Sunday, May 3, 2015


A large anvil-shaped cloud on the horizon over the Andes
It happened a week ago last Wednesday. Virginia got home from work in the early evening (most nights she doesn’t get here until nine but on Wednesdays, if she hurries, she can make it home by seven, and although autumn is advancing in Patagonia, the sun is still just setting at that hour), and we rushed to take a walk in the mountains together before dark.  After climbing the steep grade on our street to get to the high road, we stopped to catch our breath and looked back toward the mountains. There we could see a strange, dense, anvil-shaped cloud on the western horizon over the Andes, colored a breath-taking luminous peach and grey in the setting sun and in an otherwise cloudless sky. At once ominous yet incredibly beautiful, we took it as a visual gift of nature and walked on.
A neighbor warned us that Calbuco had erupted
Once we were back, I got a text message from a neighbor who suggested prudence in our water use (we draw our water from a natural spring) because the Mount Calbuco volcano on the other side of the mountains in Chile had erupted at 6 p.m., spewing ash and pumice high (about eleven miles high, in fact) into the atmosphere.
So, I thought, it’s starting again. The price we pay for living in one of the most beautiful places on the feet of a string of sleeping giants. Four years ago it had been Puyehue. This year it was Calbuco, both within sixty miles, as the crow flies, from our house.
Remembering the previous eruption, I could feel the first rumblings of barely controlled panic rising—like an internal volcano of my own—as I contemplated our potential fate. When Puyehue blew, we saw mid-afternoon on an otherwise sunny day turn new moon dark as a crushing cloud of coarse sand-like ash loomed over the mountains and pelted us with an all-enveloping blanket of over four inches of pyroclastic debris before edging on eastward to bury other areas beyond. We had braved the hot, abrasive ash-storm outside to shut off the water intake to our tanks and to get the dogs under cover in the workshop and then cowered inside with our family of cats awaiting a “passover” of biblical proportions.
The scene the next day was desolate, with a heavy, ankle-deep blanket of grey ash covering everything. But things were far worse elsewhere, in places where the furious mountain had dumped tons of ash a yard deep on people’s homes along the Chilean border, caving in their roofs, skewing their dwellings like houses of cards and closing the mountain pass between Argentina and Chile.
During the Puyehue eruption, a veritable storm of ash
We, then, were blessed. We lived, after all, in the manner of Johnny Cash, in a ring of fire...but literally, not virtually or poetically. And for weeks and months after that our activities were governed by the direction of the wind and whether the ash was blowing our way as Puyehue remained active for what seemed like ages, starving the nearby towns of Bariloche and Villa La Angostura of the tourism they live on, with the airport being shut down “for the duration”.
So awaiting the arrival of Calbuco’s wrath—better prepared this time, with bigger, better water tanks, an electric power generator and plenty of fuel in the shed—I set about covering the air intakes on our vehicles and finished my preparations just as the air outside started to turn dense and the first light ash started to fall, a bit like tepid grey snow.  We went to bed that night resigned, not wanting to think about what we would wake up to and only hoping what came our way wouldn’t be sufficient to strain the roof beams.  But we knew that it would be what it would be, that natural flood, fire and wind are phenomena which humans as powerless to control, especially here in “the wild forties” below the fortieth parallel.
The next morning the house and yard appeared to be enveloped in a dense fog and in the short time it took me to go out to the woodshed for more wood to fuel our fire, my cap and vest were heavily dusted in grey ash. I couldn’t help recalling a few trips I’d made over the years to the busy old crematorium in Chacarita, the biggest cemetery in Buenos Aires—a veritable “city of the dead”—where the clothes of the municipal workers who would come out of the furnace room to the reception hall to turn over the incinerated remains of scores of departed each day to their respective families were always covered with a fine grey layer of the ashes of the deceased—enough so that my brother-in-law would quip, “I wondered what percentage of these are really the ol’ man’s,” after accepting the little wooden box that a slightly hunched and red-eyed worker offered him.
Across the mountains in Chile some places were buried in ash
But by noon the air was much clearer and the fallen ash was so light that it resembled a sort of grey hoarfrost that clung to grass, bushes and trees. Nothing like the pyroclastic blizzard we had endured four years earlier. It was, I reminded myself, all a matter of wind direction and the luck of the draw. Across the mountains in Chile, a few villages and towns had been literally buried under five feet of heavy, sandy ash and other pyroclastic debris, with many homes being crushed under the weight and over four thousand people being evacuated to safer ground. And on the Argentine side, in the next Patagonian province north of us, the highway had to be closed until road graders could be brought in to clear the pavement for cars, trucks and buses.
By evening in our neck of the woods, however, the air and sky were clear enough for Virginia and me to enjoy an evening walk (her afternoon and evening classes at the institute where she teaches having been canceled as a safety precaution). Despite how pleasant it was on our side of the Andes, there had been two eruptions—one at six on Wednesday evening and the other at one in the morning on Thursday and the dense plume over Calbuco was over eight miles high. The second eruption had blasted four or five new craters in the mountain top and Chilean volcanologists were warning of a possible third eruption. That eruption came a week after the first two, just when the mountain had settled down and even some experts were venturing that maybe Calbuco would simply go back to sleep. After all, before this latest incident, it had been four decades since it last awoke in a rage of hellfire and brimstone.
