Everyone in Chile is crazy about the alerce (a-LEHR-say). The alerce is Chile’s redwood, its giant sequoia. A huge hardwood tree that was overharvested almost to extinction. It grows gigantically tall and hugely round and for a thousand years. It fills an important ecological niche, is present only in a few isolated stands and rooves the old cottages and houses with a characteristic shingle that doesn’t podrir (rot). In English it’s the false larch. Which to you means nothing. But to lovers of ecology, of the giant trees you can look up the trunks of and perceive them disappearing into the sky, visiting the few remaining stands of alerce in the south of Chile is bittersweet. They’re magestic, to be sure, but they represent what’s wrong with resource exploitation and logging and disrespect for traditional ways and the environment.
The alerce is important, and I get what it represents, I just don’t love this tree with my heart and soul. It doesn’t reel me in. Also, despite the fact that they stand stock still, I was unable to photograph one to my satisfaction last summer while visiting Parque Pumalín, the humongous private park owned by American business mogul/environmentalist Douglas Thompkins that spans almost an entire degree of latitude across Chile. So there will be no photos of alerces today. At least not here.
Instead I will tell you about my tree. Yes, I have a tree. Well, many trees. It is not endangered, no one ever cuts it down to roof their house, and even monkeys find it troublesome. Not that we have monkeys in Chile, but you know. It’s called the monkey puzzle tree in English, or the Arucaria in Spanish. (ah-ru-CAR-ee-a). And I love it.
I love how they look from afar.
And from below
from up close
and from even closer
Even after death by flame and smoke, they remain dignified, seeming to implore the sky for rain, a chance for a new generation to grow.
The araucaria is not particularly huggable, what with the sharp angry-looking spikes on every branch. But I still love it. If it’s close, if it’s far. Even if it’s planted in Santiago, which it doesn’t much like, as it’s too hot in the summer and it becomes leggy, and has to strain to grow. Arucarias reminds me of the hens and chicks my mom grew on the back porch in an old sink when I was a kid in Brooklyn. Who knew that something so new could seem so familliar?