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

Kris McDivitt finally had a moment free, and came over to sit with us. She was an unadorned woman, not yet fifty, with a square, athletic build, streaked gray hair, and a lively, intelligent face. Her voice was strong and direct. I asked her about the children. She said they had gathered from the farthest reaches of the property for a few days of fun before the start of the school year. Tompkins added that the holiday was supposed to be educational too—part of a larger effort, critical to the preserve's survival, to teach future generations of settlers a more caring attitude toward the forest. McDivitt agreed with him in theory, but said that in practice it was not the forest but Caleta Gonzalo that drew these children. It offered them the excitement of a city—the comings and goings of travelers from far away, and new friends, and a café, and, perhaps most of all, a road leading out into the larger world.

Tompkins let out a scornful laugh. "A road leading out to Chaitén," he said. "Like the world is in Goddamned Chaitén."

"For them it is," McDivitt said.

"How'd the walk go?" he asked.

"We tried to show them something about the trees. We talked about the alerces. But, I don't know, they weren't really into it. Luis said his feet hurt."

Tompkins was incredulous. "His feet hurt?"

McDivitt eyed him evenly. "His feet hurt. And the other kids just wanted to play."

She was admirably American, I thought, in the flatness of her delivery, in her pragmatism, in the way she stood her ground. Tompkins seemed to think so too. He looked her over. "Anyway, they're just kids," he said, as if he had not forgotten. I thought, Whether he loves this woman by choice or by intuition, he must know that she is in some ways what he needs to be.

The conversation drifted to McDivitt's earlier career in California, and to her business partner Yvon Chouinard, who even after becoming very rich continued to drive a ratty old car. In Los Angeles this was considered to be eccentric behavior. But Tompkins called it a natural progression. He said, "First comes the display of wealth—that's a Cadillac. Then comes the display of style—that's the BMW. Then comes the mockery of style—that's Yvon Chouinard. In Chile there's a lot of display of wealth, and a bit of display of style, but you can forget about the mockery." I thought he was about to acknowledge the gulf between Americans and Chileans. But instead he merely said that Chouinard had visited Parque Pumalín and had liked it very much.

McDivitt went off to put the children to bed. The air turned cool, and a group of vacationing Chilean college kids wandered over from the campground and appeared in the fading firelight. One of them added wood to the embers, and with studied nonchalance they watched the little flames that erupted, and stood warming themselves shoulder to shoulder with Tompkins. There were about twenty of them, transient students of the determinedly concerned kind—sincere, idealistic, and a bit rebellious, but also, ultimately, perhaps too well behaved. They were still awkward with their adulthood, and had to strain to maintain the pretense of informality with Tompkins, a man whom—however temporarily—they seemed to adore.

I had seen adoration for him before—perhaps more enduring—in the distant city of Puerto Montt, among the barefoot young women who worked in the preserve's front office. They were serious, dignified, and a little standoffish, but they glowed when they talked about Tompkins. Their office was a sunlit refuge from the strivings of the city—a remodeled mansion behind high garden walls. It had blond wood floors and an immaculate atrium with a sign that read, in English,

We are the first generation in 100,000 generations of human evolution to have our lives shaped—not by nature—but by an electronic mass media environment of our own making.
Like caged animals, we have lost our bearings. Our attention spans are flickering near zero, our imaginations are giving out, and we are unable to remember the past.

The students at the campfire now expected to hear just these sorts of ideas. Tompkins stood among them like a penitent priest, slightly stooped, with his head tilted forward and his hands dangling loosely at his sides. Someone asked him a casual question, and he answered it briefly in his sloppy Spanish; after a silence someone asked another question, and this time his answer took longer. This went on until only Tompkins still stood and spoke, and the students had arranged themselves on the ground and sat listening to him in silence. He had just finished telling me that he never preached. But now he held forth for two hours, expounding on the need for a "new Copernican revolution" in which nature is no longer seen to turn around man, and arguing that capitalism has failed as surely as communism, but that there is a third way, and it is green. The students never once disagreed or asked for practical detail, though Tompkins was the rare man who could have provided it to them. Some nodded their heads in understanding or agreement, and seemed to grow sleepy. Tompkins continued to talk: the gross national product is a measure of the conversion of nature to culture; the techno-industrial juggernaut is a bulldozer unleashed on the world; The New York Times is the mouthpiece of transnational corporations; Santiago is an octopus reaching out and devouring the Chilean land.

It was an astonishing performance. Toward midnight a student shyly raised his hand. "Una pregunta. How much time do we have?"

Tompkins said, "It may already be too late."

But he, for one, was not ready to quit. He continued to speak, about the ecologist Aldo Leopold's advice to "save the pieces," and the need to bear witness to the folly of the world's self-destruction. Some of his audience eased away. I wondered if he was still preaching, hoping for conversions, trying to lead Chile to its salvation, or if by now he was just speaking to himself about his day spent digging in the fields. I no longer quite heard his words anyway, but studied him as if he were a reflection of me. I thought, He has my New England taste for the austere, for straight lines and a simplicity that in South America seems impossibly severe. His forest was a forest of symbols he did not see. His voice barely broke the silence of the mountains. I watched him across the fire, this Puritan faced with winter, this Pilgrim, this small hunched man in his fisherman's clothes, so abandoned to his beliefs.

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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