31 August 2008


[NOTE: a vital part of the experience of being in greenland is a true disconnection from civilization...which is increasingly harder to come by anywhere on the planet. i did my best to embrace that distance while there, including writing the old fashioned way...and so i am transmitting out to the blogosphere now from the comfort and safety of my own digs in brooklyn.]


when i last sent word out from greenland, i was stationed at the only computer terminal in the qaqortoq public library, having just bade farewell to martin hebsgaard, the evolutionary biologist whom you might remember from my work with the siberian actinobacteria last summer. this was martin's second trip to greenland, and having learned quite a bit about ancient lichens out in the field last year, this time he was lending his expertise to group of archeologists studying norse ruins. the idea was to use data collected from the growth of slow-growing lichens to help date the archeological structures. lucky for me the dig sites weren't too far from where some of the oldest lichens live (rumored to be up to 5,000 years old), so martin suggested we meet up and go lichen hunting.

lichens, moss and liverwart

more on the lichens later, i promise.

when i arrived at siniffik/vandrehjem qaqortoq hostel (mercifully known as heidi's - greenlandic is practically impenetrable if you weren't born into it), martin was already there. a few of the archeologists had joined him from out at the dig site in order to come in for a hot shower and buy groceries for the week. they were roughing it out there, and if you ran out of food, well, you could always go fishing. qoqartoq, home to around 3,200 people, is the largest town in southern greenland and is a veritable booming metropolis compared even to its nearest runner up.

house, qoqartoq

though a little delirious from all that travel, i was happy to be there and take in the town. the brightly colored buildings hinted at the need to break up a monotone landscape most other months of the year. but it was august and wild daisies and poppies were in their last fits of bloom. short if steep hikes out of town yielded blankets of mosses and lichens, edible flowers and dwarf berry bearing shrubs, punctuated by the occasional succulent, orchid, and carnivorous plant. the surrounding waters looked as inviting as the caribbean, but the occasional iceberg making its way down the jagged fjords told a different story.

06 August 2008


looking back at the blog it looks like i neglected to record the rest of my journey in chile down to patagonia and the alerce trees. guess that will have to wait as now i'm up at just about the opposite end of the earth.

aug 1 + 2

it wasn't easy, but i made it to greenland. first was a flight from JFK to rekyavik, iceland. we taxied on the runway for an extra hour, which made me very nerouvs about catching my connecting flight to greenland with less than two hours in between, and at another airport no less. luckily i convinced the airline to seat me right by the door, and i was the first out, running down the jetway, chugging the water in my sigg bottle at security as they scanned us all yet again on the way out, and finally out to the taxi i had arranged while still back at home. we sped away from keflavik to the regional airport, where i arrived 130 USD lighter and just in time to stand in line amidst a spanish tour group for our delayed flight. from there is was off to narsarsuaq. the views flying in were breathtaking, even if i was a bit delirious into my second day of travel. we arrived in town, which is little more than the runway and a youth hostel. my helicopter flight (the final leg of this part of the journey) wasn't scheduled until 6 that evening, and it was only a little after 10 in the morning. i asked, just in case, if their was space on an earlier one, and luckily a spot had opened up on the 11 am. so i was off to qaqortoq, my final destination of the day. the 20 minute trip was my first time in a helicopter, and both the mode of travel and the scenery were thrilling.

icebergs as seen from the helicopter

aug 6

it's now the 6th of august and i've had several days filled with rigorous hikes and lots of ancient lichens. the landscape is like walking in a field guide to arctic flora. it's cold and drizzly and a few icebergs are floating out in harbor. but now i'm about to take a boat out to the camp site at sodre igaliku where a group of archeologists (from Copenhagen and CUNY, of all places) have been studying norse ruins. i'll have to fill in the details of the last few days and the adventures of the week to come upon my return to civilization...

