From Roble & Coigue
De Pellin y Coihue ! the sign says atop the entrance to a most well-placed restaurant overlooking the shimmering waters of Lago Ranco in southern Chile.
The name highlights the noblest of Chilean trees, the roble and the coigue, both members of the Nothofagus genus that is the stalwart of the most beautiful mixed hardwood forests in the world. The term pellin refers to the dark red hard wood of the core, the heart, of an older roble tree; hualle being the lighter, more malleable wood of younger roble trees. Both the roble and the coigue can be turned into beautiful furniture, and a lot of it is. The carved out trunks of large felled coihue trees were used in the past by the indigenous peoples of Chile, the Mapuches, for their canoes. But the wood of these majestic guardians of the foothills of the southern Andes also makes very efficient firewood; lots of heat and close at hand. So over the centuries that these lands have been the home of the Mapuches, and through the decades since this part of the country was settled by European immigrants, the rich, dense, diverse forests have been slowly cut away, thinned out, or burned off to make way for crops, animals, roads, human settlements, and especially the vast, sterile open spaces humans seem to enjoy.
Lago Ranco is one of Chile’s largest lakes, but not the largest. Lago Llanquihue and Lago General Carrera, both further south, are larger. Lago Ranco has for years attracted fishermen, hikers and campers; it boasts several islands, one providing an escape for the Edwards family of El Mercurio newspaper ownership, and another, Isla Huapi, is a Mapuche reserve. Every Saturday produce is taken by boat to the market in Futrono, a bustling commercial center for vacationers in the summer, but quietly buttoned down in the rainy winter months.
Just down the road from Futrono, close to where the Rio Bueno exits the lake and begins its journey to the Pacific Ocean, sits the Coique Bay complex owned by past (and possibly future) President Sebastian Piñera. This development provides rustic lakeside camping, upscale vacation lodging and restaurants, and a large hillside area where summer homes are being built by the fortunate and surely wealthy to escape the long, hot, dry months of January and February that drive people out of the capital city of Santiago, over 800 kilometers to the north.
At the Eastern end of one of the lake’s inlets, just off the road leading further into the mountains, the Silva family of Casa Silva winery fame has a beautiful lakeside complex where they graze their polo horses and some cattle on lush, deep green rain-fed pastures. Casa Silva was recently named Winery of the Year by Wines of Chile, for their highly awarded wines produced from grapes grown mostly in the irrigated central valley. However, for the last few years they have been expanding vineyards on the north western slopes of the surrounding hillsides of Lago Ranco.
The Silvas apparently know their science; climate change is making grape growing further south not only increasingly possible but most likely eventually necessary. The wine industry in Chile is slowly extending its borders from the central valley further north, further south, and into cooler (for now) climates along the coastal and Andean ranges.
As my good fortune would have it, next to the Silva complex sits the newly built summer vacation home of one of Ximena’s cousins, Pablo. On a recent long weekend, Pablo hosted me and a longtime friend of his, Francisco, at this home on Lago Ranco, where we fished (but did not prove the presence of fish) and swam in the cool but surprisingly not cold waters fed by crystal clear streams rushing down out of the Andes mountains.
A perfect setting for a relaxing getaway, enhanced by the broad range of appropriate skills: Pablo the boat captain and steak griller;
Francisco the sour specialist;
Viviana, the house manager and lemon squeezer;
and the author, all around good guy, taking it all in, with pleasure.
One evening, as the sun set colorfully behind the mountains, casting a glow on the still waters of the lake, we enjoyed a wonderful meal at the De Pellin y Coihue: grilled lake trout framed by pisco sours and crisp Sauvinon blanc. Casa Silva is producing Sauvinon blanc, Chardonnay, and Pinot noir wines now from their young vineyards on Lago Ranco under the name “Ranco”, but it was not available the night we dined there. And by the way, when asked, the waiter admitted the trout came from a lake just to the south, Lago Panguipulli! Issues abound around over cutting of the native forest, and over fishing of the lakes, but on this visit we contributed to neither.
December in southern Chile is late spring. An early morning walk along the road leading to Pablo’s house provided myriad signs of the productivity of the volcanic soils of these Andean foothills: the lush Casa Silva vines, the flowering castañas (some variety of chestnut not native to Chile), and a team of oxen plowing the dark volcanic soil in a most traditional way, so as to plant the most traditional of crops, the potato.
Most striking on this bright morning, though, was the beauty of the pervasive wild blackberry, completely covering the roadsides, gullies, stream banks, and really any open space where the sunlight penetrates the tree cover.
