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Kristine Tompkins on the importance of living in the wild this Earth Day

I grew up on my great grandfather’s ranch in Santa Clara, CA, but I don’t think I ever thought of it as a “wilderness” place back then, even though I basically lived outside So much of my childhood. But seriously, my sense of the wild came from meeting Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard and falling from the life of a rancher to the life of a mountaineer. That’s 1960 and ’70, so by convention we reject pretty much everything from our parents’ generation. I think I was born at a time that really allowed for incredible freedom — to come out of the confines of a more conservative, stricter family and into this movement for free love, feminism, peace, civil rights. This is a profound moment of growth.

A certain type of person sees an injustice happening — in our case, what’s happening in the natural world — and goes for it. We knew we would take a no-take approach. Some of our character traits, for better or worse, are baked into the cake. It may be my Scottish-Irish heritage, but I’m a freewheeling fighter, which lends itself well to conservation work and activism.

I started when I was in Patagonia or 22, so when I was 26, I just panicked. I thought: Is this the sum of my life? When I 50 or 70 or 40, would I do the same? So I became motivated to figure out what I wanted to do next. I honestly don’t know what that is because I’ve never done other other than Patagonia. And then when Doug and I met in southern Argentina, it became clear that there was an attraction to each other, and an attraction to that place—like multiple light bulbs going off at the same time, saying, that’s it. I want to do that . This is immediate.

I think when it comes to love, the first 50% is the chemical reaction, which cannot be described or explained. Whether it’s climbing or belay work, Doug is brave and fearless. I think we all recognize that with each other. Most people who knew both of us said, ‘Oh my God, this is a disaster. It’s like throwing gas on a fire. In some respects—certainly in our love for one another—this is absolutely true. But when it comes to moving from our business lives into a new chapter working for the wild, I don’t think we’ll be a couple unless we’re really madly in love and crave a life that’s isolating, wild, difficult. But it also serves a larger idea. We are on a trajectory away from the source of all things, and we need to restore our connection to nature, to restore nature itself. In Chile and later Argentina, we found many like-minded people to help realize this vision.

1960

when I leave Patagonia When, really, it was just a Friday, I packed two little bags from my beach house, locked the house, and left. Then I came to the southern coastline of Chile, in this temperate rainforest with no roads and 70 inches of rain. We started our lives there, no phones, just high frequency radios. I speak some Spanish, but not the kind where you sit at a dinner table and discuss politics. There is no electricity so we used an old fashioned ice box. It was so extreme in some ways, but I think it helped – because it was such a real shift, I couldn’t sit there and think, God, what did I do?

I had to remind myself that these special circumstances were exactly what I needed to get me out of a previous life slump I didn’t want anymore.

1960

After Doug’s sudden death, I will Continue to trek. I feel like sometimes I may or may not come back: I just think, I’ll lie under a tree and sleep peacefully. I think it has to do with seeing raw sadness in nature. Nothing at all. No arms I could fall into, no therapist. But I need to be in that state where I’m not at the top of the food chain. I need to do something a bit shaky. If I can’t go with Doug, then I just have to be inside. I had to find that field of strength to match this tomahawk with the forehead I lost Doug. We’ve had this intense life 26 years together, so the dependence on each other is so strong. When he died, I had to match—I had to find myself in something equally powerful.

1960

I don’t want to benefit too much from this, But there’s no doubt that watching the painful and difficult side of wildlife makes Doug’s departure feel more like a cyclical event than the end of something. Of course, when your heart is broken, you read a lot of stuff that probably wasn’t there. But a few years ago, Cristian Saucedo, head of our rewilding program in Chile, walked by the small cemetery where Doug is buried in Patagonia National Park. He saw seven cougars sitting around Doug’s grave, one on a small post, three or four in the grass a few meters behind, and one on another post. Christian, who has done a lot of puma science in the Southern Cone, has never seen anything like it in his life. After mountain lions have been systematically killed and displaced by livestock over the last century, we have been working hard to bring back mountain lions. So that’s when our conservation team thought about it: the sacred mackerel. We don’t know anything about how the world communicates. How do you feel about such a thing? Maybe nothing. But for me, it’s very powerful. Again, it reminds me that someone is gone, but they are still with you. They are still here. And our marriage just morphed into another phase. It might sound quirky, but it’s always helped me.

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