The Milieu (Who are You to Catastrophe Me?)

by María Berríos

Three cautionary tales about environmental devastation

Primo Uomo (Southern Swan Story)

Anacleto Angelini could have perfectly been a bird lover himself, after all, he did owe part of his fortune to his famous chicken farming enterprises from the 1950s. A self-made man, born in Ferrari in 1914, the eldest of three brothers, to a poor Italian family, he migrated to Santiago de Chile in the late forties after some not so clear incidents in Ethiopia. He became the nation’s first billionaire. A man not too worried about politics, although he did quite well in Pinochet’s time buying state companies dirt cheap – he was well known for his talent in turning around bad businesses. Just shy of his 90th birthday one of his proudest enterprises began operations: Celco Arauco, a top technology pulp mill began production in Valdivia, a small city in the south of Chile. The plant had only been working for four months when it was closed down because of accusations that linked it to the mysterious falling-from-the- sky fainting swan phenomenon in the year 2004. Some obsessive locals insisted on six thousand missing Cygnus Melancoryphus. Confidential sources claim Don Cleto never understood why there was so much fuss over a few ducks. Later his company opened a Nature Reserve close to the mill known especially for attracting amateur ornithologists and eager European backpackers, but there were no swans. Although, since Anacleto’s tragic death in 2007 – partially due to flu – his widow has been repeatedly spotted roaming the park at night in a stunning swan cloak, throwing wrinkled paper samples at anyone who comes within arms reach. When asked to comment on these allegations his nephew and heir has repeatedly declared: “there is nothing uglier than poverty.”

The Artifice of Disaster (Nature as Culture)

On May 22nd, 1960, the Great Chilean Earthquake struck the world. The most powerful earthquake ever recorded permanently modified the course of rivers, erased islands, created other islands and moved mountains. The initial shock was followed by a tsunami that affected the whole Pacific Coast, killing thousands all over the globe (hundreds died in Japan, Alaska, the Philippines, New Zealand and Australia). In Chile the fatalities reached only six thousand, a very low death toll for such a highly destructive catastrophe: specialists attribute this statistic to the fact that the shock

occurred during church service hours – in proudly Catholic and seismic countries, churches are the sturdiest buildings around. One of the most heavily fortified cities of the New World, Valdivia, was once again totally devastated. (For over three centuries the conquistadores tried desperately to protect the city from the belligerent Mapuche people resisting enslavement in what is known as the Arauco War.) Water contaminated with debris flooded the city, whose electric and water systems were completely destroyed. Shortly after, black necked swan beauties from all over began migrating to the newly created wetlands. Two days later, countless surrounding volcanoes flared into eruption.

And Then There Were None (Expectation / Exportation)

We had been driving south for over eight hours, and were beginning to get tired. Even though the German friend I had invited was very restless in her desire to experience as much as possible on our road trip, she had slept almost the whole way. I felt terribly guilty, I was sure that she had snoozed out of boredom due to the monotonous straight-line effect caused by the Pan-American Highway. So far I had managed to remedy the situation by telling her, every time she raised her head, that she had missed the most exciting things: bizarre church construction, futuristic Animita, Araucarias, ñandús, pudús …etc. At one point my mother, who had come along, suddenly realised we would be able to see the Llaima, a volcano close to Valdivia that had become active the month before: rumours were that a drooling ‘tongue’ of lava was visible at night. My friend seemed to like the idea and I was slightly relieved. As we got close to the new volcano-vedette we all started becoming a little excited, and my friend stayed awake a full forty-five minutes. Shortly before reaching our destination, we stopped in a gas station. While leafing through the newspaper in the pee cue, I read a small note on four Japanese tourists who had been arrested for sneaking into a restricted area to see the eruption. Back in the car an unexpected full three hours awaited us, my friend fell asleep again just as we passed what looked like a science fair maquette-miniature of a volcano blowing a little smoke. When she woke up later I told her she had missed what was for sure the most precise image of catastrophe I had ever seen.

This is an amended version of a piece titled “The Milieu (WHO ARE YOU TO CATASTROPHE ME!)” published in a special climate change issue of the magazine spector cut+paste, issue 4, for the exhibition Katastrophenalarm, NGBK, 2008

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