But this time, in our area, twelve miles west and south of the ski resort of San Carlos de Bariloche, you would never have known, if you didn’t ask, that a third eruption had taken place. And there was a sense of gratitude mixed with guilt in knowing that the wind was standing between us and the brunt of the volcanic storm.
A hoarfrost of ash on dirt roads...
...and foliage
The week after the first eruptions, Virginia went back to work and I went back to taking my evening walk in the mountains alone. And although I was grateful for the beautiful, mostly clear autumn days nature was bestowing on me, Calbuco continued to give me pause for reflection. For one thing, I could still see the “frost” of ash that remained on the foliage and dirt roads. But more than that, instead of the usual sweet mountain air that greeted me in the great Andean outdoors of Patagonia, there was a hint, a reminder of cataclysm in the air, a whiff of brimstone, the sulfurous breath of a fiery hell belched up and out the spout of Calbuco from three thousand miles beneath the surface of the earth in the planet’s molten liquid core.
Flame-yellow leaves of an old Alamo poplar
But it was easy enough to distract myself from the latent threat of the volcano when my boots crushed the flame-yellow leaves of an old Alamo poplar, cast around its massive trunk like the fragrant and elegant lingerie of a shy but impassioned autumn Amazon, releasing beneath my soles their sweet "tobaccoy" scent that mitigated the rotten-egg stink of sulfur in the air.
When I walk in the mountains after a day of highly focused work, my mind ventures off in all sorts of directions, sparking the most eclectic of thoughts and memories. At one point this past week, I suddenly recalled H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. For those who have never read it or seen the movie, it’s about a British scientist in the times of Wells (it was published in 1895, when the writer was not yet thirty years old) who invents a machine that permits him to become a Time Traveler.
The Time Machine
At one point in the story, the Time Traveler journeys more than eight hundred thousand years into the future. There he finds a world that appears to be an absolute paradise. It is inhabited by a beautiful people known as the Eloi. The Eloi exist in a perfect and bountiful climate and live off of the land with no need to cultivate anything. Everything is provided for in this benign world and they have no reason to work. It is a bucolic life of peaceful Eloi co-existence, mutual love, harmony and plenty. The Time Traveler feels at his ease here and quickly becomes enamored of a beautiful Eloi woman named Weena.
H.G. Wells
There’s only one problem with this paradise on Earth, as the Time Traveler soon discovers, and that is that nothing comes free and the Eloi only enjoy the life they have thanks to the Morlocks. The Morlocks are trollish ape-like creatures who live in a subterranean world to which access is gained through a series of “wells” that dot the heavenly landscape. Subsisting in the bowels of the earth, the Morlocks do the drudgery that provides the Eloi with the perfect life they enjoy on the surface, but in exchange, the Morlocks frequently slip to the surface at night, snatch an Eloi here and there and drag them into the murky underworld, where they end up on the Morlock menu.
The round-about connection I made to the Wells sci-fi classic is that living in one of the most stunning landscapes on Earth has its risks. If you want the kind of beauty that one of the last frontiers of earthly nature has to offer, then you have to risk being at least a witness to— and perhaps a victim of—the cataclysmic events that such a place is also capable of hosting, and hellfire and brimstone belched from the guts of the planet like the acid reflux of the mountain gods is just one such event—a disaster in human terms but business as usual for this landscape that was largely formed thanks to the natural cycles of the “Morlockian” monoliths that ring this habitat.
But Wells’ story also prompted me to think beyond the Morlock-ruled world of the guileless Eloi. Later in the story, the Time Traveler ventures many millions of years into the future and what he finds there is a world with an ominous red sun and a planet with a rarefied atmosphere that can no longer sustain prolonged life. Frightenly, what Wells describes sounds chillingly similar to the world alarmed scientists are warning us of today if we fail to take immediate action to reverse the devastating effects of our noxious ecological actions in the name of “human progress”. These actions are proving, in the end, far more cataclysmic, not for nature but for the human species, than anything Mother Nature is wont to dish up.
Over the course of our evolution, nature has squeezed us often enough, but has yet to choke us out of existence. We, on the other hand, seem bent on goading Mother Nature into choking the life out of our species, ignoring, justifying or shrugging off the warning signs, putting off “until tomorrow” (when today is already tomorrow) the actions necessary to reverse the damage we’ve done and continue to do, as if nature might be counted on to give us yet another comfy extension on the debt we owe her.
It’s amazing what thoughts a little brimstone in the air can trigger, and that’s the point, in a way, of the brilliant Conservation International shorts being run worldwide on TV: to put a little whiff of brimstone into the air, to see if maybe people will wake up and start demanding that their leaders take immediate, and drastic action, to stop and reverse the devastating “human volcano” that is threatening to lay our habitat to waste.
In one of those shorts, Mother Nature (in the steely, dispassionate voice of a hardly recognizable Julia Roberts) says, in part, “I have been here 22,500 times longer than you. I don’t really need people. But people need me. I have fed species greater than you and I have starved species greater than you. I’ve been here for eons. My oceans, my soil, my flowing streams, my forests: They all can take you—or leave you… Your actions will determine your fate. Not mine.”
Mother “Julia” Nature’s final challenge goes: “I am prepared to evolve. Are you?” And beyond any worry about natural hellfire and brimstone, that’s the real question we should be asking ourselves and each other every minute of every day if we’re at all committed to leaving behind a livable habitat in which the human species—meaning our children and their children and their children’s children and so on down the line—can continue to survive. Nature won’t care, one way or another, what we do. But we should.