Eden: A Gated Community

The plot contains elements of Lost Horizon and Heart of Darkness, Fitzcarraldo and The Tempest. After making a fortune as founder of North Face and Esprit, Douglas Tompkins embraced the principles of deep ecology. Then, forsaking civilization, he bought a Yosemite-sized piece of wilderness in Chile, where only he and a like-minded few would live. They intended to show the world how an eco-community could flourish even as the ancient forest was kept pristine. Tompkins ran into one big problem: other people

I sat beside him, and we talked about the unusually dry weather—two weeks without rain. His voice was sparse, gravelly, faintly nasal. He said he had just come by boat twelve miles down the fjord from his homestead at Reñihué—once the site of his candlelit hut, and now the largest and most private of his hamlets, accessible only by small boat or airplane. I thought he looked old for his age but, with his lopsided smile, also fleetingly boyish. His gaze was indirect—not shy but willfully modest, like that of a man holding himself back and suffering from an abundance of certainties.

I asked him how he passed his time. By the light of the fire he showed me his soil-stained hands. He said he had labored all day in a field at Reñihué, digging out the stumps of old trees. He said he was surprised to find himself doing such work at this stage in his life, and surprised by the satisfaction it gave him. Some of the roots ran nine feet deep. He insisted that he was not tired. He would have kept digging longer, but had broken off early for the children's asado. Kris had told him he had to. He meant that he was an ordinary guy, a regular fellow.

But when I asked how many people he employed, I saw a flash of another Tompkins. Some of his critics had accused him of destroying jobs. He eyed me sharply, as if he weren't sure what to make of my question. He said, "You've been talking to them?"

"Yes," I said.

"Well, you need to, you see. And you need to tell them that last I counted, I'm the biggest employer in the whole Goddamned province of Palena. I've got more than a hundred and fifty people here, over a hundred in construction alone. These are jobs that didn't exist before."

But his opponents had already pointed out that these jobs were temporary. Their quarrel with Tompkins was about the removal of so much land from the possibility of exploitation; it was about jobs in the future. Tompkins must have understood the argument. I suspected that his anger was in part with himself, for having to talk about jobs in the first place when what he really cared about was preservation. He must have felt the frustration of an environmentalist who heard himself sounding like the very developers he wanted to stand against. He was in a bind. He might have found it easier to forget his principles, but then he would have lost his reason for being here.

He said, "Everything we do here comes down to defense. We try to anticipate the attacks, sure. But mostly we just say, 'Okay, what is it now? How do we deal with this one?'" His tone was ironic. He had accepted the need to accommodate Chile—to help the surrounding settlers with their lives, and to invest in this public-access part of the preserve—and he was annoyed that his critics had seized on these accommodations and called them contradictions, as if they had caught him cheating.

But then he laughed, and shook off the mood. He said the governor, poor guy, was suffering from isolation. A similar thought occurred to me in Chaitén, when the governor refused to discuss the possibility that Tompkins might be an honest though misguided man.

Tompkins, too, was suffering from isolation, though more like that of a king. It was probably unavoidable. He remembered his own beginnings clearly, and tried to maintain a connection to ordinary life, but to an extent greater than he realized he had been cut off by his success. Digging roots in a field? The effect of his isolation was a peculiar magnanimity—for instance, in his unnecessary urging that I find his critics and hear them out. It struck me that within this public attitude of openness lay a private message of disdain. I heard it again when he laughed off the governor. Thirty-five miles of road separated Caleta Gonzalo from Chaitén, but a still greater distance separated the two men. Tompkins seemed to think that the governor lacked the power to hurt him.

The project's critics did not usually linger at Caleta Gonzalo, but in the guest book at the café a few had expressed their distrust.

Mr. Tompkins: I feel like a foreigner in my own country. The cabins are beautiful, done with Chilean hands, but you put your stamp on them: $$$.
Mr. Tompkins: Americans always protect their interests. I don't want a fiefdom within my country. I don't believe anything you say. I hope that my country is also my grandson's. [Someone had answered: "If Tompkins were Chilean he'd be turning these forests into wood chips. Is that what you'd like?"]
Mr. Tompkins: If you want to create a nature sanctuary, that's good. But if you want to take our land from us, that's bad. Think about it, because one should not play under the hooves of horses. P.S. I am a young man who loves his country, and I am willing to give my life for it. Take that well into account.

But Tompkins preferred to focus on the other inscriptions—conventional words of praise, written by guests who had come to Caleta Gonzalo because they approved of the project already. At the asado Tompkins asked me if I had leafed through the guest book. The question struck me as sad. He mentioned a national poll that he believed showed that most Chileans had come to think as he did. I thought, He does not see the trouble he is in.

Sparks from the cooking fire rose into the night above the outlines of black mountains. The employees' children chattered happily over their meal of goat, beans, and organic salad. Tompkins said that because of the severity of the climate and the shortness of the growing season, people here still had to get many of their calories from meat. He put a serving of goat on his plate but did not eat it. He said he hoped to persuade the settlers to build cheap plastic-covered greenhouses, and to improve their diets.

Presented by

William Langewiesche

"Enclosed are Two Pieces on Algeria." With those words, typed on plain white bond, William Langewiesche introduced himself to the editors of The Atlantic Monthly. Although neither piece quite stood on its own, the editors were drawn to the unusual grace and power of Langewiesche's writing and sent him on assignment to North Africa for a more ambitious piece of reporting. The result was the November 1991, cover story, "The World in Its Extreme"—his first article to appear in a general-interest magazine. (He had, however, written frequently for aviation magazines; he is a professional pilot and first sat at the controls of an airplane at the age of five.) Since that article, from which his book Sahara Unveiled: A Journey Across the Desert (1996) grew, Langewiesche has reported on a diversity of subjects and published four more books.

A large part of Mr. Langewiesche's reporting experience centers around the Middle East and the Islamic world. He has traveled widely throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa, reporting on such topics as the implementation of the shari'a in Sudan under Hassan al-Tarabi, North Africa's Islamic culture, and the American occupation of Iraq. Other recent assignments have taken him to Egypt, the Balkans, India, and Central and South America. In 2004 he won a National Magazine Award for excellence in reporting.

In 2002 his book American Ground: Unbuilding The World Trade Center was published. It is based on a series of three cover stories he wrote for The Atlantic as the only American reporter granted full access to the World Trade Center clean-up effort. His latest book, The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime, was published in May 2004.

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