By Liz Rumsey
Reprinted from The Leader, Fall 2001, Vol. 17, No. 1
The goal of this article was to introduce the NOLS community to an organization dedicated to saving wilderness in Patagonia. My progress on it was interrupted by the attacks on September 11th. Several distracted days later, I returned to the task but found myself wondering, 'who cares?' Over the last several weeks, I have been reminded why I do. I have scrapped the science-based appeal for one that is more abstract, perhaps a bit sentimental, but for me these days, more personally relevant.
In "Dancing at the Rascal Fair," Ivan Doig tells a story of life "back in the day." I loved that book. I loved that life could be so grounded in the natural world, bobbing like a little boat on the swells of nature's rhythms... Up, down, and, every now and then, upside-down. The characters' joys and frustrations coincided with sunsets, droughts, trees in bloom, getting stuck in mud, smooth travel over open prairies, hard winters, the end of those hard winters...
The story presumably takes place in Montana a hundred years ago. There's a chasm of time that now separates us from this place. The simplicity of that world feels lost. The idea of "simple pleasures" has become a cliché, but it makes me wonder: In my own life, what would it take to feel the same sense of fulfillment and accomplishment that they felt. They managed to stay dry in the rain, warm in the cold and content in the quiet moments when the nearest company was three days' journey away.
In this realm, I was limited to my imagination until I went to Patagonia. Patagonia might be 5,000 miles away from Montana, but it is 100 years closer to life at the Rascal Fair.
While much of the landscape is far from untouched, there is still a sense of exposure that characterized the American west a hundred years ago. What would be a gray route on any road map in the States is, in Patagonia, a bold red line, the region's main highway and the tenuous lifeline of the tiny zonas urbanas. It is not uncommon, after hiking for several days through temperate rainforests and deep valleys, to encounter settlers whose lives are governed by the level of the rivers or the amount of snow that falls. Messages from friends and relatives are heard over Radio Santa Maria as they sip mate around the wood stove. These pobladors are often impressed that we would choose to wander through the rugged mountains, living in tents for 30 days. But when our trip is over, we give each other high fives and head for our comfortable worlds, while they continue to live a life that is now a memory in our pockets. In my few years as an instructor for NOLS, I have known my highest highs and lowest lows in Patagonia. It is this intensity that sets it apart from other wilderness areas I have visited. I sift through my experiences there and wonder, in this day and age, how many of them could have taken place anywhere else?
What I most value about Patagonia's wilderness is its ability to humble me, to mock my careful plans, my desire to make progress, or goals I had set out to achieve. It has made me realize, time and again, how incredibly fulfilling it can be to simply hold a warm cup of tea in my hands. I have learned what it is to live in the present moment, and often to work hard doing so.
Change is inevitable, and in Patagonia, change is slow. The process of deciding to build a road and actually completing it can take a dozen years. But Patagonia's remoteness will not protect it indefinitely, and as the economy continues to globalize, environmental misuse of Patagonia's natural resources has become a reality. In trying to make sense of all that has happened in the last few weeks, I've ultimately renewed my dedication to protecting the wild places that remind me that the world that is unfolding is not the `real world' so much as a world of human construction and destruction. Nature reminds me of my own humanity and centers me in a present moment that is simple, meaningful, and for that, peaceful. I don't want to forget that such a state of mind exists. The wilds of Patagonia have proven to be a powerful source of inspiration for myself and countless others, and my hope is that they can continue to be.
The Patagonia Land Trust, founded in 2000 by Kristine Tompkins, is dedicated to the maintenance and restoration of wildland ecosystems and biodiversity in Patagonia. As a nonprofit foundation, the Trust's goal is to acquire and protect privately owned wildlands, to preserve intact ecosystems and ultimately to return its landholdings to the public domain for permanent protection in the form of parks, reserves and sanctuaries.
If you want the more practical appeal, or simply more information, please visit the land trust's website at www.patagonialandtrust.org or contact the Patagonia Land Trust, PO Box 671, Ojai, CA 93024, (805) 640-8204, firstname.lastname@example.org