:: 2020 EMERGING TRAVEL WRITERS’ PRIZE WINNER ::
Braying penguins, dead keratin, bioluminescent dinoflagellates, pampas, enormous grief, estancias, tireless wind, blood blisters, half-rotten anchovies, Gualichu, acid-washed jeans, Argentina & the thinnest stretches of atmosphere.
A long, flat road leads into the pampas of northern Patagonia from Trelew. Out of the truck window, the endless rolling sea of sagebrush smeared black and blue sucks us farther and farther into the night. Next to me on the back seat balances a foiled plate of steaming empanadas stuffed full of beef, the Argentine way. We sit quietly as the world rumbles by under the tires, clouds of grey dust spilling down the road behind us. Tomorrow will be an early morning, as all the mornings will be for the next five months. The three of us are here as part of a team of biologists studying the population of Magellanic penguins at a wildlife reserve called Punta Tombo. The lab has been coming down to the same penguin colony for more than thirty years, closely monitoring its decline over the decades due to pressure from oiling, poor shipping practices and climate change. On first impression, it’s hard to imagine the problems of the world corrupting somewhere so remote and empty.
The moon and the sweep of southern stars cast a spotlight over the gentle undulations of hills as we continue down rutted roads, past the occasional estancia and its accompanying huddle of sheep, over streams and past little hollowed-out shacks that once served as post stations. After hours of slow driving, the road curves east. At the crest of a hill, the ocean opens up wide and distant and glittering before us.
When the truck doors open in front of the field house, the sound of a thousand penguins pours in. The birds bray relentlessly, heaving great lungfuls of sound all through the night and day. Most of them are calling to their mates, some of whom are still hundreds of kilometers out at sea. Persistence may be the penguin’s greatest asset.
The wind whistles in under the front door all night, high and lilting, like a drawn-out and faraway scream.
Jet-lagged and road weary, we schlep our packs into the house, a long, low concrete building with massive windows looking out over an unbroken stretch of pampas and coastline. A house made entirely of concrete feels cold and hulking, but it’s the only material that can keep out the tireless Patagonian wind. We’ve arrived in September, early spring, and puddles of rainwater sit under each of the windows. All of the windows leak, and the roof does too, in the kitchen. We put out big plastic buckets to contain the drips and throw piles of greasy rags on the floor to corral the puddles. The main room is populated with rough, unpadded benches and a table, the kitchen a chipped stretch of tiled counter, plywood shelving stuffed with dry provisions, and a small fridge with a weak pilot light.
Each bedroom has at least one rickety twin-frame bed and a mattress. We each pick one, throw our sleeping bags on top and crawl in for a few hours of sleep before dawn breaks. The wind whistles in under the front door all night, high and lilting, like a drawn-out and faraway scream.
In the pre-dawn, we rumble down to the colony in the truck. Its emptiness and expanse make it feel like the earth is rising up under us, pressing us closer to the thinnest stretches of atmosphere. The reserve is supported mainly through tourism, so a long visitors’ boardwalk mixed with gravel pathways meanders through the colony and down to a cliff-top overlook near the beach. On one side of the boardwalk entrance sits a scatter of plain whitewashed buildings: public restrooms, ranger’s quarters, a shop and restaurant run by the family who owns the estancia La Perla down the road. The family used to own all of this land before the Argentine government designated it as a reserve. On the other side of the boardwalk is a tall flagpole with the blue and white and sun of the country’s flag. The metal clanging in the wind is the only other noise we hear besides the penguins.
Other than the field house, none of these buildings is meant for us. For the next five months, we will be spending nearly all of our waking hours outdoors, with the sun always on our skin, the wind always in our ears and the oily ammonia smell of seabirds always in our noses.
One night after dinner, we go down to the beach to check for boats. A low, cold wind blows in over the water from the south, and the horizon line of the ocean sits heavy, close and dark, devoid of any of the blinking lights that might signal a ship. If we see lights, we make a note of it in our field books. The few nights we do see them out over that great stretch of water, I remember we are here on Earth with everyone else, not out floating in space on some other flat, grey world, inhabited only by tuxedo’ed birds. Bruce Chatwin writes in In Patagonia about this strangeness and isolation: “Patagonia is the farthest place to which man walked from his place of origins. It is therefore a symbol of his restlessness. From its discovery it had the effect on the imagination something like the Moon, but in my opinion more powerful.”
