A few days ago, I had the privilege of walking with Julia Gonzalez, Yagán artisan, and one of the last direct descendants of her people, who is dedicated to the ancestral art of traditional basket weaving. We met with her, and students and professors involved in Tracing Darwin’s Path, at the mouth of the Robalo river, here on Navarino Island, in the region of the sub-Antarctic channels and fjords of Magallanes. She invited the class to walk up river where she would begin to share part of her culture and art, living not only in her memory but in her voice and especially in her hands.
We stopped on the banks of the river in a place populated by communities of Juncos (reeds), which in addition to promoting the habitat of the birds, also cultivate the aesthetic and artistic habits of the Yagán people.
I remember that when we stopped, a light rain fell for a few minutes, and I heard Julia say, as if thinking aloud, “everything always starts with a rain”.
We started to collecting the reeds, which would be the raw material of the small basket that she would teach us to weave, showing us the blades that were adequate in terms of length and color, and the best way to remove them without damaging them. Then we would “cook” the reeds, a process that involved passing small bundles of fibers through the fire, in this case in a small campfire that we built on the shores of Zañartu lagoon. Her wisdom was reflected in his technique: Management of time and space to heat the reeds in a way that best serves the plant fibers, a technique that would later appreciate in its maximum expression, seeing her incredible skill when interweaving different fibers of the reeds and begin to glimpse the production of circular shapes that would lead to the creation of a small basket and me to a state of amazement and contemplation at the creative birth of something that did not exist before, but that somehow seemed to me known, and that at the moment could only describe as the representation of beauty.
Now, on the banks of the Beagle Channel in Robalo Bay, I walk among the rocks painted by lichens that color the intertidal black, yellow and white. As I continue I find dozens of small hills colonized by pastures
and hundreds of white petal daisies, I remember Julia, these flowers whisper, with the cold east wind, a Yagán story. These hills are not made naturally of stones and sand, but of thousands and thousands of sea shells crushed and arranged in specific places, which today have been covered by pastures and these beautiful flowers, which grow and develop thanks to the abundance of calcium . I walk in what was once a Yagán settlement, family houses made of mollusk shells, which in addition to macroalgae and other marine species, were the food base of the southernmost ethnic group on the planet.
I sit down, my hands touch the earth and my eyes get lost among the different shapes and colors of the mountains in front of the channel, suddenly, patterns similar to those of the rocks at my feet , begin to appear in the mountains, the greens of the forest of nothofagus, the brown of the substrate above the tree line eroded by the wind and the weight of cold, and the white of the snow, which on this sunny day, crowns only the summits. Mosaics of ecosystems, colors, similarities and interrelations.
I breathe the oxygen that the coigue and the lenga of those forests produce and release at this moment, vegetal kingdom that can develop thanks to the lichens able to fix the atmospheric nitrogen and to transfer it to the soil for the composition of its biomass, nitrogen that at the same time is part of the composition of my body which I incorporate thanks to the consumption of plants. I understand, as Whitman sang, that my tongue and every atom of my blood are made of this soil and this air, just like the blood of Julia, just the same as her parents and my parents and those who came before them, all born here wherever there is water and earth.
Maybe these are lights of the bigger story that Julia, the Yagán people and other cultures connected to nature have wanted to tell through their art ; that we are all interconnected, woven by the same reed fiber, in circles that move away and into the center, creating forms that try to tell their own story and describe something bigger than themselves.
Ralph Waldo Emerson would reflect on this in his essay “Nature” by saying that “The production of a work of art throws a light upon the mystery of humanity. A work of art is an abstract or epitome of the world. It is the result or expression of nature, in miniature.” a representation of the Kosmos, greek word that means order, universe but also beauty.