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Apocalyptic Species

Updated: Feb 18


I would build that dome in air!

That sunny dome! Those caves of ice!


Kubla Khan, Samuel Taylor Coleridge


 

Torres del Paine


I wasn’t thrilled about being at the frozen tip of South America. I’d never liked the cold, which is why I’d spent the last three decades conducting research in the Amazon Basin. But my partner, Cynthia, had long dreamed of a trip to Patagonia, and after years of resisting, I’d finally run out of excuses. We’d just crossed Lake Pehoé in a Katabatic gale and were on our way to the trailhead for Torres del Paine. Besides us, the group consisted of a Brazilian couple, two Colombian sisters, and our Argentinian guide, Marcelo, a tall man with a thin face whose gaucho cap had known better days. 


With a nudge, Cynthia drew my attention to the view in the distance, where the Paine Massif rose through a sky of baby blue as if chiselled by diamond sunlight. It seemed the immediate expression of raw molten power in the vertical ascent of its jagged peaks, the toothy gaps and valleys cut by pounding streams. When I first saw this outrageous collection of geologic forms, otherwise known as mountains, I couldn’t help but imagine they were about to fall over, blast away, or simply vanish as a figment of my imagination. 



It was 9:00 a.m. when we reached the trailhead. After a brief pep talk by Marcelo, we began our hike through a hilly amphitheatre cradling the Ascension River, which flowed with lazy grace having exited the high altitudes. Soon, we began ascending–straight up at times, or zigzagging through hedges of wind-bitten shrubbery. In three hours, the trail levelled off to a promenade skirting dunes of basalt gravel and ancient lava flows with vertical drops that we negotiated via walk-around ledges. 


Our fellow hikers had disappeared ahead of us in a green wall of southern beech trees slanting down a mountainside. Half an hour later we found them eating lunch in the deep shade of the Magellanic forest. It was a lonely spot marked by scattered deadfall, some of it heaped in bony jumbles like the desiccated remains of prehistoric beasts. Marcelo informed us that we were holding everyone back, although he expressed this politely. I volunteered to stay behind. As the oldest among us, I already felt half-spent. Cynthia also volunteered, but I protested because I knew how important it was for her to reach the Torres. Several took advantage of my decision and left their extra weight with me before heading off. After securing the group’s belongings, I sat down with my back against a tree. Closing my eyes, I savoured the evergreen fragrance of the forest and the buzzing of bees. Then, my eyes twitched open as I woke with a start.



It took a moment to remember where I was. My watch said 3:30 p.m.; an hour and a half had passed since the departure of my fellow hikers. I stood to stretch, noticing that the trail to the Torres crossed a boulder-strewn opening in the forest just a few yards away. There, a dry arroyo ran the length of a football field before disappearing into the empty foreground of a mountain set beneath the pale lemon sky. I jumped up and headed for the arroyo. In a moment, the downslope of the terrain yawned sharply as the ground dropped away beside a ledge, offering a fine vantage point. A thousand feet below, the Ascension River ripped furiously around boulders that the mountains had thrown down at it. Only the faintest gurgle echoed in the deep canyon.


A wall of granite rose on the other side with the vertiginous convexity of a cresting wave. Streams sprinkled down its narrow gorges in silvery threads and disappeared in a forest crawling up its slopes. The mountain’s ridge joined the shoulder of a higher mountain crowned with a pinnacle that looked like a crumpled witch’s cap. Beneath it, erosion had sculpted a brow of stone battlements lending the valley an atmosphere of quiet watchfulness.



A paranormal sensation possessed me with the suspicion that if I blinked, everything would be different when next I looked. I felt the presence of a mineral antiquity that had nothing to do with me given its erasure of all humankind into molecular plasma. I’d stumbled upon an ancient drama unfolding in geologic time. Theatrical action had formed the continents, filled the oceans, and fixed the cycle of the seasons. I could almost hear the volcanic explosions as they ripped the quiet landscape into particles of dust, imbuing all its notable features with the ghosts of a fiery creation. I wondered what came next, absorbed by the pleasant serendipity of having occupied this ledge to kill time only to discover myself privy to the pyrotechnic romance that was the creation of South America. Would the mountain gods, the Apus, reveal themselves, justly proud of their masterwork? 