13 April 2008



sure...i've been back in nyc for a few weeks now, but i'd hate to just abandon the story at 15,000 feet. when i last checked in i was still up in the altiplano getting a sunburn. (i used the SPF 45 in the morning, but neglected to re-apply after the mud bath. i'll blame the dizzying altitude and a little forgetful post-photographing bliss.) at any rate, after a final night in moutains and feeling very content to have found the llareta, we headed back down towards arica, stopping along the way to visit some old queƱua trees which eliana had previously conducted extensive research on. we reached arica in the mid afternoon, tired and dusty, in time to buy some fresher than fresh fruit in one of the best farmer's markets i've ever seen.

i left arica for santiago the following morning after a rather unfortunate misunderstanding about daylight savings time. i had to laugh through my drowsy haze when an entire chilean football team got on the plane, the andes in full view. [to explain: before my trip i had asked my young cousin aiden mantelmacher (is that not the best name?) if he knew where the andes were. indeed he did -- because of his fondness for the movie ALIVE.]


after another restorative night in santiago in the home of the afore mentioned javier and bruna, i officially headed down to the cooler, rainier south for part II of my expedition: searching out the two oldest alerce trees on the northern borders of patagonia. i flew into the working port town of puerto montt, and after sorting out some problems with the my rental car (yes, i needed a 4x4, no, i couldn't drive stick, that's why i reserved the automatic), i wound my way through construction and detours onto the panamerican highway and got directly out of dodge.

i was relieved to find the drive from PM to valdivia an easy one, the roads well paved and well marked. it was my first time driving in south america by myself and i hadn't been sure what to expect. after the desert in the north, the waters of the rivers region seemed almost decadent. not quite enough so to quell the forest and brush fires that plagued the summer months, however. by mid afternoon i had made it into valdivia proper, a charming college town on a river and near the coast. on the advice of bruna's friend bernie i checked into the hostal above la celesa restuarant which turned out to be a private room in the family home of the folks who run the restaurant. i couldn't have been more pleased. i was their only guest, and an occasional baby crawled or scooted their respective ways into my room. that evening i met jonathan barichivich, colleague of alerce expert antonio lara, who would be my guide to a 3,500 year old alerce the following day.

13 March 2008



ok. so i last left off in arica, where i was getting ready to head up to the altiplano with eliana belmonte, expert in the workings of the atacama, and marisol, our dependable driver. eliana borrowed a camioneta (pick up truck) from the university museum, and we lit out into the desert. as we drove out of arica we were soon in some of the baddest bad lands i´ve ever seen - most assuredly the absolute desert. not a single thing growing. the roads where steep and windy, and we were climbing pretty quickly into higher and higher altitudes.

we stopped along the way at some delightful friends of eliana´s, who run a sort of DIY desert tour and education program. the outside looked a bit like a bright hippie compound, and inside there were all sorts of treasures - fossils, arrowheads, old pottery, star maps, a picture of einstein, and what at first looked like a dialysis machine which was actually oxygen. we were already at 10,000 feet, and i felt my heart pumping faster than usual. i had some oxygen and was taught a breathing exercise: take one hand, cross it in front of you, and hold the opposite nostril shut. breathe deeply. switch sides and do it again. repeat 10 times. after that, some oxygen, and some tea prepared from coca leaves and various twigs from plants retrieved by the kids from right outside, i was feeling right again.


that afternoon we made it to putre, a little town even higher in the altiplano, to acclimate before heading further up and out in search of the llareta. we all stayed in one room at the hotel kukuli, in clean, plain room with 3 beds taking up most of the floor space. after walking around town a bit in the late afternoon light, we headed to la paloma for dinner. its the kind of place that has one thing on the menu for the day, so since i don´t eat meat this posed a bit of a problem. i asked if they could fix me some vegetables to which the reluctantly agreed. eliana suggested they make some pasta as well -- verduras con fideos. what i got was a plate of spaghetti noodles. with nothing else. not so much as some salt and pepper. i tried adding what ever condiments were on the table; salt, salsa picante. it just wasn´t worth it. once back in sanitago i learned that la paloma has all sorts of businesses in putre - the restaurant, the hotel, and store, a postal service...but their primary focus is drug running over the near-by bolivian border. hence their lack of concern about my dinner.