Sometime in the first month, I develop a fever. It hits hard and fast one evening, driving me stumbling down the long hallway to a cold and empty bedroom. After peeling off my boots, I put on every single piece of clothing I’ve brought with me and encase myself in my sleeping bag and lie there all night burning as if a portal to hell has opened itself inside my body. Sweat soaks through my shirts and socks, plasters my hair to my skull. I do not emerge from the cocoon until morning.
While I sleep, I dream of a man digging a hole in the desert. He is looking for something. I know he should not be digging. He sweats and scrapes and looks like he has red fire burning in his eyes. He keeps digging, and the feeling of dread mounts as I watch him.
When I wake up, my body feels normal, but somehow different. It’s as if I have shed a shell, or all of my insides have been replaced with a slightly different version of me wrapped around my bones.
Twice a month, we drive into Trelew to stock up on groceries: shelf-stable milk, crackers, hard cheese, canned everything. On the drive back into Punta Tombo, we stop at La Perla. The farmhouse is two stories, made of cement painted white, with a peeled-looking roof. A small brown cat lies in the dust near the open door leading off the kitchen. They give us two heavy cardboard boxes of dirt-covered vegetables, and we invite them to over for dinner.
For some weeks in November, one of the biologists and I are alone at the field station. The rest of our crew rotates in and out through the season. We have internet, for the moment, and she emails with her family from an ancient black laptop on the rickety table across the room from me while I read The Brothers Karamazov on one of the hard slat-backed benches. She gasps and I look up, skin crawling behind my ears. For a moment, she sits there rigid and frozen, and then lets out a soft, low wail. In between small gasps of air, she whispers that her mother is gone, left this world the night before. The email from her father and brother had just come through.
Her grief is enormous and it boils over, washing me in it from head to toe. Terrified, eyes wide, I stand next to her as she collapses in on herself, sobbing into folded arms. When a touch on her shoulder elicits no response, I flee. I am so afraid of her pain, unmoored on the other side of the world from anyone either of us knows. It is too big for me to understand. Hiding in the back of the house, scratching in my notebook, I listen to her as she cries, shuffles through the house, shuts herself up in another room.
Even with a chunk of flesh ripped out from the shoulder, or the head neatly removed and dragged into the steppe by weasels, the body remains a body.
The next day, I don’t know what to do. We get up before dawn, so the house and the sky and the desert outside are all shades of grey-blue. I make coffee on the stove. Her face is puffy and her eyes are red and she doesn’t look at me. In a squeaky voice, I ask if she wants to work that day, and she says she does; other than that we say a handful of words to each other the rest of the morning. I can’t think of anything to say that could make anything better. When we go back to the house for lunch, I sit on a concrete slab behind the house and cry and cry and cry. Inside, I know she is crying too.
Days pass and she tells me she won’t be going home. I don’t understand this choice at all. More days pass, and the silence grows heavier between us. Anger is born out of grief, and I failed her. The rest of the season, I ride down to the colony in the bed of the truck, sitting on the cold metal wheel wells, alone.
It feels like small fissures opening in my sternum, making way for something to slip between the cracks, to enter the ribcage and sit against the heart, as cold as the relentless wind and just as sharp.
A picked-out blood blister in my palm leaves behind a small, sheeny cavern. Where the pocket of dried blood sits, new skin has swept in underneath, fresh and bouncy. Old blood crumbles out like black dirt. Looking at a living thing, most of what we see is dead skin cells, dead hair cells, dead keratin in nails and claws. A mask hides all of that bubbling, raw, sheeny life just inside.
On days after big storms or blooms of toxic algae, the beaches are littered with the bodies of dead penguins. It is our job to document these calamities as accurately as we can.
The most difficult part of a necropsy is making the initial incision. The bird’s body is either floppy as a pile of seaweed or stiff as bones. Despite its lifelessness, the corporeal form is still whole—in the sense that it once contained life, is still a greater sum of parts, a model of a living organism. Even with a chunk of flesh ripped out from the shoulder, or the head neatly removed and dragged into the steppe by weasels, the body remains a body.