While contemplating this sublime and dramatic landscape, it occurred to me I had no role to play and for this, felt strangely bereft.


The script was mute about my presence.


The human contribution to the story was: nothing.


A sadness invaded me, mixed with nostalgia for a time that had never been mine to begin with. I watched all of it–the world I knew and the cataclysmic one I’d just imagined–spin away through the neck of a shrinking bottle to the far edge of space and beyond. I was but a plankton of dust on a whisker of detritus drifting wherever the wind blew. Suddenly, the blink of a shadow swooshed by almost close enough to touch.


‘Condor!’ I cried, startled by this bold apparition.


The bird was huge, a male by the comb on its beak, which looked like a black beret pushed jauntily forward. Of an ancient species, this was not a creature for birdbaths in the garden. With predatory confidence, the condor drifted down the valley through the opal translucence of the afternoon. How I longed to follow! Earthbound since birth, I’d been short-changed by evolution.


As the time approached that I might expect the return of the others,  I decided to head back. I scanned the valley and was relieved to see the giant bird returning. I wondered if its genetic recesses harboured atavistic recollections of the ice ages that his tribe had endured: the volcanic upheavals, violent subductions. The ordinary catastrophes of an apocalyptic planet had nearly wiped the condor out–but as a refugee from the continent where it once abounded, at least the condor still ruled in Patagonia.


The bird passed before me on its way up the valley, now aglow as if dusted by saffron glitter. He moved in a leisurely fashion, hardly flapping his wings. Why bother when he could glide the full sweep of his kingdom with minimal effort? It occurred to me that a condor could glide from the front face of the Andes to Venezuela. A condor could find the mountain passes in Ecuador and Peru and ride the winds across the spine of the continent to the convective updrafts of the Amazon Basin. Did a trail exist that went the distance? Could I track him all the way if I wanted? Past the giant redwoods of the Alerce forests and the monkey puzzle trees with their candelabra crowns; the turquoise lakes of the Cordillera Blanca swarming with hummingbirds in the gardens of the puya plants and maguey cacti? Did the trail continue east as far as the condor might fly? Through the gorges with the fern forests and theatres of bamboo by the misty waterfalls? Beyond the lush orchid valleys of the Aguarico, the Marañon, the Napo? To the confluence of the Solimões and the Rio Negro in the lair of Cobra Grande known as Amazonia? Where the flowering trees – ipê roxo and amarillo, castanhã-do-pará – and buttressed giants – sumaúma – shaded the hedges of wild banana and vines of maracujá beside the swamps of açaí and burití palms, the roosts of the macaws above the ceaselessly running water?


I wanted to know if a pathway existed connecting Patagonia and Amazonia through all things luxuriously fecund and breathtaking.



Contemplating how I might find it, I turned from the ledge and followed the arroyo up the hillside. Near the spot where I’d taken my restful slumber, I felt pricked by the sensation of being watched. Turning quickly to see who or what it was, I found myself facing a granitic monolith that I hadn’t noticed on hiking to the valley and back. Reminiscent of the stone carvings on Easter Island, it bulged at mid-section with a maw that seemed to be laughing at me. Other boulders lay scattered about in a vague, concentric pattern, looking the worse for wear having completed long tectonic journeys. One configuration particularly intrigued me: a stone pallet atop a pedestal of rock, an uncanny replica of a sacrificial altar I’d seen at Palenque.   


This geological tableau hinted at purposeful acts of vandalism by beings more powerful than I. The Tehuelche could very well have passed this way, the indigenous people Magellan encountered on his voyage of discovery and reported to be twice the size of the average conquistador. Had these giant Patagonians built a temple and then smashed it to pieces, angry at their gods for the arrival of the Europeans? Had they offered blood sacrifice to rid themselves of this apocalyptic scourge?


