as we are learning from both the proliferation of weapons of cruelty along with global environmental degradation, alienation also grows from the shadow of impending extinction. My father’s position at a facility at the moment of Cold War apocalypse was a form of patriotic duty framed by historical circumstances, but what is left out of the story is that he was to report for duty alone, trusting the safety of his family to neighbors in an uncertain environment. Coming close on the heels of the great sacrifices of WWII where patriotism was articulated differently than today, his is a decision I cannot even begin to judge. Rather, like Chatwin teaches in his own indirect way, we all have to struggle to understand and reconcile solitude, obligation, and love with the end of the world.
T. Hugh Crawford