Footsteps in the forest

Impressions of Bosque Pehuén, a forest in the south of Chile and site of our first archive. 

The treeline stretches into the distance, a jagged purplish hem stitching together land and sky. The summit of Volcán Villarrica drifts in and out of sight, wreathed in filmy, breath-like cloud.

On the hillside, mighty Araucaria trees stand to attention like fingers, shooting their spiky, time-worn branches into the eye-watering blue. These Araucaria have existed here for seven centuries, living fossils of the Mesozoic era and symbol of Araucanía, in the south of Chile. Araucaria have been around for 200 million years. They witnessed the birth of the dinosaurs and survived the conditions of their extinction; the DNA contained within their hardy seeds unchanged since prehistoric times. Tree-time is a temporality that humans cannot easily conceive of through our own limited, lived experience.

Yellow flowers cluster along the sides of the river, their miniature pillow-petals as soft and as delicate as kisses. But how easily might their bright, lovely fragility be crushed, perhaps beneath the paws of a wondering puma – the forest’s elusive carnivore, protagonist of Araucanía folklore. Nature’s mercurial temper snuffs out life just as it gives birth to another, humming to the tune of constant regeneration. In winter, heavy snowfall fells the trees here, the toppled remains of which are dotted about the forest.

It is ironic that we write our tales on paper, when the trees themselves are the forest’s libraries. Like grandpas of the forest, they hold a lifetime’s supply of histories within their rough-skinned layers. Even when they die, a mini-ecosystem begins anew inside each woody strata. Life cycles within life cycles: a chrysalis inside a leaf, a mushroom rising from the mulch, a sapling proudly sprouting from a broken stump. If only we could read the language of trees and understand the forest’s mysterious web of connectivity. But who can say if their tales were ever meant to be read by humans?  

Attaching romantic sentiments to elements of the forest is futile; next time I return the golden flowers might be gone, swept away by furious winds or wilted by the climbing sun. These endlessly recurring life cycles are not something a human can relate to, marching along with our linear chronology and our question marks over philosophies of reincarnation. In the womb-like forest, our packaged, curated time holds little meaning. Time here hangs in suspension, like the gossamer threads of spiders who have forged their temporary abode amongst the splinters of a jagged tree stump. Here we can forget how to quantify, how to measure. Here we can simply be.

As the sun crowns the sky, stripes of bright light penetrate the forest, spotlighting the geometric dances of flying insects. Jigsaw-like patches on the forest floor are illuminated, a careless tapestry of fallen leaves and bone-white shards of tree bark.

Where humans have been absent, nature has reclaimed its territory, growing with Dionysian abandon around the sites of cut trees and too-neat clearings. We are witnessing the healing process, a forest recovering after the five years of sustained logging that took place here in the 1970s.

There is fragility though. The bark of the Araucaria is black and cracked, a tree trunk turned tortoise’s carapace that reveals stories of raging forest fires. Evolution bestowed the gift of fire resistance on the Araucaria but global warming may be a selective pressure that these even great guardian trees cannot withstand.

Some of the reptilian green branches have faded to a sad shade of brown. Soon they will fall from the tree. It’s thought that fungal pathogens are causing this leaf damage; a white woody fungus that is visible beneath the Araucaria’s whorl of fractal-like leaves. Already, dead branches litter the floor like cut-off hands.

Saddest of all are the adolescent Araucaria. Barely fifty centimetres tall, these vulnerable trees are drying out, succumbing to the over-proliferating fungus. Be careful not to blame the fungus however – nature’s misunderstood kingdom. The fungus has always existed on the Araucaria. Scientists believe that the recent decade of record hot temperatures in Chile has triggered its overgrowth.

The visceral juxtaposition of the macro: upright Araucaria on the horizon, with the micro: desiccated branches underfoot, is a sobering message. Evidence of our impact is never too far away.

At the end of the winding track, the waterfall crashes down the side of the slope. Drops of water sparkle like quartz as they fly over the ridge, imbued with a furious infectious energy. A myriad of greens have been painted over the rock walls, brushstrokes of a mystery artist. Mossy cushions rest beneath the curtain of water while attractive leaves sway on thickly corded stems, almost obscene in their fecund, blooming beauty. For once, the chatter of the birds in the forest is upstaged by the waterfall and its gurgling tributaries.

Around my toes, icy water plunges over logs, pivoting around stones the colour of oxidised iron and swirling in transparent pools. Rushing: the movement of an element that proceeds wholly unconstrained. Diamond-shaped divides form as the water slips around moss-coated rocks – these, stoic bastions of immobility amidst the lively flow. Such purpose! For of course, the water intimately knows its destination, flowing the hundreds of miles from Andes glacier to Pacific Ocean along channels carved by ancient hands. Source of sustenance since time immemorial.

The quantity of life is elating. Even when the forest seems to hold its breath, a coal black beetle can always be found retracing its steps inside a fire-coloured flower. There is a writer’s panic at the impossibility to crystallise a collection of small, frozen words out of this mass of biodiversity. Language can scarcely do justice to the overhanging scent of petrichor, the flawless symmetry of a rauli leaf, the chucao’s low-throated call, the gentle dance of slender trees in the breeze, the leafy fingertips that stroke the passing clouds…

Coming from Santiago, the difference in sound is remarkable. If you shut your eyes in a city, the noises of trains, taxis, people continue all around you. Constructing a visual map from the soundscape is easy. But in the forest, the listener must be more astute at guessing what they hear. A bird calls, unseen. Which species? Is it building a nest? Where is it flying to?

Water emits a gentle comforting hiccup, as it twists between the banks, out of sight. Which animal travels in its flow?

At night, beneath the glow of stars, there is silence. Gazing up at the cruz del sud, fabled constellation of navigation, I wonder at their celestial noises. An inaudible concert, performed on a starry stage too many light-years away for my ears. These stars existed long before we tipped our planet into the Anthropocene. Around me, human noise is close to zero, at last eclipsed by nature’s soundtrack.  

By C.McQue