Dammed If You Don’t: Does Saving the Places We Love Destroy Them?
What if our efforts to save the places we love ended up destroying them?
That’s the question at the heart of Dammed If You Don’t—a short fictional novella written by longtime Rock and Ice contributor, Chris Kalman.
A dedicated climber and climbing writer of many years, Kalman has seen some of his favorite places in the world change dramatically due to an exponential increase in visitation combined with insufficient efforts at resource management. Those who love the outdoors almost unanimously agree that big extractive industries (clear-cut timber farming, mining, drilling, hydroelectric dams, etc.) are irrevocably ruining the world’s last wild places. But what about the effects of our own actions and behavior as outdoor enthusiasts?
Dammed If You Don’t tells the story of a deeply-conflicted photographer who tries to save Lahuenco—a remote valley in Patagonian Chile—by showing the world how beautiful it is. But in showing the world how beautiful it is, he inadvertently puts Lahuenco in peril—including a rare and mysterious salamander whose sudden appearance there forces the scientific community to rethink its understanding of evolutionary biology, and possibly human history itself.
“Unfortunately, modern western humans (aka, white people) don’t have a great track record of finding somewhere beautiful, and then simply leaving it alone,” Kalman wrote recently on instagram. “We exploit beautiful places one way or another: either for minerals, energy, or other resources; or for our own touristic impulses.
“There must be a better way. But what?
“I wrote my new book, Dammed If You Don’t, not to provide an answer (because I don’t have one)… but to encourage all of us to think more deeply about the question. To reckon with the effects of our own greed and desire for beauty, wilderness, and outdoor recreation.”
One week in to his kickstarter, Chris Kalman has already raised close to 85% of his $10,090 funding goal.
“I’m floored, and super grateful for all the support thus far,” Kalman told us. “But I’m definitely hoping to raise more! The $10,090 is really bare minimum, as printing costs have gone up significantly since my last book. If I raise more than $12k, I’ll not only be giving bonuses to Craig Muderlak and Sarah Nicholson (who did the gorgeous interior and cover illustrations), I’ll also likely be able to print 1500 copies instead of 1000.”
Excerpt from Dammed If You Don’t
They set out at dawn from the little fishing village of Calihue. Cocksure roosters strutted and crowed along the margins of the sole road into and out of town. Rotund pigs rooted indolently in the soft summer soil, already tilled and turned, in the grassy yards of ramshackle houses. The Coinco fjord lapped gently at its shores as mist rose from the brackish water in thin sheets like so many spirits summoned upward by the rising sun.
It was Christmas Eve, 2011. Nahuel—the only rider native to the region, the other two being gringos from el norte—thought it ominous to work on the auspicious day. But the gringos paid good wages. Moreover, Nahuel’s curiosity had gotten the better of him. The gringos came to climb huge walls of stone; so they said. But surely there must be rocks where they came from; otherwise, how would they know how to climb? There had to be some other reason. Gold perhaps, Nahuel thought, as he lashed the loads down tight, and fastened the saddles.
Across the fiord great mountains sprawled into the distance—their tops bare, grayly granitic, and shrouded in mist. They traversed a two-track etched into a cut bank—the Rio Lahuenco clear and emeraldesque below. The estuarine meadows and mud flats where the river met the fiord soon gave way to dense, dark, coastal rainforest. Mud sucked at the horses hooves as the riders ducked low-slung branches which hung over the trail. Everything was green. Green lichen, green moss, green shafts of light filtered through the green canopy of leaves. The verdant woods reminded John and Gary of their home in the Pacific Northwest. But the bird calls were foreign, the smells unfamiliar, and the trail unlike any they had ever seen. Steep walls rose on either side of them like a slot canyon, but the walls were made of mud. At times the corridor was so narrow the horses could not turn around. But they did not need to, for Nahuel was an expert horseman, and knew the way intuitively, if not intimately.
After three hours of tough riding, the forest abruptly yielded to an open meadow. Massive monoliths of vertical white granite, previously hidden by the dense woods, suddenly seemed to explode out of the forest canopy a few kilometers ahead on the other side of the winding, azure Rio Lahuenco. Gary dismounted clumsily, falling to his knees like a pilgrim and gazing upon the blanched pinnacles. John bore a peculiar look of self-satisfaction, as if he had known all his life he would one day arrive at such a place. He and Nahuel joined Gary in the grass for a much-needed break, and lunch. Nahuel made sandwiches of pancito—flat round rolls of white bread—filled with avocado, tomato, cheese and salami. They ate hungrily. John pulled out a celebratory bottle of whiskey and tilted it toward Gary smirking, as if to say “I told you so.” Gary declined, feeling John always celebrated too early. But Nahuel asked ¿porque no?, his eyes twinkling. So John uncorked the bottle, and passed it to Nahuel, who took a long pull. Then John drank, and put the bottle away. Vale, Nahuel said, vamonos, and they loaded up and set off into the forest again.
After another hour of riding, they came upon a bucolic meadow of tall green grass. A narrow windrow of trees stretched along the banks of the Lahuenco which oxbowed and goosenecked around white beaches—some of fine sand, and some of boulders the size, shape, and texture of bowling balls. On the other side of the river the forest rose steeply. The green tapestry was unbroken but for occasional small rips, where gleaming waterfalls or steep escarpments of black rock poked through. Above the forest stood the great peaks they had seen before, looking now like an upturned rib cage, or the teeth of some snarling beast. John took out a worn leather notebook and began jotting notes for articles he would write about walls he would climb, as if the deeds were already done. When he was done writing, he glassed the walls with binoculars, not seeing the features of the stone, so much as the legacy he intended to leave behind when he was gone, Gary accurately surmised. Gary—content to remain in the present—sat down in the grass reclining, fingers interlaced behind his head, right foot propped upon his left knee.
While John and Gary feasted their eyes, Nahuel unloaded large expedition duffels emblazoned with the logos of the gringos’ sponsors, and placed them on the ground on a large tarp. Eventually, John and Gary interrupted their reverie and pitched tents, while Nahuel made a fire and filled two five gallon buckets with water from the river. They cooked rice, beans and fillets of freshly-caught salmon over the open flame. After dinner and a cursory rinse of the dishes, John and Gary retired wordlessly to their tents. Nahuel laid out his bedroll beneath a blanket of stars, failing to comprehend the gringos’ choice to sleep beneath polyester roofs as he stared at the dazzling cosmos. But there was much about the gringos he did not understand.