Sunday, March 21, 2010


Caption: Our house in the forest.

Here in the Southern Hemisphere, today is the first day of autumn. Out by the fence, I have three new piles of firewood, each representing the amount of dry timber necessary to fill the bed of my pickup to groaning capacity. Before I’m through, and before the heaviest fall rains begin in late April or May, I hope to have at least fifteen such piles (twenty would be better), lined up and under heavy plastic sheeting, stacked along my fence.

People who have always lived in town will sometimes say, “Oh, so you’re getting an early start.”

Early, ha! I’m already begging the rain and snow gods to hold off until I can get the job done. I recall our first winter here, when, without having any real criterion to go on, I thought I had plenty of firewood to get us through until spring. What a laugh! In the middle of winter, with snow to my knees, I found myself out with a rope, trying to lasso dry branches in the beech trees close to home and jerk them down so as to have something dry to burn in the woodstove and not freeze.

I got a late start this year. Summer was unusually cold and rainy and I kept waiting for the usual drought and warm breezes that would dry out the windfall timber lying on the ground and hanging like snow-broken bones in the thicket, out in the forest. It finally came but just in the nick of time, now at the end of summer. Summer starts in December here in Patagonia, but most of the really summery days we’ve had this year didn’t start until the last week of February.

Some say it’s the Niño current again. Others say it’s global “warming”. Still others say the electro-magnetic grid that holds the universe together has holes in it that make the holes in the ozone layer look like a fairytale wonderland, that Einstein predicted the north and south poles would switch polarity standing Earth on its proverbial head in 2012, and that the Mayan Calendar only goes until December of the year after next for a reason. (So if the world suddenly flips over in 2012, does that mean it’ll be a hot Christmas in the North and a cold one in the South when we all die screaming?)

Caption: Einstein - news to make the world flip.

Me, I think none of us really knows what the hell he/she’s talking about and that, like our ancient prehistoric cousins, we would do well to just watch the signs that presage what’s coming and do our best to react and survive without worrying too much about the best-laid theoretical plans of mice and men.

Last Friday, on my evening rounds of the woods I administrate, I came upon a big patch of anthills. They were not the usual big black ants that you see in the forest, but really tiny red ones. That’s what drew my attention to them. So I stooped down to watch them for a while.

It was a clear, calm evening, not a cloud in the sky, and it had been a beautiful late-summer’s day. There was no sign of rain anywhere and the forecast hadn’t predicted any possibility of rain until Sunday. But the ants were going nuts, hundreds of them, moving from one hill to another, coming out of one hole and going into another, carrying things on their backs, the way ants will when they feel something coming. The latest pile of firewood I had gathered had been left uncovered by our front gate, so the dry breeze could get to it. After seeing the ants, when I got back home, I hauled out a plastic tarp and covered it. Friday night it rained, and it rained all day Saturday too.

Watching the signs is practical. Practicality is twenty pickups of dry firewood stacked along my fence and sawn and chopped in my woodshed.

When we first moved here seventeen years ago, there were only seven houses, scattered as if rolled like dice by a giant, on the hills, and behind the trees and beneath the rocky crags of what had once been a hundred-acre farm on the edge of over 300 acres of natural forest. Except for the summer home of a family from Buenos Aires and a tiny pyramid-shaped weekend cabin of a family from town, our house was the only one in our neck of the woods and the only one whose lot fronted on the lagoon below. What we did when we first moved here was what people here refer to as “doing Patagonia”. That is, carving a place for oneself out of the singularly spectacular, incredibly attractive, yet frequently hostile landscape of the Patagonian Andes.

Like us, the people before us had come here from Buenos Aires. They hadn’t made it. They ran out of money, out of enthusiasm, out of spirit, out of luck. Their misfortune became our dream. We finished the half-completed walls of the barn-shaped cabin they had started and moved in. We came at the right time. Not young, like the couple before us, like so many, who have a fancy more than a dream and the strength of youth and the passion of the moment, but not yet the stamina of persistent survival. We were over forty. We had been through some stuff. We had survived. We had what it took. And we had been visiting Patagonia for twenty years, always dreaming of someday living here. That wasn’t something to be taken lightly.

The first winters were tough. There were things we couldn’t predict. We learned things: You need 500 to 700 cubic feet of firewood to get through a Patagonian winter. If you live in a southern beech forest, expect lots of rain and snow. I've read that they need 2200 mm (about 86 inches) of precipitation a year to survive. So if rainy days depress you and you see beeches, ferns and cane growing where you’re thinking of settling, think again. If you live in Patagonia, expect wind (weathermen call these latitudes the “wild forties”) and lots of it. And if you live above a lagoon, that’s around the corner from a big lake and across the lake is the windward side of the mountains, expect really strong winds. If you live in a place with a street that’s no more than a 600-foot-long rutted dirt track off of a mile-and-a-half-long, single-lane, unpaved, high road, a rear-wheel drive station wagon is not the vehicle you need, particularly in winter and the rainy season. The fact that the calendar shows Patagonian winter as running from June 21 to September 21 is no sign that it will refrain from snowing until June or that it will stop snowing in September (Patagonia’s a lot like Ohio that way). And the fact that the Municipality, twelve miles away through the mountains, claims your area as part of its surrounding township doesn’t necessarily mean that it will provide you with such services as road-grading, snowplowing or gravel replacement. If you’re going to wait around for the City to do the road maintenance you feel you have a right to, you may end up walking a lot of the places you have to go. Get a 4x4 truck, always carry a shovel and a machete or axe and plan on getting out on your own when the snow is up to your bumper.

