Like Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana
For Tompkins, though, all this was long ago, in another life. An hour from Reñihué along the fjord is where his office is now. Past the sea lion rookery, past the fishing boats taking refuge from the stormy weather, he has built a headquarters for the southern sector of the park, the first part to be opened. Here he has installed a café, a campsite, and a row of elegant shingled cabins for visitors to stay in, each designed by him down to the last detail.
Up the road is one of the first trails to be opened, a steep, muddy track that leads to a grove of ancient alerce trees, the Patagonian cypress, Fitzroya cupressoides (named after Captain Fitzroy of the Beagle, which passed by here in the course of Charles Darwin’s famous voyage). The trees, some more than 2,000 years old, are the dinosaurs in this ancient grove. Their timber, light in weight but resistant to rot, is as precious as ivory. They are the talismanic trees of the southern forest, as the elusive puma is the talismanic animal.
“This place is one of the jewels of the park,” says Tompkins, pointing to the woods below, a dense tangle that is the haunt of parakeets and hummingbirds and the giant Araucanian wood pigeon.
“In the summer it’s all red down there. It’s a flowering forest.”
His enthusiasm is combined with an air of puzzlement that this feeling is not shared by everyone. Later that day, over supper, he says with a note of wistfulness. “To me, it always seemed so obvious, the importance of wild places.”
Tompkins’ compound on the site of the old ranch, in the shadow of the Michimahuida volcano, is a neat cluster of wooden buildings near the banks of a river that flows into the fjord. As we return from the park in the evening, smoke is rising from the chimney of the house, merging with the mist. Children from the school that the Tompkinses have established near the house are on their way to the shore to catch the boat home, their yellow oilskins billowing as they struggle against the violent gusts of wind. Kris Tompkins is in the seed house in her kitchen garden. Rain hisses on the woodstove as she checks on the germination of spinach and arugula for the spring planting. The garden is elegantly laid out with radiating wooden walkways and raised beds of earth to prevent plants from becoming waterlogged. The garden surrounds the house; and the house is built around the kitchen. This is an establishment where the production of food takes center stage: the good life, with tractable locals and more or less limitless funds.
The buildings at Reñihué, built of native stone and recycled wood, with no brick or concrete to disfigure them, have the air of a nineteenth-century frontier homestead. But this is homesteading at its most understatedly chic. The Tompkinses’ house is a hymn to timber: reclaimed alerce beams with the lichen still on them, polished floors of blond podocarpus, and, high on the wall, a pair of Mapuche carvings, sculpted by the indigenous inhabitants of south-central Chile. The paintwork is a symphony of earth colors, as are the folded woollen ponchos and tight-woven rain-proof Andean hats arranged on benches in the hall. The clothes the Tompkinses wear, khakis, cable-knit sweaters, and locally made woollen scarves, echo these colours–California style translated into the idiom of the Southern Hemisphere.
(Faced with such a rigorous exercise of taste, I find myself wishing I had scanned my wardrobe a bit more carefully before I came—that I had left behind that old but durable Patagonia rainjacket in lurid spot-you-from-the-rescue-plane turquoise, which was the dernier cri in mountaineering gear circa 1985.)
As she moves about the garden, I ask Kris Tompkins if she thinks the people they employ are in sympathy with her and Doug Tompkins’ conservationist philosophy.
“Many of them are,” she says, “but it’s a new thing for them. Their first concern is what goes on the table. And they want education for their children, so they’re forced to move out of the rural areas like this into Puerto Montt. And they don’t return. There are no schools in rural areas beyond the sixth grade. That’s the sort of thing people here worry about.”
The Tompkinses’ sojourn in this place, it seems to me, as I watch Kris Tompkins at work, resembles an Enlightenment project, something that a progressive landlord might have instituted in a remote part of eighteenth-century England or nineteenth-century Russia. It must have been something like this to visit Tolstoy at his estate at Yasnaya Polyana in the 1860s: agricultural innovation, rational resource management, and social improvement are the order of the day.
The undeveloped, sparsely populated character of the land has made it possible for Doug Tompkins to do more or less what he wants here. But there are not many countries like Chile, with the same combination of political stability, unexploited natural resources, and an open economy. This is something Tompkins is well aware of.
“Yes,” he says. “The country was just coming out of a dictatorship at the time I came here. It didn’t seem likely there’d be any land appropriation. And the government was encouraging foreign investment—though not the kind that I had in mind.”
The transformation of an ecocrat
While Tompkins has been trying to transform Chilean ideas about the environment, he has also transformed himself. He has turned his back on many of the indulgences of the rich. This shows in the house he has built. The stern aesthetic at work in the Tompkins home dictates that there should be almost no artwork on display–just wood carvings and two or three framed black-and-white photographs. The bookcases in the living room, however, are filled with art books. Their polychromatic illustrations are a shock in this carefully colour-controlled environment. But Tompkins was formerly a prominent art collector, and many of these books–on Bacon, Balthus, Léger and Hopper–reproduce paintings he once owned. Now he has sold them all, or given them to his Californian Foundation for Deep Ecology to dispose of for cash.
Among the books I notice a catalogue raisonnée of Tompkins’s collection of nineteenth-century Amish quilts, with an essay by the critic Robert Hughes. The quilts were made in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, by members of the famously technophobic Amish sect—radical Protestants who to this day reject all modern devices, including electricity and zippers. Tompkins started the collection when he was running Esprit. Only later, he says, did he realize that the Amish rejection of the modern—and their elevation of everyday objects to a high aesthetic level—presaged his own growing sense of the dangers of globalization and the importance of the genius of place. The quilts are virtually the only pieces Tompkins has kept from his original art collection.