Out of the truck window, the endless rolling sea of sagebrush smeared black and blue sucks us farther and farther into the night.
The scalpel changes all of that. With one cut, the penguin becomes parts. A brutal rip down the belly, then a sharp crack breaks the breastbone, exposing the dark, soft cogs of a wet machine.
We open the stomach to explore the kind of fuel the machine has been using and to look for a possible cause of malfunction (death). Evidence for toxic-algae contamination comes in the form of ulcers and blood. Sometimes we find squid beaks and eyes; sometimes a grey, oozing mash of partially digested fish erupts from the incision. We all reel backward from the smell of half-rotten anchovies. Too often, the penguin stomachs are empty.
I wonder about the emptiness of other organs. The liver is dense, a rich brownish-red that, when cut open, looks the same inside as it does outside. The heart also proves dense. The emptiness of its narrow, collapsed chambers invites claustrophobia, and my own chest tightens thinking about the narrow pathways through the human heart. There isn’t much room inside for anything but a little blood.
In ancient Rome, some people trained to learn to read the scattered entrails of animals in order to discern the future, to construct meaning out of the ravaged waste of the parts of the body most alive.
Anger is born out of grief, and I failed her. The rest of the season, I ride down to the colony in the bed of the truck, sitting on the cold metal wheel wells, alone.
For every deceased penguin on the beach, each inside part is cut out and laid on the sand, or on a thick bed of purple mussel shells. I dig deep into the bodies, peeling back layers of fat and muscle and membrane. If life is masked by thin layers of death, then maybe these living insides hold the answer, a symbol, some sign, to whatever it is I’m looking for.
The latest penguin lies splayed open and hollow, now encircled by lumps of intestine, globs of pancreas and shreds of lung. It looks like it belongs with a set of David Lynch’s visual art pieces: “Fish Kit,” “Duck Kit” and “Chicken Kit.” Visceral images of deconstructed animals intended to show that a living thing is indeed greater than the sum of its parts. This penguin could not stand up and walk back into the ocean if I put back its innards and sewed up its belly. I’m drawn back again and again to these mysterious labyrinths of the body, and I find they do hold answers, though I’m not sure that I have the questions.
Lynch: “I’ve always said that if you have a name for something, like ‘cut’ or ‘bruise,’ people will automatically be disturbed by it. But when you see the same thing in nature, and you don’t know what it is, it can be very beautiful.”
Where does the life stitching that holds all of the wet-machine pieces together go when that life expires? Is it cruel or is it beautiful? I feel like Ivan in Dostoevsky’s book, looking for answers in places that can’t give them to me. Who would not want to hold in their hand these intangibles, to peer at them and lay them alongside their own veins and nod with the satisfaction of knowing?
Punta Tombo sits on a skinny, crooked isthmus jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean. The penguin colony is nestled nearer the mainland, but other seabirds breed way out on the end of the point, balanced atop precipitous red cliffs in dense swarms. We keep an eye on these colonies too, though it takes the full day to walk out and back from them.
Elephant seals lie out on the beach halfway to the point, so we stay to watch them awhile. They pile themselves up near the long, lumpy rocks at the base of a slope, so we don’t see them at first. Despite their girth and ungainliness, elephant seals can move pretty fast over land if they feel threatened. They could outstrip a human and crush her to death in the sand.
Every few minutes they roll over or lift a flipper with great, heaving sighs, like a geyser before it erupts. If we move around too much or get too close, they raise their large bald heads and gaze at us, unblinking, with black orb-like eyes containing a wisdom only given from witnessing the bottom of the sea.
All this talk of whales and I imagine we are Ishmael and Queequeg and Starbuck, gazing over the side of the ship, marveling at the depths of the sea, balanced between peace and menace.
The northern side of the point is a jumble of smooth, wet rocks sitting just above the surface of the water, nestled against steep cliffs and pockets of caves. We slip around fragments of tide pools to make our way around the bottom of the cliff once the tide has gone out. A couple of hundred feet along and a sharp turn back into a short, deep ravine leads us to a low, long cave with a handful of greasy, bedraggled penguins inside. They huddle near the walls and blink blearily at us in the sunlight. We visit them a few times throughout the season to observe them in their shallow dugout nests. Three or four of the nests get eggs, and then, later, salt-sprayed, weary eyed chicks. We aren’t sure what they are doing here in this cold, damp cave. They aren’t sure what we’re doing here rubbernecking at them in their salty exile.
