This year I had the good luck of spending a month in Chile with my family; most of that time on Chiloe, which has never felt so much like home. I’m inspired to dust off this essay from April 2010, the last I wrote in college, and materialize my scheme to stay down there longer in coming years.
Our house in Chile is by the water, bordering the pastoral hills of the island of Chiloe. It is a wet island. Heavy and frequent rain drops bead on the cream-white wool shawl I hang by our front door. The rain runs in rivulets down the creases of the umbrella-sized leaves of the ubiquitous nalca plant. Water whips salt onto your face as a welcome to the island during stormy ferry crossings. In the spring, it darkens your pantlegs when you cross the hills of wild grass, the same grass woven tightly into baskets by wrinkly-faced women who will exchange one for your pesos. At the artisanal market, these women also sell Tyrian purple potatoes that fatten beneath the rain-soaked Chilote soils. Chilote potatoes are known as the best in the world, and I believe that miel de ulmo, from the white-flowered Ulmo tree in thick Chilote temperate rainforests, is the best honey. Without this honey, my afternoon aguita of steeped geranium, mint, and lemon verbena would just be leaves in liquid. And what would Chiloe be without the life swimming in its waters? Though as a foreigner I cannot offer an objective answer, but I wonder what the question means for the idyllic Chiloe of my imagination.
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Chiloe is Chile’s “Isla Grande.” On a map, you can see how masses of earth calve into the Pacific Ocean, like icebergs, off mainland Chile as it nears its wedge of Antarctica. It is the first island you’ll encounter heading south from the Atacama desert, the driest in the world, through the capital of Santiago in the fertile central valley, and then on toward frigid waters. The island is part of the Lakes Region (sometimes called “Northern Patagonia” to attract rugged gringos), the tenth of fifteen political units subdividing the nearly 2,900 miles of the skinny country. Because it is so far south, and surrounded by water, Spanish conquest of the native people came late to Chiloe. The same goes for other influences: industrialization, Santiago’s influence, and Americans.
Chiloe’s physical insularity has helped protect the sense of authenticity that my gringo father so cherishes. My Chilean mother introduced him to the island. Though she grew up in Santiago, her best friend’s family lives there. After decades of annual visits, my dad chose to invest his retirement, and a long-term Chilean future for my sister and me, here by the little town of Dalcahue. We are at 42 degrees south latitude—exactly the southern counterpart to the town of Ashland, Oregon, where my parents started a family. This part of the Chilean archipelago also reminds my father of Puget Sound, where he spent much of his childhood. Thus, to him, Chiloe embodies an ideal mix of the familiar and adventurous, the old and the new. Perhaps he fell in love with Chiloe as he discovered its sense of stability, based on the predictable tides and a visible heritage of long-lived culture. “How many places of such originality still exist?” he wonders appreciatively, as we sit on the deck of our home on the island, looking over the beach where our neighbors are harvesting seaweed for market.
We are making this corner of the island home. My parents have planted native trees–canelo, arrayan, ulmo- on our land and befriended the neighbors. They are trying to preserve Chiloe as it is, or was. They’re not the only foreigners with such a desire. Indeed, as a tourism website promises, “Change comes slowly to Chiloe.” Under this declaration plays a slideshow of typical scenes: a harvest of purple potatoes, old women weaving baskets at market, a crew of woodworkers in brown wool hats repairing a fishing boat by the sea. These are images of artisanal lifeways. “Artesanía”: craftsmanship, handcraft, and skill. Artesanía is heritage, the continuation of an idea, a traditional way of life.
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I was slow to register the sound, because it was so unexpected. I could hear the splashing over the percussion of glass plates, metal pans, and earthenware jostling in the dishwater in the kitchen sink. But it was late, and I was sleepy. So I thought nothing of it and kept washing. Once I saw the natural mystery unfolding outside, however, I couldn’t get it off my mind.
