Messy memories by the Messy River

Days 10-11 Tues 14th-Weds 15th Jan 2014

[see also postscript for ‘25 de mayo’ post]

This project was always going to be a challenge.  We were a little anxious about being able to find enough people to interview, and then about being able to understand what was being said, regardless of whether the conversations were in Welsh or Spanish.  As we have seen already, Hywel and I need not have worried about the former, and the latter is less of an issue for either of us.  But there are other challenges this morning.  Our heads are a little … how shall we put this? …. ‘foggy’.  I prefer to blame it on the previous day’s driving efforts and the excess dust that we must have inhaled, but the mountain of rich food and bottle of wine (at mimimum) that each of us consumed the evening before may have more to do with it.  This consumption came care of the welcoming hospitality at the home of our local contact, Jeremy W., who has been very active on our behalf and has provided us with a long list of potential interviewees.  The challenge now is to contact and find them, and if they are willing to be interviewed, to fit them into our remaining time frame.  And a bangin’ headache in the heat doesn’t help.

Our search for interviewees doesn’t start well.  The first three people that we prioritise on our long list are not answering their phones or the number does not appear to be recognised.  We walk to one house to try and knock on the door but are confronted by a locked gate and closed shutters.  We do get an interview with a friendly Spanish-speaking local scientist, but she has only been in the area for about eight years and her memories of events of the past are limited.  She admits to knowing very little about floods or the irrigation works in the early years of Welsh settlement in the lower valley, and has trouble recalling the major floods of Sept 2013 that affected the region.  This is odd: these floods occurred less than six months ago, affected at least 24 families, and prompted a visit from the Provincial Governor who declared an emergency.  This was a big local event by any stretch of the imagination, yet her memories are hazy.  She is, however, more concerned about droughts, which are partly related to the reduced amounts of snowfall in recent years.

These themes are reinforced by our second interview of the day.  For once, this takes place in English, with a farmer whose house is located immediately adjacent to a small stream in a nearby valley with a beautiful view of the Andes.  Prior to the interview, we see large number of red foxes (15-20?) and a puma strung up in the farm buildings or nearby trees.  I took lots of photos.  It is not often that one gets to see the carnivorous part of the Andean ecosystem displayed in such fashion.  But these predators are not threatened: far from it.  Numbers are increasing (exploding?) owing to a steady diet of sheep and hares.  The government pays a bounty for farmers to shoot the foxes, and the pelts are cleaned and sold on.  The puma was shot before it got a chance to eat the farmer or his wife.  It is part of ‘the game’ he says, and I picture a pacman type game where the rules are eat or be eaten.   This farmer also knows little about the early floods or the irrigation works in the lower Chubut valley.  Despite the location of his house, he is not very concerned about floods, and also has trouble recalling the dates of the higher-than-normal flows of 2013, although from the date stamps on his photos (kindly shared) they coincided with the September floods.  He is, however, concerned about drought and also comments on the declining snowfalls in recent years.  Along with periodic volcanic eruptions that can cloak the landscape in thick suffocating ash, and winds that can destroy metal feed lots for cattle, droughts too he considers to be part of ‘the game’, and we humans have to learn the rules (or adapt the rules) if we wish to survive.

Some of these themes continue to emerge in Wednesday’s interviews, even those undertaken with some of the older residents in Trefelin, a small town located adjacent to the Río Percy.  This gravel-bed river flows in its multiple, tortuous paths towards the Chilean border, and the banks of the river (such as they are) are lost in a diffuse fringe of trees and shrubs.  Given its shape-shifting, untidy form, one early Welsh poet referred to this as the ‘Afon Fradach’, which Hywel tells me could translate as ‘Messy River’, although neither hydronym has stuck.  It was also one of the rivers that broke its banks in Sept 2013 and flooded part of the town, but this big local event still does not elicit many memories.  In fact, while one elderly interviewee can recall the 1939 Trefelin flood event and comments on the declining snows in recent years, the Sept 2013 flood event does not even get a mention.  The key theme in the Andes so far: memories of flooding and drought are messy, even close to the banks of a river that may be deserving of the adjective.

View across the Messy  River near Trevelin

View across a messy river near Trefelin

Tuesday’s working day had ended with our attendance at a meeting in Trefelin to discuss the planning of events to celebrate the 2015 sesquicentenario (the 150 year anniversary of the landing of the first Welsh emigrants on the Patagonian Atlantic coastline).  Most of this meeting is conducted in Spanish rattled out at the velocity of machine gun fire, but Hywel gets a chance to introduce our project in Welsh, and translations are given.  The leaflets that are being distributed to promote the sesquicentenario at least mention the importance of the irrigation works in the lower Chubut valley.  Perhaps such celebrations will help to stir the fading, somewhat messy, collective memories of the role of floods and droughts in the history of this hydrographic society.


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