the next day, after a good night´s sleep, it was time to look for the llareta. we drove out of town and further up into the mountains, now onto gravel roads. the landscape had changed significantly on our drive from arica to putre -- we started with the driest area nearest to the coast, eventually reached some candelabra type cacti that reminded me to the quiver tree (actually an aloe) found in namibia, and then into desert shrubs, some even green. when i saw the llareta for the first time i recognized it from photos i had seen immediately. it´s a rich green and as strange as i had imagined. many of them dotted the hillside, some more strangely formed than others, sort of like mutated topiary on steroids. i scrambled up a steep incline to get a better look and had to catch myself. we were up around 15,000 feet, and altitude sickness is nothing to take lightly. i did the breathing exercise and my equilibrium returned.

after i had taken it all in, we drove back to the main road and then on to the amazing parque lauca. as we entered the park flamigoes strolled around in a mountain lake, llamas and alpacas grazed, and enormous snow-topped mountains jutted from the high plains. after a walk along one of the lakes, home to many species of birds, eliana and i went up to the ranger station to ask about more llareta. the ranger agreed to accompany us to a rather steep and rocky site which he said was home to the oldest llaretta. we bounced along a rough road down to a lovely spot. the llareta were big, but probably not so much as the ones i photographed earlier. like many species, the are a number of factors involved in dating them, and a single plant has not yet been declared the oldest. so here´s to the educated guess.


pleased as punch at the successful day of shooting, we drove back towards putre and made our planned stop at the termas, natural hot springs which can be found in the area. while there are some proper pools, my favorites by far were some pits dug into the earth, filled with varying degrees of hot water. better still was the mud pit, where you could add a little more hot water and take a shovel full of mud. exactly what a mud mask was meant to be. unfortunately the scene was slightly spoiled by some locals drinking in the pools. there´s a reason they tell you not to drink in hot tubs. it had definately gone to their heads.


i almost forgot to mention -- there are a lot of earthquakes in the region, sometimes as frequently as every day. apparently i experienced a couple while there, but i didn´t feel a thing.

10 March 2008


hola out there!  it´s been pretty much non-stop action since i arrived in chile a week ago.  don´t be surprised if this comes out a little spanglish ¿where to begin?....


after a night in santiago (more on my time in santiago mas tarde), i flew to the town of arica , a less than idylic beach town with a lovely view of the ocean and a landscape that might as well be on the moon. the town´s other quirks include a pre-fab church designed by gustave eiffel (yes, the one and the same) and the fact that it plays host to an international surfing championship. there is as much seriously rocky shoreline as there is sandy beach, so one had better be a pro. arica has its charms as well, including one of the nicest markets i´ve ever seen, row after row of stands piled high with fresh fruits and vegetables, huge barrels of olivies, and pretty much anything else you could want.  the desert here has a way of revealing shocks of green, valleys that subsist on water from the mountains, making improbable farming possible.


on day two up north i crossed the border into peru under the guidance of the muy amable marisol, who drove me over and shuttled me through the multi-staged customs paperwork. i was missing a paper on the way in, but apparently it wasn´t a problem.  the drive between these two border towns could haven´t been more starck.  the land (read: sand) is so completely devoid of resources (water, a bit of shade) that the peruvian goverement gives it away for free to anyone who might try to live on it.  small metal shacks sparcely dot the landscape like little ovens baking in the midday sun.  a sign mentioned something about an irrigation project; nearby someone watered a single plant with a bucket of water.

tacna itself, on the other hand, is bustling and bright.  anything and everything seems to be being bought and/or sold. (this includes inscense which claims to ward off bad things of all forms. yeah, i bought some.  marisol informed me it should only be burned on mondays and thursdays.) the chileans often cross the border to shop as it´s much cheaper.  the only trick is that the customs restrictions are pretty tight on what you can and can´t bring in, and violators are stuck with a fine.  worse, however, would be for instance if you were stopped for a long time at a stop light, and when you were distracted, someone bound a parcel of cocaine to the bottom of your car. then they call ahead to their buddies on the other side and tell them to keep a look out for you.  this didn´t happen to me. i´m just sayin.

before we leave peru, i just have to note the delicious lunch that marisol and i had, starting with a traditional multicolored corn kernals, toasted with a little oil and salt, yucca french fries, fresh grilled fish (don´t let all that talk of sand fool you...the ocean´s right there), and a fermented red corn drink, mazamora morada, that could almost be in the sangria family.  super-rico


so all of that was basically the warm up, the real adventure starting with the trip up to altiplano in search of la llareta.  that definately warrents its own entry....