I wondered if it might be the wake of a speedboat, rippling over the cobbled shore below the house. The association is ridiculous, in retrospect. Precisely the lack of such foreign, commercial, and American things like speedboats make Chiloe a place my dad believed in to begin with. Only artisanal fishing boats chug slowly through the Canal de Dalca. Even so, it was already one in the morning. Wouldn’t the fishermen be asleep by now?
Fish for dinner, again. I wiped suds off my hands into the sink to push thick wedges of fish spine from the stack of pailas into the compost tin. Bone hit tin with a ping. Tonight, Mama had cooked a traditional thin stew of conger eel, caldo de congrio. In the broth, translucent onions swim, tomatoes disintegrate and buttery white flakes of fishmeat slip off their vertebrae to the bottom of my paila, a bowl handmade from clay.
Outside, the sound of splashing continued. I heard it over John Prine crooning from the speakers near the couch. “It’s a crooked piece of time that we live in, a crooked piece of time,” I tapped my foot and sang along.
Were it not so irregular, the sound outside might have signaled a particularly high tide lapping against the stilts, or palafitos, that perch our house above the winding canal. My sister Isabella noted it as she descended the slippery stairs to the bottom floor. They creaked under her, as do wooden fishing boats in the wharf across the canal when the tide gathers or recedes beneath them. Like most on the island, our house is built like a boat. When its wooden body leans into the wind or pelting rain, its stilts, graying shingles, and planked decks squeak and sing as if going out to sea. Downstairs, Isabella walked past the kayaks left by the recent owners of our home, a pair of ecotourism guides. Kayaks are the modern-day equivalent of the native Chono people’s boats—dalcas—that give the canal its name. Chilotes have, and always will, depend on the ocean.
The sound of splashing continued. Our dinner guests, Michael and Cata who live up the hill, had been gone no more than five minutes before a flashlight came bobbing erratically down the slope toward our house. I wiped my hands on a dishtowel and swung the front door open; the reverberations of rippling water intensified. The figure came into view. It was Cata. Her belly-length hair fanned like a dark blanket behind her in the blue glow of the moon, which shone full and close. Cata swung her hand-held beam onto the high tide.
The water flashed and squirmed and swirled under the spotlight, alive. Thousands and thousands of fish were snapping their bodies toward the cobbled shore. Beyond the writhing silver tide, there was only darkness, and echoes. The fishermen were asleep by now. And none of us knew what to do.
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To this question—“so, are you Chilean?”—I have never found a simple response. My Chilean roots extend back to my maternal grandparents, the Ewers. They settled in Santiago after World War II, my Australian grandmother Lily to head the library for the South American branch of the U.N., my British grandfather Jack to begin his English professorship.
In smoggy Santiago, my mother and her brother grew up with the five children of Jack and Lily’s friends—the Strabucchis, a fellow pair of expats. The second generation of friends eventually began planning the third: two Strabucchi offspring married Europeans, two married Chileans, and my mother and uncle both married Americans. Before anyone celebrated marriage vows, however, the eldest Strabucchi, an alpinist, disappeared with my grandfather Jack while climbing a volcano in the Lakes Region. Neither was ever found. Lily has since avoided the verdant south.
Here in Chiloe, a third generation of Ewer-Strabucchi bonds took root. They grew under the ever-present rain and ashes occasionally drifting from volcanic eruptions across the canal. Rodney Anne Strabucchi, my mother’s best friend, had moved to the small island town of Dalcahue (meaning “dalca place”) after marrying fisherman Jose Montt, or as we know him, Pepe (pronounced peh-peh). Rodney and Pepe’s six children are like cousins to my sister and me. They are not “ethnically” Chilote. But by virtue of their distance from the notably European and commercial central valley, and by their intimacy with the natural bounty of Chiloe’s water, they have always been—in my mind—somehow authentic to the place.
