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reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

In Patagonia Day 15

March 5th, 2018

In Patagonia Day 15
El Calatafe—El Chaltén

I started reading Jason Moore’s Capitalism in the Web of Life the other day. In the opening chapters he lays out an argument familiar in 21st century environmental philosophy criticizing the notion that humans are actors—agents of history— acting on a mute and stable Nature. Societies have history, Nature does not (ironically, what we today call science was once referred to as natural history). Of course people have long recognized that nature is always in some flux—earthquakes, eruptions, floods are all transformative—but the science that emerged in the Modern era was a description of underlying stabilities, uniformities, laws, and it rests on familiar binaries: subject/object, society/Nature, what in a slightly different form Alfred North Whitehead called the “bifurcation of nature.” But Moore’s is not a science studies book; rather he wants to understand how capitalism(s) use (and indeed are constituted by) the capital “N”Nature of modern science.

Reading is a material practice. Words can’t be abstracted from their substrate, but instead participate in specific material economies. It matters where and how words are produced and consumed. People often comment on how different a book is on re-reading, but such a claim depends on abstracting that text from the point of its consumption. From a materialist perspective, there is no such thing as re-reading as all readings necessarily involve a different configuration, setting, and materiality. That is all just to say I was reading and thinking about Moore while moving about in southern Patagonia. The question that nagged was why modern science—depending on atemporal, universal objects—emerges in Europe. It is, of course, a tired question, one chewed over by philosophers and historians for centuries, and probably not one to even ask in a hastily written blog about walking, so I’ll limit myself to walking speculation.

The Pennine Way runs up the backbone of England 200+ miles from Edale (near Manchester) to Kirk Yetholm just across the Scottish border. Days walking this path usually involve loitering in pubs in the Yorkshire Dales, strolling from picturesque village to picturesque village, occasionally up and over a ridge in high wind and blustery weather—the heights truly do wuther. Generally it is a peaceful, intimate environment though there are moments when, for example, entering Malham Cove or gazing out from High Cup Nick you feel something momentous and non-human has happened there, some environmental upheaval. But by and large, the walk is one through human history, one deeply felt. An early center of Modern Science was the English Royal Society, where the fellows defined the principles and practices necessary to articulate truth claims about the objective world. Much has been written about the complex politics of these emerging protocols (in particular Shapin and Schaffer’s magisterial Leviathan and the Air Pump). Later, in the 19th century Lyell and Darwin were able to bring long-scale earth history into the discourse, but remained magisterial. Still, I just want to make one small observation. Walking across England produces a sense of an environmentally stable world —Nature—written all over by Human history.

Walking in Patagonia is imbued with a hyperawareness of environmental conditions. It is raw, elemental. The wind flays you, the temperature swings cause constant adjustment, and its sheer vastness makes you feel insignificant. It is a land in flux—the actual land. Early European explorers derided the people they found living in this part of the world, criticizing their hygiene, clothing, housing, food, and social practices (even as late as the 19th century, Darwin was particularly vicious in his appraisal of the Tierra del Fuegeans). They were also condemned for their non-modernity, their failure to see the earth as object and instead finding all manner of spirits, animisms, and active agents in their Nature. They lived in a world full of what Jane Bennett would call in the 21st century “Vibrant Matter.” Most people who travel to southern Patagonia try to visit the Perito Moreno Glacier. It is an amazing sight (see “Day 14” below). Glaciers bring geological time into awareness, enabling us to see ice-age conditions and the massive disruption caused by the slow movement of active matter. Something visitors tend to miss, though, are the peaks that loom over the glacial valley. From the lake you can see four, each heavily eroded revealing clear strata marking upheaval and slow erosion. What struck me was how the first two showed perfect horizons of strata, level lines marking out the ticking of a long slow clock, while the the next two, made from what appears the same temporal and material strata but thrust up by different forces, were a twisted curving, almost writhing mass of flux. Looking at those peaks doesn’t give the sense of long past environmental transformation. You too are caught up in the geological maelstrom. I can imagine an emerging scientific practice here that does not start with a subject/object distinction, but instead begins with a world tangled up, erasing human/nonhuman binaries, and vastly complicating any sense of time’s arrow.

T. Hugh Crawford

In Patagonia Day 14

March 3rd, 2018

In Patagonia Day 14
El Calafate—Perito Moreno Glacier—El Calafate

Yesterday evening I had a good IPA Esquél at the Wanaco bar looking out the window onto the main street of the old section of El Calatafe. It is lined with tour agencies, souvenir shops, restaurants, and hiking equipment stores. Divided by a green median with an alley of tall trees, its cars pass sporadically, chased by mongrel hounds. Trekkers with large packs march past on their way to some hostel, while couples young and old peruse the restaurant menus, and kids eat ice cream dashing madly up and down the sidewalk. A young woman walking arm in arm with an elderly lady passed the window several times. In profile, it was clear they were related, pretty sure a granddaughter out with her grandmother. Unlike nearly everyone else on the street (who tend to wear some variation of Patagonia or Northface gear), the granddaughter wore a long blue wool coat, one you would see in a large city, while her grandmother had a long quilted coat with (probably fake) fur on the cuffs and collar. Her hair was up in an old fashioned style, and she carried a wooden cane with a shiny brass handle. What initially drew my attention was how solicitous the younger one was—they walked with such care. What then became clear was a deep affection between them, bordering on conspiracy. Much more than familial obligation, it was obvious these two genuinely enjoyed each other’s company. They were good friends. I was touched, and grateful for a rare glimpse of deep human connection and compassion.

Apart from people watching and souvenir shopping, the reason everyone comes to El Calatafe is the Perito Moreno glacier in a park 70km west of the city. It is possible to take a bus there, but with a little bit of a splurge, you can go on a small tour bus and also spend an hour on a boat cruising the face of the glacier. I splurged, and you can imagine my pleasure when I boarded the tour bus and there seated in the front row were last night’s strollers, complete with cane, coats, with the addition of big knit wool hats. Erica, the guide couldn’t quite suppress a frown on learning that my Spanish was too weak to follow her discursus on all things glacial during the day-long excursion. Everyone else spoke Spanish or Portuguese (the two women were from Buenos Aires), so Erica would talk a long while, complete with visual aids, then glance down at me and deliver the condensed version in English. I did learn a lot, and she sure put on a show, all but rolling a drum as we rounded the bend for our first sight of the glacier. It was drumroll-worthy. From that point on, words were unnecessary. The boat was a large catamaran with glassed-in seating surrounded by a catwalk. The morning had started off cold and pouring rain, but by the time we were onboard, the skies were clear and the sun was shining, though it was still fairly cold—those were many square miles of ice we sailed next to. The hour on the boat was spent slack jawed staring at a wall of ice fissured with blue. The rest was moving around the catwalk taking photos, selfies, and snapping portraits for those leaning on nearby rails.

Recovering terra semi-firma, we bused up to the balconies— a vast complex of wood, stone, and steel walkways winding about a point of land affording views of both faces of the glacier (I only saw one face from the boat). We all spent several hours taking in every angle possible. The grandmother was only able to walk out to the first high balcony, but on my leaving, I witnessed yet another scene of true tenderness between the two when, because of the wind, the young woman lit her grandmother’s cigarette for her.

T. Hugh Crawford

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