Above them and a little farther south along the point, “the blowhole”—a chute from the top of the deep-red cliffs all the way down to the ocean below—opens up. The water thrashes and boils heavy indigo as we peer down the thirty-foot drop. When the tide is at the perfect level, water rushes in and slams against the back of the cave, shooting up through the hole on the top of the cliffs like a whale spouting. The noise is immense, like a whale breaching. All this talk of whales and I imagine we are Ishmael and Queequeg and Starbuck, gazing over the side of the ship, marveling at the depths of the sea, balanced between peace and menace.
A soft mist falls after the water cascades down and slaps over the ground. My stomach churns as the waves roll back out, making a large sucking-drain noise, wanting to pull us in like bits of flotsam. The leap has been made before, I’m told by one of the veteran biologists. The biggest risk is in the timing. Too soon or too late and you could be dashed against the rocks or sucked to the seafloor, trapped churning below the surface. The leaper’s swimming abilities need to be strong to escape the cave at the right time and paddle all the way around to the beach, nearly a kilometer away. Standing there on the edge, I feel the pull, l’appelle du vide.
I’m drawn back again and again to these mysterious labyrinths of the body, and I find they do hold answers, though I’m not sure that I have the questions.
Out on the tip of the point, it feels like walking on a giant pair of acid-washed jeans. Running around under unending, rolling flocks of gulls and terns, the bright red of the rocks and the dazzling blue of the ocean crashing against the cliffs below feels a bit like tripping on drugs. The colors are acidic and too bright. The pattern of birds landing and taking off in endless waves, the geometry of their nests scattered across the rocks, the zigzag, willy-nilly run of their spotted chicks is dizzying and all-consuming. Screeching skuas, screaming gulls and the piercing trills of arctic terns feel like pouring sound-wave bleach over your eardrums. Seabird guano is pungent and acrid, a stench you never really fully get used to the way you forget the smell of livestock manure after hanging out on a farm.
The experience is so disorienting that it feels possible to live through the eyes of birds and seals. The world shrinks to a slow, pulsing rhythm of flight and crashing waves. Time is consumed and reborn in the same small circles, a reminder of eternity.
The female penguins are mostly back now, and eggs are littered across the colony. We come across them in shallow burrows and under bushes guarded by skeptical parents, or split and shattered with the yolk cooking in the high sun or being gobbled up by a petrel. Black, sleek weasels parade around with their young, and male rheas lead strings of clumsy babies wandering across the pampas.
It blows in from the south and smells like old ice and sunken ships, like plankton and salt. It feels like the end of time.
Most of our data collection requires the ensnarement of individual penguins, to weigh and measure them or to place a slim metal band flush with the elbow notch in the front right flipper. Too many days in the field puts me in a state of complacency while trying to get body measurements for a very large male penguin. As soon as my guard is down, he snaps his long snake-like neck out and clamps down on my left forearm.
In order to secure their slippery prey in the sea, Magellanic penguins have thick hooks at the end of their beaks, perfect for skewering fish. The downward force of their bite is insanely strong.
I drop my tools to pry the penguin’s ferocious mouth off of my arm. Millimeter by millimeter, he loosens up as he runs out of air, my arm fully blocking his windpipe. His bill leaves behind a two-inch-long gash, peeling with bits of skin like a boiled egg. It’s the kind of wound that doesn’t really bleed, but the chunk taken out exposes deep purple and blue layers streaked with a pearlescent white.
South of the main colony, on a thin isthmus between the penguins and the point, there is a human skull settled partway into the earth. We had been inspecting the contorted skeleton of a guanaco, the orange and cream llama-like ungulates that roam the pampas. When they die, the muscles in their long necks atrophy so that their heads are pulled completely backward, their spine curving back in a complete loop to rest above the hip bones. Because of this, it looks like they died of an immense shock.