‘Roberto! Good afternoon,’ came Marcelo’s salutation as my fellow hikers emerged from the shadowy trail to collect their things. Cynthia approached and grabbed my hand, telling me it had been incredible. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I’d experienced the birth of South America and that I’d come to believe a trail existed linking all that remained of what we once called the natural world.


Grey Glacier     


I woke to Cynthia’s gentle urging. ‘Get up. We’ve got 15 minutes.’    

 

I’m not going,’ I said. ‘This Patagonia thing’s just a big marketing device. The glaciers are probably already melted, and they’ve got big ice makers out there.’


Cynthia looked at me with pity, then started to exit the tent. This gave me pause, so I asked her to wait for me to dress. It was only a half-day hike, anyway.


At 7:30 a.m., we assembled at the trailhead and set off for the glacier with Marcelo in the lead. We started by crossing a meadow of undulating grasses and pagodas of purple lupins nodding in the breeze. Beyond the meadow, we ascended through a craggy valley, the morning sun behind us like a chrome disc caught in panes of silver filigree. Past this, the geology alternated between trails carved through stone and rocky terraces with views in all directions leading to a rim of far-off mountains. In narrow ravines stood micro-forests of southern beech trees. Low-statured from exposure, their girthy trunks bore the markings of age with thick reams of fissured bark. Their nets of woven foliage shaded tiny meadows that glistened in the mucks formed by seepage from wet rocks. 



By 10:00 a.m., the wind was blowing fiercely, forcing us to lean forward as we walked to keep from being blown off the trail. Stopping to secure the staccato fluttering of my backpack straps, I became conscious of a sound I’d never heard before, a vague, visceral hum that could have been the vibration of my body. As I looked for the source, my eyes came to rest on a lone beech tree growing from the stones just twenty feet off the trail. The wind was thrashing it with awesome force to the hypersonic thrumming of leaves. It was the tree! 


An ardent member of the counterculture in my youth, I’d taken a special liking to a song by the legendary rock trio known as Cream. The lyrics to ‘World of Pain’ rushed to my brain as if to compensate for the oxygen the wind now sucked from my lungs. 


Outside my window is a tree. No time for pity for the tree or me. Is there a reason for today? No time for pity for a growing tree.


Ironically, my early appreciation was based in part on a misunderstanding of the song’s first line, which for years I assumed to be ‘outside my window, he’s a tree.’ To my impressionable young mind, this phrasing offered proof of Cream’s psychedelic sagacity about the universe in that it suggested trees, and plants more generally, might have feelings. Now, as a full-force gale throttled this scraggly beech in front of me, I realized that my adolescent misunderstanding—taken at face value with willful disregard for the actual lyric—gave the song a surprising philosophical implication. Because the pronoun, ‘he’ had transformed the tree into an active subject, it was no longer something merely decorative that good fortune had placed outside the songwriters’ window, to be pitied as they pitied themselves. Rather, the tree in ‘World of Pain,’ all trees for that matter, possessed sentience and the right to existence. They were existential brethren who, by pure chance, had been sent down a different evolutionary pathway than Homo sapiens.  


This animistic inference made it unpleasant to witness the savage dance of my botanical sibling, all alone in an alien world to which it did not belong. Its true home was Antarctica. The southern beech trees of Patagonia were members of an ancient tribe that rose in the late Cretaceous era before the cataclysm of plate tectonics set them drifting with the continents, a diaspora of evolutionary orphans. Like the condor, they’d been torn from their native land by an apocalyptic planet, made refugees without a home.


Kicking through gravel, I stepped from the trail and started for the tree. I’m not sure why, only that I was responding to an inner prompting. I suppose I wanted to stand beside it as if doing so might show my good nature. Or prove in some way that I understood, even though I could not have said what it was I understood. 



But halfway there I stopped as a contrary thought emerged.