Sometimes the wash of white flowers of the blackberry bushes can be confused with the similarly white flowering wild rose from which Chileans harvest the rosa mosqueta for their afternoon tea. But in Central and southern Chile, there’s no mistaking the presence of the blackberry, this invasive foreigner an old Chilean friend of mine calls “the worst of the worst three pests that over time have invaded Chile”.
OK, it’s true that the zarzamora, as the Chileans call this blackberry, is a pest. It invades, covers whole fields, and its bramble is impenetrable and almost impossible to eliminate. But it provides, at no cost to the picker, producer, and jam maker, the most deliciously notable blackberry jam ever eaten on a piece of toasted bread. If you have ever eaten the fruit straight from the bush along a Chilean country road, even directly from the window of your strategically parked car, or savored the jam on a slice of that classic Chilean flat bread they call hallulla, toasted and buttered, you know why the sight of endless white flowers along the roads around Lago Ranco this spring day made my day. It just makes you feel the strength and optimism of the renewal of spring; that, and the thought of the grapes just beginning to form on the young vines only a few short months away from becoming fresh, crisp wine.
Maybe you are wondering what the other two pests were that bothered my friend, way back then. Well, at the time he told me this, I was a Peace Corps Volunteer, and we were travelling around the country collecting information about the different Chilean woods and their uses. The second worst pest to be introduced to Chile was, he said, the European hare; “They destroy every plant they run into, girding tree seedlings recently planted, snipping flowers and sprouts of crops as they appear….everything. And they multiply faster than you can catch them.” The third worst pest? I should have suspected; “…the Peace Corps!” My friend laughed a bit too hard and long at this, I felt, but I believed he was just joking. He did say, though, that he had observed that “Peace Corps Volunteers very likely eat more than they produce during their stay in Chile”. I believe he only knew a few Volunteers, me and some of my friends! Oh well, at least we were not, in his mind, the worst pests, not as bad as the blackberry nor the hare.
Back in Santiago, the annual artisan fair hosted by the Universidad Católica was in full force, and to my great surprise the featured artisans this year were those who work with Chile’s native woods, the ones that come from the native forests in southern Chile, like the roble and the coihue that grow around Lago Ranco. If these trees are going to be cut down and used for something, you would certainly want Chilean artisans to claim their share. And if it’s true that plants suffer and cry out when cut, just like humans and other animals, it seems possible as well that as an artisan gives form to a piece of wood, the crying morphs into a new, refreshing melody that hints at the beginnings of a new life.
“Wood is noble and warm. I believe that half of the goodness of a piece of carved wood art is in the expression of the wood itself; its grain and its colors.” Egon Muñoz, whose feelings these words portray, is an accomplished artisan who works and sells his art at the Ruka-Pulli Wood Art Association center on the road that climbs from the town of Pucón up the slopes of Villarrica Volcano.
Nestor Miranda, who works out of Villarrica, just down the road from Egon’s place, believes that “The wood talks to you, guiding you towards the final piece you carve; so when I first see the silhouette of a raw unworked hunk of wood, it’s already telling me what figure will appear.”
Both Egon and Nestor carve several native woods, but mostly now the reddish brown raulí, another of the Nothofagus genus of Chilean hardwoods. Laurel, lingue, avellano, lenga, ciruelillo, mañio, roble and ciprés are woods highly sought after by Chilean artisan wood carvers, even though some of these are becoming scarce and expensive due to years of forest cutting and the consequential protection of what forests still exist in reserves and national parks.
Chile is like other countries with a growing upper middle class inclined to decorate their new, modern homes of glass, metal, and marble with items that depict simpler, more traditional times. In this environment, artisans like Eugenio Gonzalez Vargas have found a good market for his “Imaginería en madera.” The images he carves out of discarded pieces of wood from old torn down estates are often religious depictions, saints and angels, he hopes will lend depth, history, tradition, and maybe a hint of moral righteousness to the base superficiality of today’s modern urban living.
The wood used by artisans in the furthest Chilean outpost, Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, is from the purau, Jacaranda and avocado trees, slow growing species that have deep greenish black heartwood and spectacularly intense grain patterns. These characteristics seem to be enhanced by the special combination of sun, soil, and weather on these islands located in the southeastern corner of the Pacific, a five hour plane ride from continental Chile. William Atan was one of several Pascuense who were showing their wood carvings at the fair the day I visited. His carvings of the moi statues, replicas of those giant stone carvings that adorn the island, reflect the interesting but fateful history of life and its confrontation with environmental disaster.
Edmundo Pont Chavez’ more expansively artistic pieces suggest a welcome evolution in artistic talent in the Easter Island community. “Working with wood is an art I inherited from my ancestors; every piece of work is a way to transmit the daily challenges it represents.”
