May 14, 2012
In a blue and white soccer jersey in the middle of a salt desert, a man named Donato shovels volcanic sweat. Standing in a turquoise quadrangle of water, he mines the grains pulled to the surface by Volcán Chañi. He spreads this exhumed layer under the Andean sun to purify.
The salt flats of Salinas Grandes in northern Argentina stretch 3,200 miles in a field of pentagonal patterns. The sun crusts closed the pools that Donato and other workers have opened to mine the pura salt used to whiten sugar and paper. The kaleidoscopic desert glitters like a bleached leopard print, a lolling sandpaper tongue that licks across another planet on which time is more like flavors than a line.
Petals of salt rise to the surface of the pools where miners have shoveled away tiles of rusted earth. After the workers have heaped mounds of shining output, they cover the openings and the clouded water dries in hopscotch patterns, while Chañi goes on drafting a text of brine and grit. Its pages are as obscure as the ones Rilke recommends in a “very foreign language” so that the young poet will learn to live his way into the answers he would ask of them. The salt desert has none of the wind-carved dunes of Great Sand Dunes National Park. It lacks a powdered slope or glaze of ice, exudes no ribbons of heat. It is a rind on the worldʼs pate, a panorama of forehead, bare as the mind without thought.
Donato straightens the bandana covering his nose from chloride fumes. He is a one-man factory today, since many pools froze over during the night and his fellow workers are elsewhere, waiting for them to thaw. For millions of years the activity of Chañi has been exactly the same, folding the past into the present, purging itself. Donato has mined the flats his whole life, as did his father before him and his grandfather before that. I do not ask if there was tension in that decision; there is no point imagining it another way.
My Argentine host, Marta Herrera, garnishes my acelga tostadas with tomato skins that she shows me how to wrap into miniature roses. She speaks seventeen words in English, including “American Airlines,” which she pronounces “Err-lines” with her jaw locked to mock the formality of the English accent, while her own tongue is curvy and expressive. The phrase she says to me most often is “A ver,” meaning give me a moment, letʼs see, wait. She says it to get a prop with which to mine a Spanish word I donʼt understand, or to ask me to hold my attention for her like a purse. The phrase creates space to notice how the pauses between people fill with anticipation or assumptions, and if you donʼt know what to expect, simplify into being conscious. There is intimacy in not knowing her, as there is revelation when memory quiets, lost in absorption.
While we eat, we listen to political radio and afterward, watch Argentina’s two current presidential candidates debate on television. Her candidate is not the more radical Peronista—a woman—but Ricardo Alfonsín, son of the “father of democracy” elected in 1983. A plane set me down at the unknown edge of relationship, but already I have begun to flag familiar ground, identify her politics, create concepts to hold between us.
After I have milanesa the first time, then on a sandwich, and one morning cold for breakfast, I may as well have grown up with it. Some clamor to end the habits of experience, to be disinterred from the old and refreshed with the crisp, but the forerunner follows a long run, like those made by Inca messengers who kept the early civilization connected by spreading in tandem the latest word. We pull our stories up from the debris of history and identity that cover them and air them out over her dining room table, while the eruption of Chileʼs Volcán Puyehue covers her apartment balcony in a skin of ash.
It is brisk and windy on the flats considering volcanic heat beads the salt from its depths. The only thing rippling other than the salt lotuses are the outstretched wings of the occasional condor in flight. In the starkness of this landscape, one can see the blank slate against which life communicates itself among the accidents of chance.
On the drive down from Salinas Grandes, our van of excursionists belts out pop songs. The hired driver slows for a cow crossing the road while we chant a mantra of Brazilian rap. The spectacle of sublime vistas leaves us stranded in the vacancy of measurement, and we grow delirious to hear an eighties song in English, to recall another life in which we are not dwarfed beyond recognition by the Altiplano, the second highest plateau, after the Tibetan, on Earth. Pop music brings us back to ourselves in a rush of gratitude, and our true colors wave like junior highschoolers in a rare moment of forgotten fear. All is forgiven, even the reasons awe is so frequently dodged. The narrative is always one of descent. What can we offer each other who have communed at the heights of experience but a pause before we break into babble, having seen together a mutual need to defend ourselves.
Amy Wright is the Nonfiction Editor of Zone 3 Press and Zone 3 journal, as well as the author of three chapbooks, Farm and There Are No New Ways To Kill A Man. She won the 2012 Pavement Saw Chapbook Contest for The Garden Will Give You A Fat Lip, which is forthcoming.