South America, Part Two

Anchorage, Alaska 2/7/18

It doesn’t take long to notice that they’re deep into medicinal herbs at Pablo and Ruth’s place. And horses.

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Pablo is ready to talk your ear off about Argentina’s gauchos, their knowledge, their proud spirit and attitude, the qualities of their horses. He’ll lose track of time, then notice it. “Latin American time dilation,” with his sly Pablo smile.

You couldn’t exactly call Pablo organized, but he turns out to be a great community organizer. Everybody in the area seems to know Pablo Friedlander, and many are working with him. Sometimes there’s money in it. Gauchos prefer to be paid.

Their herbs are of the place. They are curing fragrantly in a shed, and they are arrayed in bags and jars and tinctures along the walls of the pantry. Mention an ailment, and out comes the herb. Different occasions of the day call for different teas – not just the mate, but the blends, the peppermint you can only get from their Champaqui Mountain, and others. There’s a wonderful smell in the shed when he opens the door, and I recognize it as a tea he has fed to us at certain moments, often late in the day or even the end of the day. Then we go to bed.

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Here we are peering through the grape arbor at Pablo and Ruth’s front porch.  Yes, those are grapes, and yes, that is the entrance to the property.

Our arrival comes at the New Year full moon, and preparations are underway for the big renewal ceremony of the year on January 5th. We get assigned the cooking duties, and there are significant restrictions, such as nothing too spicy, not even garlic, and all food should be light. The other restriction is that nobody has gone for groceries and there’s hardly anything left in the larder. We do what we can with a couple of eggplants, some cheese, a squash, some carrots out of the garden, a little lettuce, some good tomatoes, a few eggs. In part we are rescued by Esteban, a board member of Pablo’s foundation. He’s a chef who moved here from Buenos Aires because of his interest in local foods. Esteban fires up the outdoor oven, makes up a number of loaves of flavored bread, and a crust into which we place the cooked squash and carrots and make a pie for everybody. Thank God for the eggs. The oven, by the way, is the same as that used by the Navajo and others, and probably came from the conquistadores.

Pablo ended up here because he always loved climbing rocks and seeking the sources of streams in the highlands. This brought him to Champaqui, and, when he looked back at it from the other side, a vision involving how this valley between the interior altiplano and the Andes, known as the traslasierra, was the frontier between civilization and the wild. He bought land on the mountain, and built a home along its waterways in an area called Los Molles, watershed for a couple of million people.

Pablo is the guy with the walkie talkies the Champaqui rangers use, as well as the firefighting squad. Pablo keeps the devices in his refrigerator, I’m not sure why. The rangers are volunteers. They patrol the mountain, offering help and direction to the visitors who want to climb up to the spectacular views, glimpse the wildlife, gander at the rare plant species, hang out at the arroyo’s many swimming holes, and so forth. The firefighters have equipment stationed at bases in the higher elevations. Dirt bikes, horses, pack animals and their own feet are their transportation. The State of Cordoba can’t afford near the amount of firefighting the locals deem necessary, but it can provide equipment and supplement the efforts of the crews. And so it has come to be that the community itself manages the mountain, and the state points proudly to it as an example of public/private partnership in land conservation. Much of the mountain is private property, but Pablo has the landowners on the west side of it working together, as well as the gauchos who hire themselves out to do the work. The work for the gauchos now includes not only the usual fencing and wrangling, but also outfitting and guiding visitors, some produce marketing, crafts, and family harvesting of plants.

Cordoba has been co-operative and supportive, designating more of its public lands in the area for conservation and happy to provide official status to the efforts, so long as it doesn’t cost the government any money. The University’s ecological scientists are delighted. They, of course, don’t have much money either. If the crowdfunding is successful, Pablo’s foundation hopes to build an observatory on the high part of the mountain – not anything you could see from below, of course, but something dug in, with lab equipment, a firefighting base and bunkhouse underneath. This might help lessen the impact that comes from people camping up there now.

We spent two weeks at Los Molles. Along with the celebration, we worked to prepare for the annual cloud milking expedition. This happens during the mountain’s brief rainy season and involves planting a particular kind of tree and harvesting seeds for the following year. Champaqui is the highest mountain in the region, and for years, Pablo and his friends have been planting trees where the clouds brush along its high reaches. They are actually expanding and augmenting the cloud forest, and this has added measurably to the water delivered to the population below. You can see why we call this Extreme Gardening. The seeds gathered each January are delivered to area schools, where children grow the next crop of seedlings. Pablo and Ruth tried to do this themselves, “but the children are much better at it.”

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The greenhouses, rangers, firefighting and tree planting are only part of the way the people who live there are co-operating in managing the mountain. With help from scientists and the gauchos, Pablo has landowners improving their pasturing techniques, using fencing to keep livestock out of the waterways and away from herb harvesting areas, and allowing the stock to intensively graze firebreak areas and rotate pastures for better conservation and erosion control. This is now resulting in more top predators, and more challenges for the livestock owners. Yes, the puma and the condor, the very symbols of the mountain, are coming back.

Good luck, Pablo.

 

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