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nature

Rukapillan

Villarrica, November 2022

I guess it doesn’t really matter that the volcano lights up at night, a larva display, a bubble of smoke, charred black lips pointing to the sky on an otherwise icy face. Why not admit that Rukapillan makes an intriguing neighbour. She likes to remind the neighbourhood that there was good reason for believing the mountains to be holy places, places of energy, of spiritual being, of angry gods. Right now, instead of prayers, she’s got the devotion of many seismologists, but if she wanted to make us pray, she could.

Wandering through the town on my way home of an evening, I glance down a street and I see her there, majestic in her snowy cape. I recall how close the depths of nature are to my little home, and I find myself aching to pull on my boots and step out into that wilderness. We paddle a kayak out onto Lago Calafquén and there she is, a head higher than any other peak, absentmindedly smoking.

Somehow, the immensity of nature makes me feel rather more optimistic and rather less in haste to rush around. Plans are delayed by the sight of a hummingbird having its breakfast. Priorities. What’s really important? What’s not? The lake, barely a few minutes’ walk from my door, is bigger than Lichtenstein. I ring my grandma.

In the tourist information office, I am asked to fill in a survey. The room is spacious and there are not nearly enough photos, posters and leaflets to fill it. I am not handed the pen. For reasons unknown, the man I’m speaking with is obliged to ask me my age and write it in the designated box. His pen hovers there. He hesitates. I tell him straight. He looks relieved because he thinks he’s done the hard part. He asks how long I’m visiting for; I shrug my shoulders. The dictionary definition of a tourist is someone who is travelling or visiting a place for pleasure; this leaves a lot open for interpretation.

A bee backs out of a purple fuchsia cup and does a U-turn on the long thin stamen and makes a hop to the pink outer petals. This is the plant in its native land. Taken from America’s Southern Cone, it was planted in English gardens, and over time, became normal there. Plenty surround my parents’ house. The Chilean name for the shrub is chilco, but this type of fuchsia is also known as the hummingbird fuchsia.

On my desk lay a heap of books. This is the first year I have read more books by women than by men. Historically, I’ve read many more books by men than by women. An unconscious bias or maybe a reflection of how women are less published in certain genres, or less frequently translated perhaps. I don’t work with a quota, and I read all the books I want to read, but I put more effort into finding books by women now. I read more blurbs of books by women and hence I read more books by women.

Volcanoes often sit quiet, then suddenly recast the world in a new image with a scream. Volcanoes have a right to scream. But some change is more gentle. It happens when nobody’s looking to those who are paying attention.

Cerro Ñielol

The valley below. Cerro Ñielol, Temuco, Araucanía, Chile. May 2022.

We climbed up Cerro Ñielol in jumpers, coats and our strong boots, and the air changed, taking on the damp sweetness of the greenery. Swathes of Chilean bamboo, called colihue or chusquea culeou, filled the spaces between the trees and, as we climbed, we passed from areas of young green to dead-dry clumps which must have flowered not so long ago. Apparently, it doesn’t mind a frost, but after flowering it dies. I can’t help but think its flowering must be spectacular.

As we traversed further up, we came across pink, bell-shaped copihues – the Chilean national flower – and mushrooms. Lots and lots of mushrooms. I felt particularly pleased to be wearing the mushroom earrings I’d got along the costanera, the promenade in Valdivia. Their red and white hues matched the mushrooms we came across. Mushrooms out of a fairy tale. JT wanted to touch them all and feel the textures beneath his fingertips.

“Rubbery?” I asked, keeping my hands in my gloves. “Slimy?”

At one of the many viewpoints, the miradors, we paused at a bench to drink our Ceylon tea. The view through the trees led across the city of Temuco in the wide flat valley below. I’m being spoilt with such sights: forests, volcanos, beaches, waterfalls. Oncol, Puyehue, Huilo Huilo. My 2022 has been filled with the most incredible scenery.

We see a hummingbird in the branches above us and point it out to each other.

“Colibri,” JT says.

“Picaflor.”

I am learning about Chilean wildlife through a strange, childlike repetition. I read signs in national parks. This tree is a luma. Someone points at its gorgeous orange bark; I take photos. Is this a luma? I ask. Don’t know… It’s an arrayán. The same thing, another name, a type of myrtle. In Mapudungun, the name for this tree is temu. Temu as in Temuco.