[in the Atacama Salt Flat brines are pumped to the surface from the subterranean hydrological system and held in evaporation pools to concentrate the salts. The subterranean waters are fed by snowmelt from the surrounding volcanoes and are therefore rich in certain minerals- especially lithium and phosphates- which are then extracted from the salts after evaporation; the industrial infrastructure is extensive, only a very small portion is indicated in this NASA satellite photo but the huge system of wells, pipes, and evaporation ponds can be seen in google earth]
In the Chilean borderlands of the Atacama Desert the important thing is to listen to the music of the pan flute. You may see the sun burndt mountains and dry gullies and think that all you need in that landscape of windswept plains and scrub grasses is a horse, like you’re goddamn John Grady Cole; you may feel the altitude making you queasy after making a couple of steps a little too quickly and think you need a few coca leaves; you may see this parched landscape, some of which has never received rain in recorded history, and think you need to be sure to bring lots of drinking water; but the most important issue you need to make sure of is that you have enough pan flute music for the journey.
Sure, when the Bolivian guy is standing on the platform at the 14th Street F stop hitting his guitar and blowing his pan flute it can seem a little sad, but not everything is made to be played in a subway tunnel like the Dirty Projectors. On the Andean altiplano, and especially in the Atacama region, the pan flute starts to make a lot of sense. The Atacama is an extreme environment rich in minerals, low in population, and located on a contested national border that is notoriously difficult to control. In this way it offers an example of what we mean when talking about an American frontier landscape. Within this larger landscape the Atacama Salt Flats offer an instructive case.
Bound by a highly active volcanic section of the Andes Mountains rising more than 6,000 meters in the east and the Domeyko Range rising over 4,500 meters in the east, the Atacama Salt Flats are an industrial-ecological landscape built on a regional hydrological system that is completely lacking in precipitation. As a hydrological system, the surrounding mountains block all precipitation, collecting it as snowfall at their peaks, some of which is slowly released into the Salt Flat drainage basin via subterranean flows. This water carries with it the minerals concentrated in each volcano in the form of salts which become highly concentrated in the salt flats because the drainage basin has no outlet except via evaporation.
[farming terraces in a dry gully on the outskirts of the mining town of Toconao; these draw from historical techniques for intensive farming in the region and are a combined effort by the Chilean government and local residents who have moved here for work in the salt lagoon mines to produce some of their sustenance locally- not an easy task in a place with no rain and poor soil]
The subterranean waters create an opening for evaporation by breaking through the surface in the low point of the basin, where the salt flats are located. As the water evaporates the salts are left behind, creating a series of mineral rich lagoons that grow and shrink with the season’s snow melt. The hydrological system resulting in mineral rich salt lagoons has created a unique ecosystem: algae that feed on the concentrated minerals bloom in the lagoons and are then consumed by microscopic briny crustaceans. Flamingos and insects are attracted to the crustaceans, and migratory birds stop for the insects and water.
In recent decades these conditions have been maintained and exploited by the creation of the Los Flamencos Nature Reserve and by the construction of large scale mineral operations using pumps, wells, and evaporation lagoons to mine lithium and phosphates from the salts produced by the hydrological system. To enable these industrial process and to protect the ecological functions a small population center has been established at Toconao and new infrastructure has been created- roads, pumps, wells, lagoons, terraces and irrigation canals.
This is a pattern that has appeared time and again in our studies of the American landscape- a national park or nature reserve concomitant with a population center and the installation of a new infrastructural or militaristic project. Given this evidence we have suggested that the historical role of national parks in the American landscape should be radicalized; they should be pulled from the European art-historical narrative that they have been confined to and understood as geo-political instruments providing a unique adaption to a historical frontier condition that is endemic to the American landscape.
Of course, this thesis likely has some holes and shortcomings and our results are surely skewed by the fact that we are looking for these cases, but we are interested in pursuing it for the readings it offers on a place like the contemporary American landscape in the Atacama Salt Flat. Here a nature reserve was created at the same time as a new industrial mining operation began operation and new roads and agricultural infrastructures (irrigation canals and terraces) began to be projected for small new population centers in this harsh desert landscape. The result is spectacular, especially if you are listening to the pan flute as you move through it.
[the Atacama is also fantastically Martian; it is one of four sites in the Earth Mars Cave Exploration Program detailed wonderfully here by Jut Wynne; it is also home to the ALMA astronomical observatory, the base camp of which sits perched on the slope between the Salt Flat and the volcanoes of the Andean Cordillera]