MR. TOMPKINS COMES TO CHILE
Esprit, the upscale clothing company that Doug Tompkins owned with his first wife, was the source of his fortune. His second wife, Kris McDivitt, made a fortune of her own as CEO of another clothing empire, Patagonia. Together, the couple now own more than two million acres of land in Chile and Argentina. Pumalín, the first and largest of these holdings, took shape around a dilapidated farm that Tompkins bought in 1991, at the head of a fjord named Reñihue.
There's no road to the Reñihue farm (now anything but dilapidated); a small launch gets you there, bumping over the rough waters of the fjord. Halfway, the boatman suggests that we detour to take a look at two colonies -- rookeries, as they're called -- of sea lions. There are 200 or 300 animals in each, clustered shoulder to shoulder on the rocks above the tide line. The great whiskered bulls lie inert, like rocks themselves, each surrounded by a harem of six or seven cows and a gaggle of nervous pups. As the boat edges closer, outboard throttled way down, the sea lions initiate the opening movement of what turns out to be a four-part encounter. The bulls, bestirring themselves, fill the air with deafening bellows of territorial defense, as a tremor of anxiety ripples through the bodies on the rocks. But then an inquisitive scouting party takes to the water to check out the intruders, while the bulls continue to grunt and grumble among themselves. The scouts seem favorably disposed toward us, for all of a sudden -- stage three of the encounter -- the water is full of cows and pups, belly flopping off the rocks, nosing their way toward us, dozens of them in a row now, some leaping bodily from the blue-green water like dolphins, until the nearest are no more than 10 or 15 feet from the boat. As with dolphins, there's a sense of playful curiosity, of testing the limits of our meeting. But eventually the boatman turns to go -- Tompkins and McDivitt are expecting us for lunch -- and the sea lions set up a doleful wail, uncannily suggestive of a human cry, as if urging us back to their rocks like the selkie of Celtic legend.
The subject of sea lions makes Doug Tompkins very angry, for they are routinely shot by the salmon farmers whose cages seem to line every fjord in this part of Chile. Tompkins came here originally fired by the dream of a wilderness expanse entirely free of humans, but ideals quickly collided with reality. Salmon farmers were the first of many enemies he made after arriving in Chile with these outlandish notions. For all its surface civility, Chile has deep reserves of unreason, and one interest group after another lined up to demonize Tompkins: Pinochetistas said he wanted to divide the country in two; Catholic Church leaders accused him of being a covert promoter of abortion; the military's lunatic fringe spread dark rumors of plans for a Zionist enclave (a strange one, that, since Tompkins is a WASP from Dutchess County, New York); Christian Democrats, who were in power when he got here, said he was conspiring to keep out foreign investors (the odd logic of Chile's open-door policy being presumably that foreigners who want to extract the country's natural resources are welcome, but those who want to invest their fortunes in conserving them are not).
Part of Tompkins's problem was that private philanthropy, let alone private conservation initiatives like Pumalín, was all but unknown in Chile; still, Tompkins seemed to think that his good intentions were self-evident, that there was no need to promote them to his hosts. He was wrong about this, and although he has grown more diplomatic over the years, much of the animosity persists. In a speech last year, for instance, the head of the powerful trade association SalmonChile compared Pumalín to Colonia Dignidad, a secretive encampment in southern Chile described by a congressional commission as "a state within a state." To put the salmon farmer's remark in its full perspective, bear in mind that Colonia Dignidad was run by a former Nazi and pedophile who allowed Pinochet's secret intelligence service, the DINA, to use the camp as a torture center.
Tompkins's environmentalism has always been of the radical variety. Even before he sold Esprit in 1990, walking away with an estimated $150 million, he had become a devotee of the Norwegian deep-ecology theorist Arne Naess, and had set up his own Foundation for Deep Ecology in Sausalito, California, to promote Naess's ideals: a metaphysical connection to the natural world and a rejection of the idea that humans are in any way superior to other species (this being the part to which the Catholic Church took special exception). Tompkins's dislike of technology in particular is legendary. Even so, before lunch he gets out his laptop to show us a brief DVD about Pumalín and the couple's other properties -- notably the Estancia Valle Chacabuco, an abandoned, 173,000-acre sheep farm that McDivitt recently bought, several hundred miles south of here, on the banks of the Río Baker.
But the DVD player is uncooperative. Tompkins fiddles ineffectually with the controls.
"Birdie, I've got a problem here," he says, waving a plug in the air.
"Yes, dear." McDivitt's voice floats in from the kitchen.
More fiddling. "I goofed up here. Maybe I didn't put that... I guess I didn't get the... I need a tech weenie."
Eventually New Age music starts up and the screen fills with images of rainforest. But just as quickly it goes blank again, and Tompkins says, "Aargh. Birdie!"
McDivitt finally appears from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron, looking capable. "Step aside, gentlemen," she says. "Let somebody who really knows what they're doing take care of this." You get the sense this kind of exchange must be a regular feature of the marriage.
Later, over lunch, as Tompkins wolfs down prodigious handfuls of intensely flavored blueberries from the Reñihue farm, his one-man war on technology rages on. Things like the DVD and the laptop, he says, "are just an intermediate tool. It's a matter of fighting fire with fire -- temporarily. But you can't use technology without giving power to the transnationals, and they're ruining the world. It's gotta go. Get these things and you get the transnationals, the military, the whole industrial enchilada. In an agrarian society you don't need any of this."
Cutting a slice of homemade marzipan cake, the unflappable McDivitt says, "This new iPod of mine, it's amazing. I've even started downloading whole books. I just downloaded Thoreau."
Tompkins freezes in mid-mouthful, a stricken expression on his face. "That's terrible."
"Yeah, yeah," McDivitt sighs, rolling her eyes. "You always pooh-pooh all my new technology." A beat. "Until you steal it."
When lunch is cleared away, Tompkins suggests we go up in his Cessna for a tour of Pumalín and the small organic farming projects that are dotted around the fjords. On the way to the grass airstrip, I can't resist asking him whether he uses GPS in the plane. He's visibly put out by the trick question. "Well, yeah," he finally says grouchily. After another pause he adds, with a certain amount of defiance, "But it makes me a worse pilot."