Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

In Patagonia Day 41

March 31st, 2018

In Patagonia Day 41
Pucón—Valparaiso (this one gets a little academic, sorry)

Good Friday in Chile is a Catholic holiday where mass seems to be held on the street with everyone crowding sidewalks and restaurants enjoying food, drink, and sun. What I love most is how all the young children are part of the parade, squealing, laughing and sometimes crying but never for long (the person with the baby stroller franchise is wealthy). Really beautiful day.

Yesterday on top of Villarrica, I could look down and see the lahar paths of recent eruptions—‘64, ‘71, and 2015. What look like tangled river valleys are masses of slowly eroding lava, or tailings of basalt and andesite gravel mixed with ash. Also clearly visible is natural reforestation. Driving out of the park, the roadcut was a textbook crossection marking out the recent eruptions with thin bands of dense rock between thick layers of loose material. From the van, I could see stages of regrowth, mostly nothafagus with some Araucaria interspersed. There were island stands of old growth nothafagus alpina, but most were young, regenerating the forest fast.

A few months ago I attended a panel at an academic conference where some theorists and artists who had been working on animals were engaging in a discussion of plants (fields known these days respectively as Animal Studies and Plant Studies). While each presentation was interesting and intelligent, I kept feeling that something was missing. I think the emerging field of Plant Studies can be viewed as extending the principles of Animal Studies to other forms of life. By re-articulating the historical construction of the human, Animal Studies has figured prominently in scholarly engagement with the idea of the Anthropocene. While Plant Studies can be enrolled in the same effort, it is important to see what else it brings. For Michael Marder “Plant-Thinking starts with the explosion of identity.” While this can be read as another critique of the traditional humanistic subject, Marder is also pointing toward an explosion of individuality. In Animal Studies, the unit of analysis is primarily a semi-bounded biological entity defined at least in part by a central nervous system, but Plant Studies doesn’t focus on the individual. Plants insist on being studied as a complex and tangled relation with biological others (and actually confounding many senses of the word other—e.g, Lichen Studies). One of the talks focused on a planting in a gallery, essentially potted houseplants (which in some ways is monoculture writ large—well, actually in this case, small). While the artist might be commenting on objectification through gallery presentation, the plant itself, isolated from its own co-conspirators, is also being objectified in a traditionally humanistic way—a single entity to be named and counted. One of the other presentations was on large scale drawings of individual plants, a sort of scaling up of 19th century botanical illustrations. Again, while fascinating, this foray into Plant Studies treats them as individual monads, in much the same way that European explorers scoured the globe for specimens to send back to Kew or other repositories. Our treatment of plants as isolated individuals (defined, categorized, counted, and patented) is fertile ground for biopolitical critique.

What I thought about while traveling off the volcano through a regenerating forest were the multiple actors in that scene. The birds and mammals, and a complex tangle of insects, microbes, fungi, and minerals along with a fairly constant rain of ash and chemicals, which with the trees makes up a forest. Plants in the wild are always multiple. I have long admired and read animal studies scholars. In fact I’m friends with many of them and this is very much a straw-man argument, drawing as it does on one non-representative conference panel. But that helps make a distinction which, while not absolute, has a level of stability. What is exciting about Plant Studies is the multiplicity it demands. Regarding semi-closed biological systems such as mammals can point back toward a residual humanism, comparing like with almost-like, while plants require a much more open and fluid mode, what Marder and Irigaray term plant-thinking. Jannice Ray’s classic Ecology of a Cracker Childhood helps bring humans and their detritus directly into that mix, including, in her case, Long-leaf pine, gopher tortoises, red-cockaded woodpeckers, wiregrass, barbed wire, junked cars, snakes, and young playful children. You can’t talk for long about a single tree or plant; instead you have to think the forest.

