Remembering Doug, Part 1

The one and only Doug Tompkins has died, after a kayaking accident on the biggest, most beautiful lake in Patagonia. Along with his unstoppable wife Kris, Doug was my first boss, greatest mentor, surrogate parent. Much has been said about Doug, much will be written. So it is with forces like him. All I can do is remember the time I shared with him, and how he shaped my life — as he has and will shape so many.

I remember the day I met him. In an old farmhouse in Patagonia, over a candlelit dinner (only a few hours of electricity at the remote farm). Doug proclaimed that Harvard should be “boarded up with cheap plywood.” If I wanted a real education, he said, stay in Patagonia. Then he sent me off with a reading list of eco-philosophers and poets, economists and social critics who could help shape my “world view.”

Reñihue Farm

I was a college junior, traveling with my dad: NRDC, the environmental NGO he managed, was working on a campaign to protect one of Patagonia’s wildest rivers. As we planned the trip, someone had asked us, “Want to go meet the Tompkins?”

It wasn’t long before I’d heard many of those phrases we all associate with him:

You’re either an activist or an inactivist.
You got to pay your rent for living on the planet.
Commit now and figure out the details later.
Don’t let your schooling get in the way of your education

It took me a year and a half to get back, but he had a point: no experience has taught me so much. A few months after graduation, I found myself as Doug’s “field assistant,” tagging along with him and Kris on their tireless tour of duty, from San Francisco to New York to northeastern Argentina to southern Chile. My onboarding worked this way: Doug handed me a hard drive with five hundred of the best photos of their conservation projects, farms, and team members. He sat next to me scrolling through each of them, telling the winding, colorful stories they evoked as my orientation.

I spent plenty of the next year like that: parked next to Doug and his MacBook Pro, looking at pictures and listening to stories. We were assembling a 20-year retrospective book of their work, the first effort in a long time to document their projects in land conservation, species habitat recovery, environmental activism, and organic farming. Through hours of photo editing, I learned how Doug saw a good picture: story, expressions, composition, color, energy.

He traced the origin of his aesthetic eye back to a book on classic American furniture that his father, an antiques dealer, had given him. For each style and piece, the book showcased a Good, Exceptional, and Poor example. Young Doug taught himself to recognize the subtle differentiating details, so that as a young boy, he surprised experts with his assured (and usually accurate) assessment.

That confidence in objective standards of beauty ran through his evaluation of landscapes. We had and re-had this debate: do we all pick the same five-star places? Fresh out of humanities undergrad, I argued for a more relative, culturally specific sense of beauty. If I spent my childhood in grasslands, maybe mountains wouldn’t hook me. Doug wouldn’t buy it. He’d argue: take someone from a tribe in the Amazon, a city in China, a town in middle America, and bring her to a big, spectacular landscape. She’d react the same way, with awe and respect. He believed in the realness of beauty and its power to convert and transform, inspire care on its behalf.

Photo credit to Doug

One hot summer afternoon, we were driving through the volcano-decimated town of Chaiten and stopped to check on the rebuilding of the ferry pier. Forty feet above the grey, ash-filled bay, Doug dared me to jump in. I had no idea what lurked below, but Doug inspires bravery. Within seconds, I took a running jump. The ocean cold was shocking, but as I started to swim, dolphins swam close. It was a glorious, unforgettable moment and I knew why I’d jumped.

Lolo and Birdy. What a love story. Seeing this duo in action felt like watching a movie — sometime comic, sometimes dramatic, but always grand and full of love. Kris collected heart-rocks for Doug. Doug took thousands of portraits of Kris. They opted for many-day road trips from south Chile to northeastern Argentina, car stocked with thermoses of hot water, through new and familiar landscapes, catching up.

Walking tours of campgrounds-in-progress, afternoons in the house, standing barefoot in the office, they’d hash out anything from book publication to hiring decisions. Each would bring total determination. Even as the conversation heated up, they remembered their love for each other, pausing in the middle of near-shouting to make a joke, laugh, kiss, and pick right back up where they left off. No fear of disagreeing in front of others. The strength of their partnership was so evident that disagreements just strengthened faith in their efficacy as a team. Doug’s vision needed Kris’s practicality. Kris’s warmth softened gruff Doug. But in a thousand more unexpected ways, they balanced too.

Just when my sister Eliza came to visit, Doug had decided he needed a fencing partner to stay in shape. At the Reñihue farm, population twelve, accessible by boat or small plane only, we looked like the closest thing to an opponent. The downpour hadn’t let up in days, so where to fence? Suited up in full-whites and face masks, out we went to the airplane hangar. Not everyone would deem it wise to arm sisters with swords and tell them to go at it, but Doug saw how competition could bring sharpness. He taught techniques bit by bit, but mostly led us toward the zen of pure focus. We never got good, but the rainy days passed quickly.

Later that week, Eliza convinced Doug to go for a walk with us. She took his ability to sit motionless at his desk for hours as a sign she might be able to keep up with his pace. No luck there: within minutes of donning his rubber boots, Doug had disappeared ahead of us in the thick forest. We only caught up when he arrived at the riverbank. We knew we had to get a head start and so waded across — pants, shoes, and all. Doug took off his boots, neatly rolled up his pants, and emerged on the other side with his classic Brooks Brothers outfit dry and clean. Style need not be compromised for adventure.

Doug showed me the old Klepper kayak in the barn rafters. I dragged it out and begged him to let me out of the office each evening in time for a paddle. Maybe I took too many risks, paddling alone through the wide fjord, sometimes in big winds. But adventuring alone sharpened my judgment and skills, and getting on the water let me sink into the wildness of the place. I studied the current lines between two rivers and the sea and learned the company that curious sea lions can offer. Drifting through the reflections of snowy volcanoes, I thought about how this place shifted my perspective. I felt kinship with other species as I sat there with them. I respected the vastness of natural processes when I put myself at their mercy. Yes, for years I had studied these abstractions, but wildness stuck in my bones there in Pumalin.

When I tried to explain my revelation to Doug, he chuckled. He’d witnessed many such epiphanies.

Plenty of people have asked me, why work on these park projects so far away? Think of the carbon footprint and the hassle, the privilege it takes to arrive. But so it is to make a pilgrimage.

When my mother made the trip south, Doug took her flying in the little Husky at sunset, over the steep granite and unexplored lakes of his beloved Pumalin, his first conservation project. She emerged from the plane “with her eyes blown out,” as she put it. She returned home to start building trails in the woods behind our house, fifty miles from New York City. Doug had given her the faith to put her head down and work on her corner of this earth, she said, even when it might take others a while to understand why.