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Chilotes depend on the ocean. Pepe’s operation is called Pesquera Los Elefantes, after the elephantine sea lions that bark from the smooth stretches of the canal when the catch comes in. The catch—mainly a tender white fish called merlusa española—is then sealed in plastic, stamped with a Los Elefantes sea lion, frozen, and shipped off to Spain. Pepe’s family lives by these fish, as do the dozens of his employees. They are the men who run the marine GPS units or swing huge flashlights onto the sea on dark nights to lure certain species to the net. They are the long-haul fishermen who steer boats for twenty-four hours through the beaded necklace of islands for catches further south. They are the women wearing hairnets and white gumboots, who pack the fishmeat in bags or staff the cafeterias at lunch. These same fish fill Strabucchi-Montt bellies several times a week, and sign off on six sets of tuition checks for university.
Pesquera Los Elefantes is an artisanal fishing company. Local builders construct Pepe’s fleet of six boats in a traditional fashion from a cinnamon-red native cypress. They craft the curved hulls of these two-story-high vessels by hammering chisels along the length of the planks. Soft corkscrewed shavings fall to the floor in mounds, and are then recollected to seal the gaps.
This method of ship-building is ancient—it is a mix of indigenous Chilote methods and others from Spain, which themselves have Roman origins. Yet just like the knit and carved goods sold at weekend artisanal markets, boat-building artesanía has evolved to suit the times. Modern market vendors sell hand-carved cellphone holders and paper towel racks of native wood. Pepe’s builders still venture into the forest to find the perfect tree for the boat’s keel, and the chisels look anything but machine-made, yet the boats are built to house a Caterpillar 500 horsepower engine, GPS, sonar, and radar equipment. Pepe doesn’t build artisanal boats to please tourists. I don’t know exactly why he retains traditional techniques and appearances. But it’s not a show, and as far as I know, it’s not disappearing anytime soon.
My earliest memories of Chiloe are infused with the scent of the wood shavings piled on the floor of the construction hangars; they smell like men’s aftershave. The same scent, the same families of builders, the same tools, the same shape and feel of the boats—year after year of our visits, little seems to change. Am I enamored with the idea of dependability? Only a shock could make me question the long honeymoon.
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I wiped my hands on an apron and ran onto the deck. My jaw dropped. Thousands and thousands of fish were snapping their bodies toward the cobbled shore. My sister, mother, and father threw open various doors of the house at Cata’s cry—vengan! Come! We yanked on gumboots to navigate the thin slick of mud and algae at the canal’s edge, now embedded with these sentient five-inch flecks of moonlight. Many were still alive. It looked like a whole school, of a species slightly larger and bluer than canned sardines, had fled in terror from the sea. The tide had begun to retrace its seven-meter advance across the flats, stranding these sardines, or smelt, or whatever they were, behind. Their mouths popped open and closed, gasping for oxygen.
My sister and I began flinging them back into the water. A futile task: the impact might kill them; there were too many. Besides, the whirling masses that were still in the water, flashing their white bellies and going nowhere fast, seemed as good as dead. The tide was muddied by madness. Perhaps this has always been so. Mar, the sea. Marea, the tide. Marearse, to become dizzy.
Soon, we noticed the bigger fish scattered throughout. Their bodies, one or two feet long, shone thinly with iridescent rainbow on silver. In the flashlight’s beam their irises gleamed pure copper. Long tails finished in a red fringe like wet feathers, instead of the caudal fin we know tunas and mermaids for. They weren’t the congrio in our dinner stew. Were they predators from the deeper sea, who chased the sardine-like school ashore? Unlikely story, it seemed, as they cracked themselves forcefully into the air and onto land with kamikaze determination. Not one concerned itself with a sardine snack. This wasn’t evolution on fast-forward. It was death.
All I could think were these words: Surreal. Disturbing. Insane. I knew our oceans were in a bad state, but I never expected to see the tides vomit.
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The “night of the flopping fish,” as my dad puts it, was January 6th of 2009. Everyone I asked has a different theory about the mystery. To this day, I still don’t know its cause.
I remember pressing my dad for answers as we walked back from the beach for bed. He thought it was probably natural. “Dolphins may have chased the big fish in pursuit of small fish onshore, stranding both,” he suggested once we were back inside. We lined our gumboots up by the front door, and shuffled to the bathroom to brush out teeth. My mother mentioned the illegal intrusions of industrial foreign fishing fleets into Chilean waters. My sister chimed in about nearby polluting salmon farms. The four of us went to bed. I stayed awake, worrying.