The human skull, at first, looks like another peludo, or hairy armadillo, snuffling about in the dust. As we tiptoe nearer and around, the gaping eye sockets come into view, a tiny daisy growing straight through where the person’s left eye would have been.
The idea is that the skull is Tehuelche, an indigenous people of Patagonia. Juan claims that Punta Tombo is one of their burial sites. Juan has Tehuelche and Mapuche blood and is the reserve’s mechanic during the summer season. He also helps herd and shear sheep at La Perla. My brain makes a connection between “Tombo” and the English word “tomb.” Tombo is not Spanish for tomb.
When they die, the muscles in their long necks atrophy so that their heads are pulled completely backward, their spine curving back in a complete loop to rest above the hip bones. Because of this, it looks like they died of an immense shock.
There are bits of black plastic poking up from the ground around the skull, fluttering in the breeze. At some point in the past, a team of anthropologists or archaeologists attempted to dig up the skeleton and cart it away, but walls of permits and paperwork kept the bones in the ground and they most likely will stay there, forgotten.
Juan has a collection of Tehuelche arrowheads he found here at Tombo and in the hills of La Perla. They are red and black and grey, ragged and chipped, usually the length of a finger or smaller. Several years ago, he told me, a young biologist was crazy about finding arrowheads out in the desert. She brought Juan rock after rock, asking him every day if what she found was some kind of artifact. She picked up everything. One night, Juan and some of the guys who worked up at the museum took all the rocks around her trailer and wrote hecho a mano on the bottom of each of them, scattering them around before she got up the next day. Later she stormed up to Juan, holding one of the rocks, pointing furiously to the writing, asking, “What is this?” Juan’s face crinkled into a thousand creases as he chuckled softly.
The Tehuelche and Mapuche peoples acknowledged an evil spirit with the ability to enter people’s bodies or the objects around them. The spirit brings disease or calamity or evil happenings and lives beneath the earth. A possessed person is said to “have Gualichu,” the name of the demon. Standing out alone in the colony, looking out across rolling plains of quilimbai and jarilla, I feel that the wind has Gualichu. It blows in from the south and smells like old ice and sunken ships, like plankton and salt. It feels like the end of time. I like to say we can smell Antarctica. The wind touches everything here.
I drop my tools to pry the penguin’s ferocious mouth off of my arm. Millimeter by millimeter, he loosens up as he runs out of air, my arm fully blocking his windpipe.
There is a museum in Trelew called the Museo Paleontológico Egidio Feruglio. One day, when we are in town picking up supplies or the next biologist from the airport, we decide to treat ourselves to a stroll through the museum. We are natural-history nerds, after all, and Patagonia is famous for its dinosaurs. On display is a casting of the Gualicho shinyae, the species name from its discoverer, the genus named for the legend of Gualichu. It stands a foot or two taller than an adult human and looks similar to a Velociraptor. Like so many of the penguins we find on the beach, they found Gualicho shinyae without its skull. The reconstructor’s imagination relies on the handful of scattered bones pulled from the desert to piece together this demonic lizard of the underworld. Perhaps in this dinosaur the paleontologists found everything I had been searching for in the penguins. As they uncovered the bones, maybe they were thinking of Gualichu too, of the invisibilities of good and evil, of beauty and repulsion. Against all odds we continue to scrape and dig for the physical clues of corruption and morality, an answer for how to live our lives.
Did they hold Gualichu in their hands? Does he feel like the curve of an ancient empty rib? Did he laugh in their faces and flee with the wind into the desolation of the pampas?
One night over the beach, we witness a bloom of bioluminescent plankton. In the waters offshore, when conditions and nutrient availability are just right, dense swarms of these dinoflagellates produce a light-emitting compound called luciferin, which is catalyzed by the enzyme luciferase. The flashes of light that the plankton let off when disturbed startle their predators, giving away their location so that something even bigger and badder may come along and eat their pursuers. The word luciferin comes from the word “lucifer,” for “light-bearing,” made famous by the fallen angel of Christianity. If the plankton have Gualichu, the Patagonian devil, then here it is a form of self-defense, a necessary burst of life and light in the darkness.