Chile’s breadth of cultural heritage was exposed in this artisan fair by Joel Paillao Catrilaf’s wooden Mapuche drums, the kultrun; Ricardo Quevedo Naranjo’s sleek colorful fish and the perfectly detailed typical boats produced at the Remos workshop in Villarrica, depicting Chile’s rich maritime and lacustre culture and bounty; and Juan Anabalón’s full sized animals and ox carts hauling firewood representing life in the Bio Bio region of central Chile where agriculture and forestry are prime activities.
“I hope…”, states the sign above Juan’s stand “…that wood and my works speak out that I am a campesino. With my art I hope to represent the world of the campesino and my roots, so that this culture is not lost”.
Of course no exhibit of Chilean products made from wood would be complete without the sturdy brooms sold along the Pan american highway about an hour south of Santiago; both the cleaning type and the ones made especially for witches, and the colorful wood shaving flowers from the southern tourist town of Pucón.
I have found that as I travel around Chile, revisiting places and people not seen for sometimes decades, and in the face of the undeniably true theme of Violet Parra’s ballad “Todo Cambia“, much does eventually change, as the song goes. But it’s refreshing when you run into some thing, a place, or an old friend that has not changed that much, or as much as you thought. In the late 1960s, there was an artisan who would come out of the Andean mountains and spend a few days in Valdivia, the rainy city along the Calle Calle river, where several friends of mine were posted as Peace Corps Volunteers. This wood carver par excellence was named Rivas, and he carved the most intricate, complete Chilean ox carts so very typical back then. The buey cart was ubiquitous, on country roads and in rural towns. They did all the hard work, hauling everything that needed to be moved. Some were drawn by two teams of oxen, and Rivas occasionally would bring one of those carvings to town and sell them. My friends Ted and Molly seemed to know when Rivas was in town, but he would only stay awhile, long enough to sell whatever carvings he had, fuel up on whatever alcohol he could unearth, and head back to the hills. Getting ahold of one of Rivas’ buey cart carvings was a prize to be held on to. And many of us did, with Ted and Molly’s help at connecting us up with Rivas.
Well, I often have asked about Rivas, but it has been quite a few years since anyone I approached knew anything about him; if they knew him, they suspected that he had passed on. But the last artisan I spoke with at the fair on this day in Santiago, Ramón Rost, who carves buey carts himself, actually knew Rivas, and knew where he was. It turns out Omardo Rivas no longer carves buey carts but rather religious figures. He seems to have gotten religion, lives in Los Lagos, not far from Valdivia, and works with his son, Omar Rivas, who also is an artisan. What a stroke of luck, to have happened into a conversation with Ramón. I’m going to be going through Los Lagos soon, so I will look up Omardo and Omar Rivas; I’ll bet Omardo can still make me a buey cart, and if he will, I’ll buy two.
Happy with my discovery of Rivas’ not yet final fate, I went into some detail with Ramón Rost about why I was interested to know about Rivas; the Peace Corps thing, and all. “The Peace Corps!” exclaimed Ramón. “I love the Peace Corps.” He told me his story, how as a young man in the early 1960s, living in the country on a farm outside of Osorno an hour south of Valdivia, he was sent to a boarding school run by a rural educational institute, IER, in the small town of Remehue. “There were four Peace Corps Volunteers working at this school, and I remember especially Wendell Gorum. He taught us physical education. He was wonderful, he was our friend, he gave us pride and confidence to do things we had never done before, and we learned so much from Wendell and the others.” He again exclaimed, “I love the Peace Corps”.
Of course I promised Ramón I would stop to visit him the next time I am in Villarrica, and finally, after a full day at the artisan fair, I headed for home. At home, sitting on my balcony with a large glass of cold Sauvinon blanc, I couldn’t get Ramon’s words out of my mind; “I love the Peace Corps.” The words of a modest wood carving artisan from Putue Alto, on the outskirts of Villarrica. I would like to go back and find my old friend who held the Peace Corps in jocular disdain, and try, with the help of Ramón’s heartfelt words, see if I couldn’t convince him that Peace Corps Volunteers were maybe not in the worst pest category with the blackberry and European hares after all.
I had not told Ramón that I did not know Wendell Gorum. There were too many Peace Corps volunteers in Chile at that time to know them all. But I would love to find Wendell, and make sure he reads this story.
In the meantime, thank you Wendell, and the rest of you, for your service to Ramón and other Chileans like him, to Chile, and to your country which had the vision to create the Peace Corps and support it for now over a half century.
Posted on December 22, 2016. Santiago, Chile.
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