Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The Quality of This Land

After returning from Tierra del Fuego I am often asked the question is it a beautiful place? It’s not an easy question to answer; my response, at least in my head, is to ask what makes a place beautiful? I wonder: must a place have obviously awe-inspiring features like a mighty mountain, or plunging, pristine waterfall to earn our respect? Or can we appreciate land like we do most people, not with a glance but with a relationship? Are there as many scales of beauty for land as there are among people?

The part of Tierra del Fuego in which we work shows beauty in a “normal” way. At times, golden sunlight on low, grassy hills, rolling down to the sea along the shore of Bahia Lomas or the Strait equals the beauty of any other seaside vista. That said, I believe the real beauty of this land lies in something not seen in a glance from the window of a car or airplane. It unfolds as you get to know it. For me, the beauty of this land lies buried within the very real organic connection of land, sea and sky.

Tierra del Fuego

Looking north at the Straits of Magellan from the low hills that give Bahia Lomas its name

Imagine a wind that rises from nothing and in seconds turns into a monstrous force. It can rough-up the sea into white foam that rides on a rolling swell so deep that it even rocks a ferry carrying tanker trucks. Yet all around you are sunny skies with dreamy clouds, not a dark one in sight.

Tierra del Fuego

The Straits of Magellan whipped by a 60 mph wind on a sunny day

At such times you would think the sea could get no worse. Then the tide turns and the two gigantic forces, wind and tide, starting fighting each other. The tide here is awesome. At low tide you can stand on top of the cobble beach staring down a steep muddy slope to a trickle of a river and think it impossible that the sea could fill up such an immense space. Yet it does, relentlessly and with a rush. We’ve seen walls of water rushing from the open sea filling river channels 30 feet deep in a few hours, only to see them drain away again in an endless cycle.

Tierra del Fuego

The tide fills a river on the edge of Bahia Lomas

Tierra del Fuego

Jerry walking along the shore of the Strait of Magellan at low tide

We have ridden our ATV to the outermost edge of the intertidal flats of Bahia Lomas at low tide, an amazing 6 km from the high tide line. Out there, the sea appears peaceful, in no way threatening. Then the tide starts moving. At first it comes slowly, crawling across the mudflat, filling in the minor contours that seem only to appear when the tide fills them. It keeps picking up speed, at times so fast you would have to walk briskly to keep up. Then it dawns on you that the flat that appears to be without relief is actually bisected by many small creeks which fill so fast that you may be cut off, trapped in a world of ever-deepening sea. Inches of water turn to feet in minutes, tens of feet in hours.

Tierra del Fuego

Looking at the shore of Bahia Lomas on an outgoing tide

Sometimes you will bask in warm sun, stripping off outer garments wondering why you ever even brought them in the first place. At the sea edge you can still see the Andes looming large in the distance and beneath them are tiny clouds. Within minutes those distant innocuous clouds fill the sky around you but are now dark and threatening. Without sun, the air turns as cold as a NJ winter day and although it never rains hard, wetness starts to drift in the winds and cuts you through. The sea grows choppy, the wind freshens. You feel the power of nature unleashed like few other places in the world.

Tierra del Fuego

A storm threatens Bahia Lomas on a spring tide

At the same time, this land opens its arms with a mother’s love. Though not rich in bird species, many that do occur are very special. Only a few are globally rare, like the ruddy-headed goose or Magellanic plover. That must be because the land is vast and the habitat it has to offer changes little from place to place. Therefore whatever birds are present are common and widespread. This year was special because David and Jerry brought with them their indefatigable passion for birding that infected us all. Through their eyes one can understand this unique quality of the land, many species found here are unusual but have received little scientific scrutiny. This includes endemic species like the Fuegian snipe, the chocolate-vented tyrant, and even the ever-present least seedsnipe.

Tierra del Fuego

Guanacos in evening

For me the sea, wind, sky and animals are not separate features of the land but, along with the land, they are an entity, a life, a spirit within which lies a wondrous beauty that I cannot easily describe. But I feel it, as does our team. For the most part we are all conservationists; our main goal here is to help save a species that, oddly enough, barely survives because of unstoppable greed 8,000 miles away. We’ve done our best to fight that battle by provided vital information to help untangle the many threads of the red knot’s complicated plight. I can’t say we’ve had much success protecting the red knot but fortunately after seven years this land and its people have given us more than we expected: a land of beauty that springs from the transparent interaction of life and the naked power of wind and sea.
This year, with the help of many Chileans, and supporters from the US we will begin construction of the Tierra del Fuego Bird Observatory on the shores of the Strait of Magellan. With luck we can help create a partnership between Chilean and US groups and add something to a growing conservation program in Bahia Lomas by native Chileans. I will write more about this in later blogs.