The next day, I called up Pepe’s wife, Rodney, for answers. Neither dolphins nor overfishing came up in her response. “All kinds of fascinating things happen in the sea,” she said, simply, “if you are lucky enough to witness them.” Indeed, surely the Chilotes have witnessed much stranger phenomena. Some are tragic, but predictable. Pepe would know, having quit the world of fish farming ten years earlier, before lax regulation of the pens of salmon—overcrowded and overdrugged—led to the industry’s viral collapse. These were the same distinctly untraditional techniques that had already failed in Sweden, before they led to the industry’s boom and bust in Chiloe.
But the disoriented fish on the shore by our house weren’t salmon. And the fishermen were already asleep. Was a subtler form of human influence at work?
My neurobiologist aunt Kate holds this darker view. “I suspect what you witnessed was part of a large-scale disaster later that spring,” she wrote to me in an email. The disaster she referenced began with the discovery of over 1,000 dead penguins in Caleta Queule, a remote beach in the ninth region, just north of Chiloe. Shortly thereafter, tons of dead sardines washed ashore. Then, in the Atacama Desert thousands of miles north, more than 2,000 endangered Andean flamingo chicks failed to hatch.
“A suspicion that mankind is to blame has created the feeling that maybe Chile should be doing more to protect its spectacularly rich wildlife,” a Miami Herald journalist wrote of these interrelated events. Feeling? Maybe? Kate would retort. She and my uncle live in Valparaiso, a port city west of Santiago. Within the past five years, the port’s artisanal fishing industry has completely collapsed, due, mainly, to fisheries mismanagement and greed. Dozens of local fishermen have since committed suicide. Kate does not spare the artisanal fishers any blame. “I am sure there are a few conscientious fishermen”—a damp shout-out to the Pepes of the world—“but the majority would rape the seas on a larger scale if they had the means to do so.”
The mysterious fish beaching may be innocent of human touch. We may never know. I want to believe this is so, to innocently celebrate the picnic the birds relished the next morning. Yet the “suspicion that mankind is to blame” dogs me. Author and activist Bill McKibben wrote straight to that doubt back in 1989. The idea of nature as we have always known it, he declared, was dead. “The salient characteristic of this new nature is its unpredictability, just as the salient feature of the old nature was its utter dependability.”
I feel caught between the “new” and “old” ideas of nature. Having grown up during the inception of an era of anthropogenic climate change, I am quick to assign people the blame for mysteries like the fish kill, at the same time that I long for dependability. I want to take comfort in the unquestionable ebb and flow of the sea beneath the palafitos of our house. But the collapse of the life within its waters felt surreal, and disturbing. It seems rational, now, to expect the insane.
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The night of the fish beaching, my father refused to entertain questions of human influence. I jumped straight to them. Perhaps in these extremes we share more than it seems: belief in an idyllic Chiloe, one where change arrives slowly, and with difficulty. The event itself remains a mystery, but the unease it raised still lingers—for it threatens an idea. Our perceptions of Chiloe’s perfection, our enchantment with the artesanía and the changelessness it represents, are powerful. My family comes and goes from the island. We have yet to experience a full turning of a Chilote year, and we don’t make a living there. We, perhaps more than anyone, can afford to play with ideas of nature, and covet them.
I still don’t know what caused the night of the disoriented tides. Maybe I prefer it that way.
“Chile Investigating Rash of Penguin, Flamingo and Sardine Deaths | McClatchy.” McClatchy | Homepage. May 2009. Web. 15 Apr. 2010. <http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2009/05/19/68411/chile-investigating-rash-of-penguin.html>.
“Diarios Regionales – La Vida Bajo El Mar.” Portada.diariosregionales.cl. Web. 15 Apr. 2010. <http://portada.diariosregionales.cl/prontus_blogs/site/artic/20100224/pags/20100224120006.html>.
McKibben, Bill. The End of Nature. New York: Random House, 1989. Print.