Geosoph

A blog on language, literature and people and their relationship with the land

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Author: James Kelly

In Search of Paradise Lost in Tierra del Fuego

Far, far south, at the tip of Latin America, some tens of thousands of years ago, the retreat of the massive Patagonian Ice Sheet began to expose the contours of the Strait of Magellan, separating Tierra del Fuego from the South American mainland. By the arrival of the first canoe people between 6,000 and 7,000 years ago, the extent of the ice — which would once have covered the entire tip of southern Chile — had already shrunk dramatically. Over the millennia that followed, the Yamana, or Yaghan — the world’s southernmost ethnic group, which once inhabited the Beagle Channel from the Brecknock Peninsula in the northeast, to Cape Horn in the southwest — adapted and evolved to live in reciprocity with this wild and unforgiving landscape, famous for the wrath and unpredictability of its seas. Yet all this would change in 1520, when the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan first set sight on the strait that would go on to bear his name. For the Yamana, the arrival of the European colonizers set off a chain of events that ultimately proved fatal. Today only one full-blooded Yaghan survives.

An unspoiled paradise until well into the nineteenth century, in less than two hundred years, Tierra del Fuego has seen its Indigenous inhabitants wiped out by colonization, and the effects of climate change now threaten the erosion of its glaciers. Perhaps unconnected at first sight, both processes — the retreating glaciers, on the one hand, and state-sponsored ethnocide, on the other — share their roots in the advent of our modern world, upsetting the finely tuned balance that allowed the region’s spectacular landscapes to evolve in a gradual process over many thousands of years, together with their peoples and ecosystems.…

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The Geoglyphs of Chug Chug: A History Written on the Land

Journeying north from the Chilean capital of Santiago, there is a point, perhaps passing the town of Copiapó, around 27° S, when the vegetation stops and the desert begins in earnest; arid, parched, the land strewn with rocks and rubble. It is an unworldly landscape, one that at first sight would appear to deny the very possibility of human life, but that nonetheless has been inhabited by humans for many thousands of years. Passing the Tropic of Cancer, now around 22° S, as the plane begins its descent into the oasis of Calama, the mining capital of Chile’s Norte Grande, I have a bird’s-eye view of the land, of its terracottas and arenaceous yellows, of the whites of the salt flats, the die-straight roads that cut across the land, the tops of distant volcanoes shimmering in the heat; a mirage, a landscape suspended in time. Touching down on the tarmac, the contrast between the solid black and the buff land from which the runway is carved sticks in my mind.

Later that night, leaving the city of Calama behind us and heading into the unknown, the contrast returns to haunt me, the beam of the headlights illuminating snatches of the empty space around us; vast, menacing, uncertain. The nightlights dance demonically in the distance behind us, flickering orange and red: Calama and the neighbouring town of Chuquicamata, home to the world’s largest open-pit copper mine, its voracious appetite fed by multiple rows of pylons running in parallel to the road.…

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Chile, the Land and Its People: A Dialogue

In Tristes Tropiques (1955), the French anthropologist Claud Lévi-Strauss remarked on the difference between the landscapes of Europe and the Americas. As Europeans, he observed, whose relationship with the land has been a long and gradual process, we are ‘unacquainted with virgin nature since our landscape is manifestly subservient to man.’ Crossing the Atlantic, however, the situation is different: while there no doubt remain areas—and vast ones at that—where it is possible to appreciate the pristine nature alluded to by Lévi-Strauss, when ‘development’— here understood as the large-scale colonization and industrial usage of the land by humans—had taken place, it had done so to a faster rhythm and on a much larger scale. ‘Either,’ Lévi-Strauss wrote, ‘nature has been so ruthlessly mastered that it has been turned into an open air factory’ or it has been ‘sufficiently inhabited by man for him to have had time to lay it waste but not long enough for slow and continuous cohabitation to have raised it to the dignity of a landscape.’

Examples abound:  Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass (2013), a fascinating meditation on indigenous wisdom and the natural environment, devotes an entire chapter to exploring the toxic legacy of nineteenth century industrial expansion that continues to blight the Onondaga lake, while Koyaanisqatsi (1983), the fruit of a collaboration by filmmaker Godfrey Reggio and composer Philip Glass, documents the disconnect between the people and the land in the United States during the apogee of twentieth century consumer capitalism.

The lesson is clear: as the pace and scale of development grows, the potential for degradation increases exponentially.…

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