As the penguins zipped through the water, we could see the glowing outlines of their bodies as they disturbed clouds of plankton. Fish scattered like sparks in front of the penguins as they wheeled through the deep waters below us, looking like bits of shooting stars crashing in from the far sea. The penguin-stars flashed out when they came close to the shore, and then we could hear the crunch of their little footsteps in the beach pebbles as they shuffled inland, invisible in the night.
Dazzled by the spectacle and dizzy from the feeling that the sky had extended below us, we attempted to conduct a few sloppy counts of the penguins coming into the beach. As the temperature fell, we rattled around more and more violently on top of the cliffs, jumping and lunging in delirious joy, teeth chattering in the rising winds. As we walked back up the boardwalk, dodging penguins as they crossed our path on their slog into the hills, the moon rose large and low in front of us, whiter and colder-looking than Antarctic ice.
The penguin-stars flashed out when they came close to the shore, and then we could hear the crunch of their little footsteps in the beach pebbles as they shuffled inland, invisible in the night.
In the sensory vacuum of the desert or the steppe, the simple act of standing on the ground can give way to an out-of-body experience. It is disorienting to have your eye drawn again and again to one line across the landscape, compressed on either side by infinite expanses of atmosphere and soil. At times, it is all too apparent we are walking with our heads pointed straight out into oblivion, that there is no up and no down, just in and out.
Standing over the blowhole, shivering after stripping down to undergarments with the red sun rising over the ocean to the east, a petrel swoops low nearby, staring at me sideways, uncertain. Giant petrels are menacing birds with over six feet in wingspan and often reek of the carrion they feast on. They snatch fledging chicks off the beach and scavenge the carcasses of adult penguins that wash up on shore. A heavy calciferous tube over the top of their bill houses a gland that desalinates their body of seawater. Dried streaks of white salt weep down their faces and necks, which are often also dyed red with the blood of their meals.
Under the petrel, I lean over the edge of the blowhole and look for the bottom. It’s too early in the day to see; the light from the rising sun can’t reach these corners of the Earth. Closing my eyes, I peel away my skin and fling it into the ocean. I drop my bones amongst the rocks. Whatever is left of me leaps into the inky abyss.
At some point in the past, a team of anthropologists or archaeologists attempted to dig up the skeleton and cart it away, but walls of permits and paperwork kept the bones in the ground and they most likely will stay there, forgotten.
The petrel careens ever closer with every pass. I can feel the draft of its wings and smell its oily, pungent smell. Its beady gaze reminds me of the character Smerdyakov in The Brothers Karamazov, and the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. This bird might be trying to kill me. With a few more fly-bys, it could come close enough to knock my body into the blowhole with a clip of its giant wings. It croaks like a possessed toad, and I scramble backward, grabbing my field clothes. I dress a few hundred meters away, watching as the petrel spins possessively over the blowhole, an imp guarding a gateway into hell.
The eldest son of the estancia told me many times, “You are cold; you don’t have a soul.” I thought there was some quirk in translation, that he was trying to express something less literal that couldn’t make the leap from Spanish to English. But once I learned a little more Spanish, I knew I was wrong. He had been saying just what he meant the whole time.
“Tenes frio; no tenes una alma.”
When I leave, the bus I take leaves me downtown in Puerto Madryn, a port city north of Tombo on the Atlantic where all the cruise ships that come to see the penguins dock. My pack sits heavy on my shoulders and hips as I thump down the pavement studded with dry, dusty trees. Around a corner, past a long wall strewn with graffiti tags, a sign for a hostel hangs over the sidewalk, the image of a backpacker running pell-mell with his thumb sticking out in the hopes of a quick getaway. The hostel is called El Gualicho. My stomach turns over and I take a slow breath. Already I miss the penguins and the loneliness of Punta Tombo. As one of the Brothers Karamazov, Alyosha, says, “Certainly, love it, regardless of logic as you say, it must be regardless of logic, and it’s only then one will understand the meaning of it. I have thought so a long time.”
Looking up at the sign, I blow the image of the backpacker a soft kiss and turn to walk inside.
Elizabeth Muntean wanted to be a writer before she could even write, scribbling across sheet after sheet of paper for her mother to “read.” She is based in Seattle, continuing to be dogged by the unshakable compulsion to process life through the written word.
Lead image: Ian Parker