ESSAYS: OTHER PATAGONIAS
This essay was meant to accompany my show of South American prints at MOUNTAIN LIGHT GALLERY in Bishop, California. But since it explains as well why there are so many Patagonia images on my web site, I thought it might be of more general interest..
Almost by accident I visited Patagonia for the first time five years ago and discovered a totally unexpected landscape. Not just one surreal landscape—but many. And all of them different. These days I am spending half of every year in Patagonia and it’s still an adventure, still fresh, still a discovery. Patagonia, of course, is as much myth as reality. In travel books and travelers’ tales Patagonia is a code word for remoteness, for a place beyond. As far away as you can get. The myth of Patagonia also says that this is a land of arid shingle, dry windswept plains, steppes and pampas, punctuated on its skyline by snaggletoothed granite spires. Yes, that’s Patagonia. This is the classic landscape of southern Argentina that mountain climbers from around the world have fallen in love with. But there’s more. There are other Patagonias: wet west-coast Patagonia, temperate Patagonia, fjordland Patagonia, the Patagonia of endless ice caps, as well as the steppe-and-pampa Patagonia of literature and the vertical-granite Patagonia of climbing magazines. A Patagonia of forests too dense to hike through, of bamboo groves, of giant thousand-year-old Alerce trees, of unpolluted rivers and turquoise lakes, of tiny hardscrabble ranches and a handful of tenuous one-lane dirt roads....
Cross the Andes to the west and everything changes, and then changes again, and again. Every fifty miles farther west you find a different climate: from bone-dry plains dotted with thorny scrub, to meadows choked with wildflowers, to dismally rainy islands and archipelagos on the Pacific where nothing ever dries out. I started visiting Chilean Patagonia, on the western slope of the Andes some five years ago. It was love at first exposure. New creatures, parrots sharing airspace with condors, tiny pigmy owls and large shy flamingos, vizcachas and guanacos. New trees with new leaves and new colors in autumn, hung with green moss. The unearthly clear deep turquoise of glacial lakes seemingly without the usual milky glacial silt. Giant wild mutant rhubarb leaves a meter across, two meters across. Unnamed waterfalls on unnamed creeks. And as yet no pollution, no need to filter the water, no rivulet, brook, tarn, pond or lake in Patagonia that you can’t drink directly from.
I knew Patagonia was a frontier. You can hardly get there from here. Wherever here is. You certainly can’t drive there from the rest of Chile. The road south stops at Puerto Montt. And so do most travelers, most tourists, most Chileans. For me Patagonia became a photographic frontier as well, pushing my new digital tools to the limit. Shooting hand-held from a rocking boat in a deep shadowy cave, or under a three-story iceberg... Always surprised, always surprising. Always another Patagonia to explore.
As with so many perfect places, the beauty of these Other Patagonias is both fragile and threatened. People haven’t been as destructive here as elsewhere simply because there have always been fewer people here than elsewhere. But today a veritable avalanche of industrial greed is poised to fall upon this stunning remote corner of the world. Consortiums of international energy corporations have set their sights on the lakes and all the rivers of central and northern Chilean Patagonia, proposing enormous and enormously destructive mega-dams, coupled with the longest high-tension transmission lines in the world to carry cheap power to mining companies in the North. Saving the rivers, lakes and watersheds of Patagonia from imminent destruction is shaping up to be one of the toughest and most important environmental fights of our time. I hope my photographs bear witness that the far far south is indeed worth saving.
WESTERN EYE PHOTOGRAPHY
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