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The View from El Cañi


April 2016. It was a glorious, crisp, sunny fall Sunday when we turned into the small parking lot at the trailhead of the Sanctuario El Cañi in the village of Pichares, about 20 kilometers east of Pucón, Chile. Pucón is a mountain tourist town tucked up under the active Volcán Villarica at the end of Lago Villarica, one of the many large lakes of the Los Lagos Region, where we had stayed the night before. We laced up our hiking boots and made sure we had everything we needed in our day packs for the long climb to the mirador, the viewpoint on a high fragment of the rim of a collapsed volcanic crater that forms the core of the Cañi.

Trailhead at Sanctuario El Cañi

Trailhead at Sanctuario El Cañi

In the language of the area’s indigenous people, the Mapuche, “cañi” means “the vision that transforms.” I imagine that the Mapuche, like the Sioux and Pueblo and many other North American tribes, sought personal connection with universal powers by going to high places, on “vision quests,” seeking spiritual transformation and wisdom. Today, on our Sunday of hiking worship, we were aiming for the view from the El Cañi mirador. We didn’t know what to expect, but we knew we would enjoy the view, and – who knows? – were open even to having our vision transformed.

Jonathan Byers pointing to our destination on a map of El Cañi

Jonathan Byers pointing to our destination on a map of El Cañi

We had been motivated to come to Sanctuario El Cañi after learning that it was one of the first privately funded protected areas in Chile. We thought it might provide a possible model for conservation of the site that John Muir visited on his 1911 trip to Chile, about 75 miles north of here, in his quest to see forests of Araucaria araucana, the monkey puzzle tree.

“Sanctuario El Cañi.” John Muir would have liked that designation, given his view of the sanctity of nature. And Muir would also have understood the Mapuche view of the nature as the source of transformative personal vision and wisdom. His writings are full of stories of his own vision quests through personal encounters with nature, sometimes in its most raw and dangerous moods, from swaying in the top of a pine in a windstorm, to a solo climb of Cathedral Peak in the Sierra Nevada, to a night in a blizzard on the top of Mt. Shasta, which he survived by sleeping on a volcanic steam vent.

Muir would have loved the old-growth cathedrals of araucaria and coigüe in the heart of El Cañi if he had seen them on his 1911 trip to Chile. Instead, the site he visited was heavily affected by fires and grazing, with a sparse, open forest of old araucarias. The dark, wet, old growth forest of El Cañi would have provided a striking contrast. Muir managed to reach the araucarias he had so long dreamed to see at the part of their range that was the most accessible from Santiago at the time, by train and carriage and on horseback. But that accessibility also meant that his vision of an ancient araucaria forest was of one that had experienced and survived heavy human disturbance.

Old growth coigüe, Nothofagus dombeyii

Old growth coigüe, Nothofagus dombeyii

The all-day hike to the mirador was glorious, exhilarating, impresionante. We passed through dark, cool stands of giant coigüe, Nothofagus dombeyii. We ate lunch in the sun on the shore of Laguna Las Totoras: rolls, cheese, avocado, apples, and Fracs, the classic Chilean chocolate cookies. Then up and over a small ridge and into the floor of the old crater, where the araucarias started. This was a mixed forest of araucaria, coigüe, and lenga – another species in the “southern beech” genus, Nothofagus pumilio. The lenga were starting to change to fall colors, and the smell of fall leaves was in the air. At one place the trail passed through a stand of nearly pure araucarias of mixed ages that reminded us of the Muir site, and we wondered why the forest changed so dramatically there. From Laguna Negra, one of the small lakes scattered across the old crater floor, with big old araucarias on the opposite shore reflecting on its quiet surface, the trail switchbacked steeply up to the mirador.

Fall lenga, Nothofagus pumilio

Fall lenga, Nothofagus pumilio

From the mirador we had a 360-degree view of the world centered around El Cañi. We could see four volcanoes around the horizon, including Volcán Villarica, the closest, puffing a cloud of steam to the southwest; the lower dome of Volcán Ketrupillan to the south; Volcán Lanín south-southeast; and Volcán Llaima to the north. Lago Villarica was visible to the west, and another big lake, Caburga, to its north. A brisk wind blew from the north-northeast, but it wasn’t too strong or too cold. The crowns of some old umbrella araucarias were at eye-level, or even spread out below us. Araucarias fringed the ridges all around the crater. Their dominance on the high ridges of the Cañi crater rim was a testament to their toughness, their tenacity, in this dynamic volcanic landscape. Oh, the views they preside over, year after year, eon after evolutionary eon!

View from the mirador, with Volcán Lanín

View from the mirador, with Volcán Lanín

Excited flocks of chattering choroys – the slender-billed parakeet, Enicognathus leptorhychus – passed through the treetops below us, feeding on the seeds of the araucarias, now bursting from the round grapefruit-sized cones of the female trees. These parrots, endemic to Chile, are found mainly in mountain forests of araucaria, adapted to open their cones and nuts, called piñones here. This was their happy season, with the trees brimming with a bumper crop of piñones, and their noisy joy was contagious.

Choroy, araucaria, and Volcán Lonquimay on the Chilean 2000 peso bill

Choroy, araucaria, and Volcán Lonquimay on the Chilean 2000 peso bill

Pablo Neruda, Chile’s great poet, wrote a love song to araucarias, and his images echoed around us at El Cañi. His ode continues for many more stanzas, but begins with this:

Oda a la Araucaria Araucana

Alta sobre la tierra
te pusieron,
dura, hermosa araucaria
de los australes
montes,
torre de Chile, punta
del territorio verde,
pabellón del invierno,
nave
de la fragancia
.