As constructed when we first moved in, the house was little more than a barn, with thin walls that the wind whistled through and made the heat from the woodstove ineffectual unless you were sitting next to the fire all day. Bottled gas was too expensive to use for heating and the auxiliary kerosene stove was dangerous and smelly. The front windows with a gorgeous view of the lake and mountains leaked wind and water like a sieve into the house when the inclement weather of winter and spring came roaring out of the west over the mountains from the Pacific. The stovepipe ran up the side of the house on the outside and the cold wind hitting it kept it from drawing properly. It took me a while to figure out which woods were the best for fuel and what kind of shape they had to be in so as to be considered good firewood. And while I experimented, I over and over again stopped up the reluctant stovepipe with soot and resin that shoved the smoke back into the house blackening the walls and choking us.

Caption: We finished it and added on.

But little by little we figured things out. I read books about cabin-living, carpentry, home maintenance, basic rural heating systems. I re-nailed, weather-stripped and water-sealed the front windows. I contracted someone to re-install the stovepipe on the inside of the house so that we not only kept it out of the wind but also could take advantage of the heat it radiated. I installed firebricks on the wall behind the woodstove to better reflect and absorb its heat. Lack of insulation was our major problem in winter, so I insulated – polyurethane sheeting over the old walls, 12 mm plywood on top of that, and three-quarter-inch tongue-and-grove pine paneling on top of that. We started making meals that required a lot of cooking time on the woodstove, using gas only for quick cooking and to fuel the tank water heater. I learned by the weight and smell of each type of wood whether it was ready to be used as firewood. I learned to stack wood properly and when and how to cover it. I learned to leave the greenest windfall timber cut and stacked in the rain and snow and wind and summer sun so that it would dry out faster and become proper firewood. We built on, added a carpentry shop to one side of the house and a sunroom/gym to the other. We improved our water system, made it work via gravity, without pumps, piping water directly from a pristine spring into three holding tanks and then into our house. We built a 24-foot diameter water tank to hold an extra 8,500 gallons of water in the dry season, in case of fire. We added a deck onto the front of the house to serve as both a recreational space and a windbreak. We built a free-standing woodshed and a lean-to to keep firewood dry for immediate use. We sold the station wagon and bought a front-wheel drive car and then a 4X4 pickup truck.

Suddenly, it seemed like we had always lived this way. Nothing seemed any longer like extra-hard work or an inconvenience. It all just seemed natural. And the payoff is that we live in one of the most beautiful landscapes on earth.

A couple of years ago, some of our newest neighbors (the seven original houses have burgeoned to fifteen today) started seeking “progress”. After a couple of winters as reluctant lumberjacks, they came up with a plan to bring a natural gas pipeline up the mountain to our hideaway.

I was the only neighbor against it. Natural gas would bring “progress”. “Progress” would bring more people. More people would bring noise, streetlights, cleared land. It would mean goodbye to the condor, the eagle and the great horned owl. It would mean a polluted lagoon. Erosion, pollution, deforestation, rules, regulations. It would make this idyllic landscape into a branch of the suburban sprawl. It would make it an interesting neighborhood for burglars and muggers. Thanks, but no thanks.

“But what about the convenience of it?” they asked. And I immediately recalled don Federico, an old settler who had lived here for forty years before we arrived and how he had laughed at me when I saw him one day with a long wrecking bar and wedges, turning over a huge old tree trunk to cut it up for the winter fire and asked if I could give him a hand. “Do you have any idea how long I’ve been doing this, Mister?” he asked. “I don’t need any help, muchas gracias. This is what keeps me young.” Don Federico lived to be 90.

So I laughed too and answered, “I’ve been living this way for fifteen years, now. I can’t imagine why I’d want to change my lifestyle, unless it would be in order to be ever more independent. Self-reliance may not keep me young, but it keeps me from getting old.”


mm said...

I loved this piece! Thanx for this pleasant Monday morning reading.

Anonymous said... all comes down to that. It's amazing how complicated I make my life when I try to solve mysteries that I've probably invented.

Dan Newland said...

Thanks "M" for the kind words and so glad I could kickstart your Monday.

Paul, your thoughts have the depth of complex simplicity, as always. Practicality keeps me ticking. Without it, I'd probably be long gone by now.

barilochense said...

"I was the only neighbor against it. Natural gas would bring “progress”. “Progress” would bring more people. More people..."

totalmente de acuerdo
tengo la misma postura
Luego de ver "el progreso" que trajo el gas en la Peninsula San Pedro busque un lugar donde fuera dificil que haya gas algun dia y... ahi me fui.

Dan Newland said...

Gracias Barilochense. Se nota que sabés vivir. Yo la sigo peleando y viviendo lo más natural y salvaje posible, pese al correr de los años. Va un abrazo.

Kim Mandel said...

Truly inspiring! Have to take my hat off to you and Virgina.

Smokin Don said...

Enjoy reading your articles Dan! Sounds and looks like you and your wife have led a tough but gratifying life in Patagonia, I envy you! Don from Wapak

Dan Newland said...

Many thanks for reading this piece, Don, and for your kind comments.

Dan Newland said...

Thank you, Kim! Much appreciated.