The other books in the Tompkins house reflect this love of austerity. There is a long shelf dealing with the critique of industrial society and the works of the theorists of deep ecology. There are surprisingly few books on natural history: it is as though Tompkins thinks it is more important to understand the enemy–the consumerism he has left behind—than the mountains and forests he’s protecting. Here, in Tompkins’s study, above an unadorned wooden table, are works by Oswald Spengler, the German theorist of cultural decline; by Lewis Mumford, chronicler of urbanization; by Clifford Stoll, a critic of computer culture; by Tompkins’s friend and adviser Jerry Mander, Californian author of Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television; and by Edward Goldsmith, founding editor of The Ecologist and brother of the late Sir James Goldsmith. There is also everything available in English by Tompkins’s guru, the recondite Norwegian theorist of deep ecology, Arne Naess.
Tompkins has had a hand in funding the publication of many of these books. When he talks about their authors he sounds uncharacteristically humble. His only regret living down here, he says, is that he has fewer occasions to talk with such people. He speaks fondly of a drinking session in London with Francis Bacon. There is a quotation from Lewis Mumford pinned on the wall:
“This is one of those times,” it reads, “when only the dreamers will turn out to be practical men.”
These days, Tompkins’s particular concern is the synergy among new technologies. When computers, satellite communication, television, and global trade work together, he argues, they form a new and dangerous cluster, speeding up the destructive processes in the industrial world. He himself doesn’t use computers at all, preferring pencil and paper.
“I used to be very keen on computers,” he says, frowning at mine. “I was so keen on them I was on the cover of PC World one time. But we have to confront the fact that they are accelerating the worst aspects of industrial civilization, the steamrollering of nature and culture. These things require massive enterprises, military-sized budgets for research and development. Just to get one lousy laptop. And everyone is dazzled by them–by these baubles.
“I’m sure if you asked Bill Gates whether or not he believed that the extinction of species was a good thing he’d say no. But as the captain of the industry most responsible for the current acceleration of technological change and the expansion of human enterprise, it’s him up there at the controls. And he’s driving us over the cliff. But he doesn’t see this.”
The strategic embrace of technology
There is a limit, though, to the renunciation that Tompkins is willing to make in the name of deep ecology. There may be no phone or fax or computer at Reñihué, but there are three planes, two of them lined up in the shingled hangar on the airstrip near the house. Without them Tompkins wouldn’t be able to see the land he owns. And in his office in Puerto Montt there is both a phone and a fax.
“You can call it the strategic embrace of technology,” he says, “as opposed to the substantive embrace.”
You could also, however, call it keeping technology at arm’s length, a privilege available mostly to the rich. And a further criticism, a more fundamental one from the point of view of radical environmentalism, is that Tompkins lives on the fruits of capital, on interest from investments in the global economy. Even as he decries the dark synergy of communications technology, his money is busy moving and multiplying somewhere in the lucrosphere. The park project, the Foundation for Deep Ecology (whose investment portfolio has included Microsoft, McDonald’s and Disney stocks), and Tompkins’ life in Reñihué, all depend on this, on the power of the free market.
So, I ask him, during a final conversation before we leave Pumalín, should this also be considered part of the strategic embrace of modernity? Or could it be an indication of a fatal ambivalence?
“When I was in the fashion business,” says Tompkins in answer to this question, “I was certainly part of the problem. Less so today.”
“There’s a phenomenon I call Eco Lite,” he says. “This is when you are in business and worried about the environment and you try to write another message on top of the advertising budget. We did it at Esprit to an extent. The Body Shop in England does it. Bennetton does it.”
“But what I say now is that if Luciano Bennetton sold his company tomorrow and put all his assets into a foundation that was dedicated one hundred per cent to what is supposed to be his viewpoint on environmental issues, he’d make more of an impact, one hell of an impact more than doing what he does now.”
“The same thing with the Patagonia company,” Tompkins adds. “I keep telling Yvon Chouinard that if they want to put a real dent in things they should just sell up and take all the proceeds and work 100 per cent on what they believe in. Instead they have to spend 90 per cent of their effort just to keep the wheels going.
“When I was at Esprit,” he concludes, “I spent 20 hours a day on the business and only a few hours thinking about bigger issues. Now I have 24 hours a day to concentrate on what really matters.”
The time comes to leave Reñihué. I’m reluctant to go. Who would not be? It is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful places in the world. The astounding landscape—and Tompkins’ compelling vision of the park—remain a vivid presence in my mind. Then, some months after my visit, I learn that the project has suffered a sharp setback. The stretch of land that separates the two parts of the park, the missing piece of the jigsaw, which Tompkins was barred by the government from purchasing, is sold secretly, with government approval, to Chile’s biggest energy company, Endesa. The president of Endesa has been one of Tompkins’s leading critics.
Now, rather than Pumalín dividing Chile in half, as the military feared, it is the park that is split in two. It’s as though this was meant as a lesson to Tompkins, to show him, finally, who has the say in his adoptive country. In Chile Tompkins tells journalists that he is dolido—sad—about the sale. Time will tell, he says, what will happen to the native forest on his new neighbour’s property.
From his point of view, though, there isn’t much more time. And irritating though it is, a park with a gap is better than no park at all. Convinced of the catastrophic acceleration of global environmental destruction, Tompkins says he remains set on doing everything he can to try and stop it. And the park he has created at Pumalín is something that could only be achieved by someone with his out-of-the-ordinary combination of wealth, idealism and stubbornness. It is a rare convergence of means and ends, a project that both Chileans and non-Chileans, in the long run, may find reason to applaud.
On 8 December 2015, Doug Tompkins’ kayak capsized during an expedition on the General Carrera Lake in southern Chile. He died of hypothermia in hospital hours later. He was 72 years old. He is survived by his wife Kris and two daughters by his first marriage.