And a translation:

Ode to Araucaria Araucana

High over the land
they put you,
tough, beautiful araucaria
from the southern
mountains,
tower of Chile, point
of the green landscape,
canopy of winter,
ship
of fragrance.

View from the trail to the mirador

View from the trail to the mirador

After descending from the mirador, we walked the Sendero Las Lagunas loop trail on a dreamy afternoon, wandering through the forest among small lakes scattered across the old crater floor. Finally we had to go back down the steep trail to the trailhead at Pichares, and our car. We arrived at dusk, tired, but saturated with images of this amazing landscape: old, new, timeless, bright.

——-

Before starting up the steep trail on Sunday, we chatted with the Sanctuario staff person at the trailhead headquarters, and explained why we were interested in Sanctuario El Cañi. After we had told him how much the Muir site had changed in the last century, he said “Oh, you should talk to Don Martin, who has some old aerial photos of the Cañi, which show how much it has changed in the last fifty years.” Would he mind if we bothered him?, we asked. He is a muy buen persona, he assured us, and urged us to just stop by his house, which he explained was just down the road on the other side. We were thus by chance introduced to the original founder of El Cañi, Martin Quartermaine, a British émigré to Chile, who first purchased the land of the reserve.

With that invitation, we drove back out from Pucón on Monday morning, after our glorious hike to the mirador on Sunday, hoping to catch Martin. We turned down his driveway and pulled up in front of the house, a gang of dogs of various breeds greeting us, barking around our car. Martin came out to calm the dogs, listening skeptically at first to our out-of-the-blue explanation of why we were bothering him at 9:30 on a Monday morning. Don Martin had never heard of John Muir, he confessed to us as we were trying valiantly to explain why we were in Chile. But as soon as he heard that we wanted to know more about the history of El Cañi as a model of private nature conservation, we were immediately welcomed and invited into his living room to hear the whole, long, complicated story.

Here is a summary version of the history from our morning of sipping coffee with Martin: In around 1987 or 1988 Martin learned that the El Cañi property, rising south of his farm in Pichares, was going up for sale. It was rumored that a New Zealand-based plantation forestry company was interested. As Martin knew well, the policies of the Pinochet dictatorship then in power had favored private economic interests, including private industrial plantation forestry, which had converted Chile’s unique and biodiverse native temperate forests to woodchip cellulose production factories throughout central Chile. Martin decided to buy the Cañi to protect it from being converted to a plantation, but he also wanted to find a way to get his money back, and to protect it in a more permanent and public way. Through the U.S. NGO Ancient Forest International, Martin was put in contact with a group of American conservation philanthropists with a special interest in Chile. In 1989 they formed the Lahuen Foundation, and Martin transferred ownership of the Cañi to the foundation.

In another summary version of this history from the website of the Conservation Land Trust, “The Lahuen Foundation was formed in 1989 to acquire the initial properties for the Cani; the Conservation Land Trust later assisted in expanding the reserve. A group of wildlands philanthropists including Alan Weeden, then-president of the Weeden Foundation, Yvon Chouinard, founder of the Patagonia clothing company, and Doug Tompkins were invited by Ancient Forest International to join Chilean conservationists (and Lahuen board members) Adriana Hoffmann, Manfred Max Neef, Nicole Mintz, and others to purchase and formally protect this native forest remnant. Other donors in Chile and the United States also contributed, and the Cani Sanctuary soon became Chile’s premier native forest education project.”

According to Martin, it was the example of the Cañi, a model of how private land and nature conservation in Chile might work, that was the seed that germinated in Doug Tomkins mind, leading to the Conservation Land Trust, and his investment in the Parque Pumalín, and now the prospective Patagonia National Park.

Growing tip of an araucaria

Growing tip of an araucaria

What I began to understand at El Cañi was not just that it provided a model of the kind of private nature reserve that may someday protect the site that Muir visited. It is also a reflection and a result of John Muir’s view of nature conservation as essential for the well-being of the human spirit. I don’t think it is much of a stretch to imagine that Muir’s “vision that transforms,” his view that nature is sacred, and a source of spiritual value and inspiration for humans, was embedded in the worldviews and motivations of Doug Tompkins, Yvon Chounard, and Alan Weeden, the donors who put up the money to purchase and protect El Cañi. As Americans, some with Californian connections, they all knew of Muir and his conservation legacy, from Yosemite National Park to the Sierra Club.

View from the mirador

View from the mirador

Finally, by climbing to the mirador of El Cañi, I came to see all of those connections, that transformative vision, which linked John Muir and the conservation of an old growth araucaria forest in Chile. Oh, what a view!

A Mapuche “rewe,” or shaman’s ladder, used to reach “the blue space above”, where according to Mapuche belief the sacred spirits live

A Mapuche “rewe,” or shaman’s ladder, used to reach “the blue space above”, where according to Mapuche belief the sacred spirits live

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About Bruce Byers

Bruce Byers Bruce Byers Consulting provides technical assistance to government agencies, NGOs, and the private sector in the U.S. and over­seas. We carry out assessments, analyses, and applied research that provide the background information needed to design effective strategies and actions in complex ecological and social contexts.

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