21 February 2008


hello out there. it's that time again...i'm heading out into the world in search of more old things.


before heading to south america, i'm heading as far south as the city of brotherly love to attend the closing reception for "IN THE BEGINING: exploring origins in contemporary art," an exhibition created by the graduate humanities department at the university of pennsylvania. a 44 x 54" print of one of my 2,000-year-old welwitchias will be on view. feel free to swing by if you're in town...fox art gallery, feb 29th (leap day!), 5 pm - 7 pm.


i'm getting to chile however my frequent flier ticket dictates, and if that means going to toronto and retracing airspace back towards sanitago so be it. heck, it'll give me a chance to stock up on maple products on the way home. but i digress...

it's the tail end of summer down in chile. once there i'll be popping in an out of santiago several times as i make my way to the atacama desert of the very north and down to the valdivian temperate rain forest of the south. according to the internet, chile is anywhere between 2500 and 7833 miles long. (it really is amazing how difficult it is for people to keep even the driest of facts straight.) but i get the point: as much as a 20- or 30-hour bus trips have their own special charms, i'll be taking some intra-chile flights. chile is lucky to boast both of the oldest living things in south america: the ALERCE and the LLARETA. i want to spend as much time as much quality time with them as possible.


the llareta might give the welwitchia a run for its money in terms of strange and interesting lifeforms thriving in inhospitable climates. first of all, it calls the atacama desert home. the atacama is the most arid place on earth, referred to as "ABSOLUTE DESERT" at its center. (philosophers: any possible relations to "absolute elsewhere?") some parts have not seen a single drop of rain since record keeping began. but lest we get too philosphical, the absurd comes to the rescue: the llareta is a member of the umbelliferae family making it a cousin of parsley.

so i'm going to find some 3,000-year-old parsley in the absolute desert.

the llareta actually looks more like mounds of moss, growing no more than a centemeter a year. because it is dry and dense, it burns well (like peat.) its function as fuel is actually endangering its survival, as even park rangers charged with protecting it have been know to burn it to keep warm on cold nights. i will find the oldest specimins with the help of botanist eliana belmonte. (eliana is a good friend of my friend tonia steed's step mother. tonia, who lives in seattle, agreed to meet me at the home of her step brother javier brstilo & his wife, artist bruna truffa in santiago which lead to the connection with eliana...but more on that story later.)

so from santiago it's up to arica, which is a stone's throw from the peruvian border. who knows, i may in fact throw a stone over, or perhaps just, uh, go for a visit. (whenever i think of borders now, the bone-dry riverbed separating south africa from zimbabwe in the kruger comes to mind. there is no fence, but there are lions. they tend to be indiscriminate in refusing entry.)

at any rate, more on the llareta from the field. after the desert it's off to the temperate rain forest...


the alerce (fitzroya cupressoides to be more precise) is a conifer in the cypress family, related to the giant sequoia found in north america. i'm in search of the "alerce millinarian", thought to be 3622 years old. i'll be meeting with the alerce's foremost expert, dr. antonio lara at the universidad austral de chile to get my facts straight. (many thanks to nate stephenson at the sequoia national park for helping to make that connection -- it's no coincidence that the alerce and sequoia experts are personally acquainted.)

the alerce millianiarn lives in REGION X. (i love the mysterioso, bermuda triangle quality, though i've since learned that the roman numeral has been repaced with the more descriptive "rivers region.") i'll be flying down to puerto montt (gateway to patagonia) and driving back up to the valdivia area before heading out to the national monument where it lives. (i have *got* to learn how to drive a manual transmission. it can be pretty hard to find an automatic 4x4 in certain far-flung places.) after that it's south of puerto montt to the ALERCE ANDINO NATIONAL PARK. the park is home to many old growth alerce, and the stump of what would have been the oldest known specimen.

stay tuned. more on all of this as it happens....