Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Tuesday Topics

Today entry includes items from Chile, Argentina and the Falkland Islands.

A White Xmas? In Summer?
In the course of my research, I rarely spend the year’s end holidays at home with family - unless somehow we get together with my wife’s relatives in Olavarría, in Buenos Aires province. In southern South America, of course, it’s summer, and you’re likelier to need air-conditioning than a shovel to clear the snow off the sidewalk (leaving aside, for the moment, that we live in coastal California where snow is always rare).

To be sure, if you seek out the heights of the Andes, you may have a white Xmas (when I lived at 4,400 meters above sea level in Parinacota (pictured above), Chile, summer was the rainy season and, at that altitude it could easily snow). Likewise, if you seek out high latitudes on the Southern Continental Icefield, you can virtually guarantee it. But I was nevertheless surprised last Saturday by a snowstorm in Parque Nacional Conguillío, in the relatively low-altitude, mid-latitude Andes east of Temuco. At 5 p.m., conditions threatened to become a whiteout, and I quickly headed down and south to the town of Melipeuco, where it was cold and damp but snow-free.

En route, though, I saw snow-covered monkey puzzle trees of the sort that drew pioneer conservationist John Muir here from California in the early 20th century. Even more strikingly, the volcanic slag heaps (pictured below) on the lower slopes of Volcán Llaima (whose steaming summit was obscured by cloud) turned from black to white in minutes. Except for rangers and park administrator Norberto Arias, with whom I briefly spoke in his office at Laguna Conguillío, I was the only person in the park. It warmed on Sunday, though, and the prospect of a white Xmas is receding by the minute - though, as I’m continuing farther south, it could still happen.

Gaucho Gil Crosses the Border
My brief Conguillío excursion came at the end of long day’s drive that began near Curacautín, at the outstanding Bavarian-run guesthouse Andenrose, and proceeded to circle the park via Malalcahuello, Lonquimay, Liucura and Icalma. En route, I stopped to photograph this shrine to the Gaucho Antonio Gil, a Robin Hood figure and folk saint from Argentina’s Corrientes province whose cult has grown in the aftermath of that country’s economic meltdown of a decade ago.

This was the first time, though, I have ever seen a Gaucho Gil shrine in Chile - a country that’s been almost untouched by regional and global financial crises. To be sure, the highway itself links Chile to the Argentine province of Neuquén but, even then, it’s jarring to see the Chilean flag flying above Gil’s shrine.

The Falklands Tussac Grass
Jim McAdam, the editor of the Falkland Islands Journal with whom I have corresponded for many years but never met (we just missed each other a couple weeks ago, as I was in the departure lounge at Mount Pleasant as he arrived from Punta Arenas), recently explored Argentine Tierra del Fuego in search of Falklands tussac grass, Poa flabellata. Once abundant throughout the Islands, the grass is exceptional wildlife habitat, especially for small birds - watch for the lurking sea lions, though - but much reduced by unrestricted grazing since the introduction of sheep in the 19th century.

According to Jim, tussac ranges from South Georgia through the Falklands to eastern Tierra del Fuego (including Staten Island and the Wollastons), but “it is only thought to be present at one site on actual mainland Tierra del Fuego - the tip of the Mitre Peninsula near Cabo San Diego. We didn't make it, though, despite a three-day expedition on a quad bike.” He is interested in tussac’s DNA, to see if all came from the same original population.

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