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 40

March 30th, 2018

In Patagonia Day 40

Over the years I’ve made innumerable hikes—day hikes, long weekends, or multi-month treks—and used a lot of different equipment, but never have I had to carry a gas mask until today. Pucón is a tourist town, with hot springs and winter skiing, but the main attraction is Villarica, an active volcano looming over the town, almost constantly smoking and occasionally erupting. Also known by its Mapuche name “Rucapillán” which means “spirit’s house,” its elevation is 2860m, so the peak remains snow covered year round. Almost exactly two years ago, I climbed Kilimanjaro which clocks in at 5895m, so a stroll up to Rucapillán’s peak seemed in order. Even though on clear days hundreds of people make the climb, it is anything but a stroll.

Not close to the height of Chimborazo, the volcano that pulled Alexander von Humboldt with such force, or Kilimanjaro for that matter, Villarrica does not require precautions for altitude sickness. Instead, because of its active status, care must be taken on the peak regarding the fumes which contain sulfur dioxide and hydrochloric acid. The climb was rigorous for a couple of reasons. In order to go up, you have to work through a tour company which provides the necessary gear including boots, crampons and ice axes. The first half of the climb is on fairly steep loose scree—basalt and andesite ranging in size from powdery sand to knee-high boulders—and big boots can be clumsy, particularly while using an ice axe as a trekking pole instead of standard height sticks. The last part is up the ice field and requires wearing crampons and following closely the hacked steps of the person in front. The day was perfectly clear—really one of the best days I’ve had on this whole wander—but the report called for higher winds later in the day, so the guides wanted to hustle to the top early and kept a strong pace. The group was small—some Israelis taking their post-military service world tour, some Chileans from Santiago on holiday, and Chloe, an Australian environmental scientist squeezing every last bit of excitement into the remaining hours of her trip. Though I’m in pretty good trekking shape just now, crampon walking uses muscles in a slightly different fashion, so I was hurting near the top.

All discomfort dropped away at the summit as the sky remained clear and the winds held off. From the edge I could see the lines of Andean volcanos stretching both north and south, helping me to understand Humboldt’s attraction to these mountains as he wanted to determine if volcanos were isolated peaks as they seem in Europe or part of a much larger geological system. Standing on top of Villarrica on a clear day shows just how big that system can be. A loud rumbling, banging sound prompted a turn away from the view out to the one in. Villarrica is the model for every child’s science-fair paper mache volcano. A perfect cone rising out of a flat plain with a nearly circular crater at the peak, spewing gas, occasionally showing a lava lake (though not today). Regular bursts of steam and gas came from a vent near the bottom, and once a large cloud of dark heavy material belched up, but most exciting or disturbing was the sound. I suppose Dante could provide some good descriptions but to me, it sounded like there were workmen in the basement taking apart a big furnace, which is guess is sort of what Villarrica is.

As if staring into the maw of hell wasn’t enough for one day, the tour group had another card to play. Descending from the crater’s edge, we gathered at the ice slope, put on heavy pants and coats along with a slick nylon “diaper” and proceeded to slide down the ice slope through tracks like crude bobsled runs. Braking with ice axes, we lost all that hard fought altitude in a matter of minutes, then trekked the last bit down soft, loose volcanic ash. It was a little over the top, but hey, it was a volcano.

T. Hugh Crawford