T. Hugh Crawford

In Patagonia Day 39

March 29th, 2018

In Patagonia Day 39

A rainy day in Pucón. Annie, a woman from Frankfurt I met in Valdivia and then ended with on a bus to the National Park (such meetings between us wanderers is common—I talked a long time to a French couple today who I first met in Puerto Natales) recommended a coffee shop where the owner roasts his own beans. Coffee is a common conversation among wanderers of Patagonia, with everyone initially having assumed that, since much coffee is grown in the region, it would be delicious. Generally speaking it’s not. Often instant Nescafé or, if drip, it has an almost indescribably bad flavor. Clearly (for those who have been following my travels) I have found wonderful places for a cup, but they remain the exception. All Annie could recall was that the cafe was near a Subway—yes there are Subways here but they have trouble competing with the little stalls selling empanadas, and the restaurants selling sandwich “completos” (more on those in a bit). Pucón is not large so Google Earth landed me at a Subway in a Chilean version of a strip mall, and there was the Madd Goat. Turns out it is run by an American from Minnesota who went to Colorado College, found himself spending a lot of time in Chile and got tired of bringing coffee in from the States. Taking matters into his own hands, he and his wife bought a roaster and now make some of the best coffee in Patagonia. What I found unusual though was how this shop magically attracted Americans (probably in lonely planet or something), the first that I have encountered. To be honest, I’ve met very few Americans on this trip—the dominant non-Patagonian people are German, but I shouldn’t label them all visitors as there is a very large proportion of the population of Chile and Argentina from Germany (dating back to the 19th century) and in places they maintain their language and culture. There are German schools in Puerto Varas for example. So I ordered a cafe con leche, settled in working on some abstracts and listening to the rain, only to find myself listening instead to some whitewater instructors from the NOC in North Carolina at the next table. Other Americans drifted through and some English speakers from the UK and Australia. It was disconcerting to sit in a place where I understood the neighboring conversations, reminding me how much I enjoy the hum and buzz of a coffee shop where I have no idea what is being discussed.

Of course all countries have slightly different ways of doing things. In good cafes in Chile, the coffee comes with a small cookie (like so many other places in the world) but they will sometimes include a shot glass of cold, sparkling water. I wish other places would catch on to this, as it is refreshing, though I remain unsure when to drink it—first while it is still cold, or after as a palate cleanser, or in sips in between? I need more empirical research to answer that question. An other thing they do here (which makes Subway’s business difficult) is serve sandwiches or hot dogs “completo ”. Now, just to be sure, even with a strong German heritage, the hot dogs are not brats, but instead are those gray centered, bright red casinged, artificially colored tubes just like those sold by Ignatius J. Reilly in John Kennedy Toole’s masterpiece Confederacy of Dunces. Whether dog or sandwich, “completo” includes a number of sauces, chopped tomatoes (and they are great tomatoes), chopped onions, sliced avocado, and god knows what else. There is more material than could fit into any bun, roll, or bread, and it is then held together with a mass of mayonnaise layered on in exactly the way a bricklayer butters a brick. The result is physically almost impossible to eat, and those wonderful individual ingredients tend to loose a lot in their “completion.” You may ask about hamburgers and the answer is the same. A region known for amazing beef (and the Parilla restaurants with their burning logs stacked in a grid between two large flat grills, providing coals and all ranges of temperature for grilling which rewards the carnivore) decides for some reason to bury that meat in layers of “completo” such that it cannot be eaten as a sandwich and the burger itself cannot be tasted. (I’m looking forward to a Littles burger basket on my return to Atlanta).

It is the flavors in isolation and reticence that the Puconians excel. The aforementioned grilled meats are served with little embellishment, and on the streets you find fruit, vegetables, nuts, fresh farm cheese, simple uncluttered empanadas and sopaipilla. This region, blessed with fertile soil from all those active volcanos, is one of the country’s largest producers of vegetables as well as beef and dairy. It is there, on the street, where the people live and eat. One place where that all comes together is the delivery system for the many restaurants. Instead of trucks from corporate food distribution systems, the restaurants take delivery from people pushing grocery carts piled with the food you find in the street stalls. So even in the upscale joints, you can get a taste of the local produce, and you can taste it if you avoid ordering a “completo.”

T. Hugh Crawford

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