My actions presumed consciousness on the tree’s part. However, even if the tree was aware of my approach, there was no guarantee it would welcome me. Just because I thought we were mutually sympathetic co-habitants of the same planet did not make it so. I was an intruder in Patagonia, not necessarily a welcome one. If the tree could talk, it might tell me to quit acting like we were evolutionary partners. It might tell me to turn around, continue down the trail, and disappear for good. 


In truth, I wasn’t at all like the tree or the condor. For one thing, my species was of a more recent origin. Yes, we’d been orphaned on occasion, forced to cross continents to survive. Yes, we’d suffered earthquakes and landslides, predation and starvation. But we were different in a fundamental way. Unlike the condor and southern beech, we mostly fled from disasters of our own making, as refugees from what we’d deliberately destroyed. The condor and southern beech would probably soon cease to exist because of us. There was no escaping who we were: the apocalyptic species.


‘What are you doing?’ 


I looked to see Cynthia waving at me. I waved back, then turned to the tree. It didn’t seem fair that I could leave as I wished while the tree had to stand there 24/7. This wasn’t fair, but who was I to complain? 


Back on the trail, I caught up with Cynthia, then we hurried after the rest who’d disappeared ahead of us. In fifteen minutes, we caught up to them although without their knowing, so engrossed were they in battling the wind. On we trudged in a single file. We came to a view of Grey Lake, where clumpy icebergs floated on milk-green water, and walked the ridgeline that paralleled it.


The temperature dropped. 


Our group pushed on, stretched out along the ridge, with Cynthia and me behind. I knew the glacier was close by the shouts of excitement ahead. The ridge curved abruptly, then slipped down and up in such a way that – all at once we were there, pinioned before it on a windy knoll. We hopped onto a nearby pallet of rock for a better view. Even so, it took a moment for the collage in front of us to clarify.



Grey Glacier seemed to slide from the top of the world through a valley cradled by dark mountains. It had its own atmosphere, its own silver light; part reflection from freezing vapour, part refraction from the thawing mist. In places, frozen escarpments rippled the surface while sooty crevasses paralleled the rocky shore. Directly before me, the waters of the lake lapped the glacial boundary, a ragged jaw of blue ice.


The wind roared. Everything was still. It was then I knew I’d found it. The trail I longed to follow tracked up the glacier through caves of ice to a sunny dome of flurries, its rhumb line spooling from the Southern Ice Cap to the Cordillera Blanca, from the snowy peaks of Huascarán – wrapped in glaciers, brilliant in the flaxen light – to the temple of the Apus, the ones who sent the flowers forth and blazed the trail of mystic union, from Tierra del Fuego to the waters of Amazonia and the Isle of Marajó. I could see it clearly, the map of what we’d soon destroy, the morning of the world now midnight beneath its vanishing glacial crown, the tears of Buddha now ashes on the bed of the river that was. Could we ever be forgiven?


As the wind enveloped me, I lifted my arms to its buffeting salutation, its cruel destiny. For the condor had delivered me to where I belonged, on the sacrificial stone. I dropped to my knees, incorrigible, apocalyptic. 


I shivered but wasn’t cold. My time had come. Would my blood be worthy?


Cynthia touched my shoulder. ‘What’s wrong?’ 


‘Nothing.’


I wiped a tear away with no one noticing, then stood. Everyone was looking at the glacier anyway.

‘So what do you think about Patagonia now?’ she asked.


‘I was wrong,’ I said. ‘But not for long.’ 



 

Acknowledgements  Robert Walker received his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania and is a Professor of Latin American Studies and Geography at the University of Florida. He acknowledges Joel Correia, Michael Hallock, Tiffany Higgins, Kevin McGrath, Dian Parker, and Cynthia Simmons for their many helpful comments and insights. ‘Apocalyptic Species’ was conceived during fieldwork in Ecuador supported by NSF under the grant ‘Resilient Socio-Environmental Systems: Indigenous Territories in the Face of Change (# 2108308).’ The title refers to the book by Craig Childs, Apocalyptic Planet, and is meant to put the species Homo sapiens where it belongs among the disasters capable of destroying planetary life. 


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