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Life and Death in Patagonia: Encounters Along the Road


The land is extreme. For 1500 miles, Argentine Patagonia is a sprawled leviathan: a vast, vacant, horizonless plain broken only by dirt tracks and gravel roads. We are studying whales at a camp on Patagonia's northern edge. One late winter day we are overtaken by an urge to wander south through the provinces of Chubut and Santa Cruz and Tierra del Fuego, deeper into Patagonia's outlands. So we drive our small car out over the rampling Patagonian earth. The land is a barely populated, weather-flogged, tan rug sprinkled with pellets of dry mammal manure and scribbled with black, low, thorny bushes. As we go, curiosity transforms into awe as a medieval painting — of small human figures crouched or bravely smiling against an immense, dry landscape of exaggerated perspective — unfolds before us…

Every so often, in the bareness, we spy a mother and a small child peering from the doorway of a corrugated shed, a distant, lone figure on a horse across the scrub, or a cloud of black smoke rising out of nowhere.
A wisp of smoke signals a shepherd's fire: a man humming a gaucho tune and poking at the sizzling hunk of meat he is cooking for a fellow herdsman, or a man hurriedly heating himself a gourd of mate as a respite in his grizzly, days-long task of stripping the skins from weather-killed lambs.
Smoke at dusk signals a last meal before sleep. Loosing his horse, a peon-shepherd searches out a clear spot of the campo between thornbushes. Dismantling the saddle on which he seats himself all day, he places its leather bolsters where his head will be, and then lays out the sheep skin, the thickness of felt, and the smooth, capybara skin that during the day is the first layer against his horse's flank, to form a mattress for his body. Under the black vault of sky he pulls the earth up over him. In the cradle of sky, he makes his nest…

She has the kind of eyes that bring to mind butter cake: the wife of Tommy and Rex's son, John. A tall, warm, solid woman with short, flyaway dark grey hair wearing corduroy trousers, a cardigan, and an old, flowered blouse. In a large, ample family room of the Coy Inlet villa, she is sitting in a large overstuffed chair covered in faded English chintz. Her name is Mayo — May.

Driving us in her truck over the miles and miles of scrub that make the Hewlett estancia, she recounts stories from her life on the campo.

One day, a group of men drove up to the Guer Aike police post to say they had with them a dead man, murdered at an estancia.

We had passed Guer Aike along the bleak road that led toward Coy Inlet. The police post was a box the size of three phone booths set down in a bristled sand flat utterly vacant in all directions.

The police wanted to see the body, so they went out and looked in the back of the truck — but they found no one there. When they asked where the dead man was, one of the men pointed: the dead man was sitting upright between two other shepherds in the front seat!...

Spring dusts the prickled land. Clusters of peach-yellow flowers sprout on the thorn bushes, sharp as blades, scrappy as thistles. Minuscule purple flowers like forget-me-nots sprinkle themselves over the sandy earth among the bits of shell and bone and black and orange pebbles — tiny, feisty sprigs of spring whispering between the shards.

Buoyant and sausage-fat, whale calves play, nonstop, beside their long-suffering mothers. The whales' grunts and roars crack us out of sleep to sunny mornings, and the tranquil days that follow are punctuated with the playful smacks of calves' flippers on the surface of the sea.

One day, winding around the campo, we watch a baby guanaco — the wild ancestor of the llama — gambol up to a sheep, clearly proposing a game of tag. Another, driving an empty road, we have to stop for a ewe settled down in the road. As we look more closely, and she waddles off, we see that from her hindquarters hangs the wildly waving tail and back leg of a lamb.

The crazy wild joy of spring in a barren place.

From the air, on one of the late-winter whale census flights we made before our wander, we spotted, on a lost stretch of beach, the huge, flattened carcass of another right whale. The forty-plus foot whale was sprawled flat, one or two ribs protruding through the loose, black skin that seemed only draped over the bones. The carcass looked as though it might have been dropped from a plane. Near the tail, intestines spilled out of a four-foot hole where the whale had exploded, to release its death gases.

Nine months passed. During the interval, we went south and returned.
From the air the following fall, on the beach beside a huge right whale cow, lying on her back with her calf on her belly, we spy what looks to be the slender, arched rib of a whale. Further down the coast, we and Hugo, the pilot, see the skull. Even from the air, it is massive and alluring. The bones of the exploded, flattened, aplastado the Argentines say, hulk we had seen months before. We mark the locations of the bones on the map.

In spring, when the roads are dry and expedition-worthy, in the hands of a strange drive, we make our way to the skull.

It is like a monument — the thorn bushes nearby are sprouting little yellow straw flowers. We run our hands along the lobed and tunneled surfaces of the eight foot-wide braincase, and then on down the twelve-foot mandible of the lower jaw. At its greatest part, the bone is fifteen inches thick. The colossal whale head has been bleached white, scrubbed by the sea, and cleaned of flesh. It shines in the cool, mid-morning air. The tons of sculpted bone seem to pose a large question.

Over the next four months, on days of bright sun, we make it our purpose to find the bones, as many of them as we can. We discover a dozen vertebrae, fourteen slender, arched ribs, and the one remaining mandible scattered forty miles along the beach. We also come across a humerus. This strangely evolved arm bone is a dinosaur of a bone, a dense round globe set on a stout pedestal. The sea has tossed the bones like toothpicks and set them in a long, ever-moving, mysterious grave.

We gather the bones, take them home on our sagging truck, and arrange them in full scale whale order — consulting anatomy books — on our front porch, putting death to rights.