This is a green and singing land—green with generous rain and singing with the strong voices of its people. This is Chile’s Lake District, the last fragment of vanished Lothlorien.
In the central valleys of Chile, a mediterranean climate prevails. It is a gracious land of cool, dry summers and moist, mild winters. But southward, rainfall increases and vast forests spring up, timber-rich kingdoms of beech, oak, pine, laurel, and cedar. Cold, deep lakes, gouged by retreating glaciers, dot the landscape, and mountains rear up to majestic heights. Clear-water streams tumble through pine forests and rich meadowlands. Snow-topped volcanoes spear the horizon, and seas of flowers ripple in the crisp mountain air.
South of the Lake District, the forests continue, but the coastline fractures into a long jigsaw puzzle of fjords and islands. Massive glaciers inch down to the sea, and the Andes gnaw the sky with awesome white fangs.
The entire Lake District was once the exclusive home of Aurucano Indians, the fierce and noble “Chilean Apaches,” until German settlers began arriving in the 1850s. These settlers prospered, and for many years the area was a little Germany. Since then, thousands of newcomers from central Chile have made Spanish the dominant language, but the mountains, hills, lakes, meadows, and prosperous farms still resemble the countryside of Germany or Switzerland (give or take a few volcanoes).
The Church is a relative newcomer to the Lake District, but like the German immigrants it has found a happy home here. One of its prosperous growing-places is the coastal city of Puerto Montt, nestled on the tip of a virtual lagoon formed by the coastline and the huge island of Chiloé. Puerto Montt faces south toward a broad bay in which white sails glide and ships fly the flags of many lands. Green hills covered with houses and golden flowers run steeply up from the bay. The air is fresh with the smell of rain, and everything is trimmed and tended and precise with the German neatness that is its heritage. It is a delightful place to be young in. The young people grow up with sea-salt in their blood. They love to fish and boat in the waters of their curving bay. They bicycle along paths wet with sea spray. They relish steaming dishes of fish and mariscos (shellfish). They escape often to forests and streams for a feast of silence.
If you come to Puerto Montt very early in the morning, you will find smoke curling from the chimney of one of the well-kept buildings. Inside, LDS seminary students are studying the gospel. Some of them have gotten out of bed at 4:00 A.M. to be here, but they are smiling. Their attendance record is almost perfect. Some of them are not even Mormons. This is typical. When the seminary program was established in this part of Chile, there were very few members. Undiscouraged, the leaders founded classes composed mostly of nonmembers. Before the end of the first year, many of the students were baptized, and a powerful new missionary tool was born.
Behind the meetinghouse where seminary is held, there is a garden. The students tend it and sell the produce to help fund youth conferences. Inside the building, an Old West shoot-out is going on. Actually, it’s a scripture chase, but these students are as fast with a scripture as ever a lawman was with a Colt .44. Time after time the instructor barely gets the last word out before shouts of “Contacto” ring out and copies of the Book of Mormon are thrust skyward.
Sixty-five miles northward in the city of Osorno, other copies of the Book of Mormon come down as the instructor readies another question. Young Latter-day Saints in Osorno, an inland city that is the capital of its province, are also whiz-bang scripture chasers. Like their brothers and sisters in Puerto Montt, they gladly sacrifice to learn about the gospel. Some walk long distances to class. Others spend quite a bit of early morning time pushing an old jalopy that serves as their neighborhood seminary bus, but doesn’t always serve too well. They all come to class with an eagerness that proves this is not merely a routine part of their day. They study the gospel with as much eagerness as anyone ever studied law or engineering. This is their university of gospel knowledge.
And, of course, they like to have fun, too. Some of them got a chance one day when a New Era reporter and a Church photographer hit town wanting to see the countryside. Chile Osorno Mission president Lester Haymore graciously consented to serve as chauffeur, six seminary students agreed to be guides, and the trip to Los Saltos de Petrohué (Petrohué Falls) was underway.
The road lay through forests, past soaring mountains, and over rich upland meadows where cattle grazed. The group skirted Lake Llanquihue, largest lake in Chile and the home of slab-sided lunker trout. They rode through villages where oxen plodded and towns where automobiles rolled. In deep forests of green sunlight, hawks carved the sky overhead, and bird songs could be heard from the trees. Paced by guitar chords, the students sang as exuberantly as the birds.
At Petrohué Falls, stone cliffs rose towering, precipice on precipice, like the edge of the world, and forests marched away to snow-crested volcanoes. The waters of the Petrohué River were an indescribable powder blue that taxed belief. This was no reflection of the sky, but the color of the water itself, a color to be found only in dreams and in Chile.
Through a thousand channels in the black volcanic rock, these menthol-blue waters frothed and roared downward into turquoise foam and delicious blue thunder. The rock walls below sent a sweet blue mist high in the air. The young men and women stood on a bridge over a fork of the falls, stung by the mist, shaken by the thunder, looking and looking and never getting enough of this magic river.
Their dark eyes filled with blue wonder; and with a hundred pauses for one last over-the-shoulder look, the students went back to their van and followed the Petrohué upstream to its source, Todos los Santos Lake. The same impossible blue as the river (varying to cold ultramarine in its depths), it stretched away to snow-capped mountains across the border in Argentina. Along its sides, towering mountains hunched down like shaggy green dragons taking long blue drinks.
Across a narrow arm of water, where the lake became the river, was a cabin. Behind it tall timber climbed the mountain to the sky. Before it rich alpine green ran down to the wind-rippled lake. On the shore was a pale blue rowboat with one oar dipped in sunlight. Just seeing the place brought thoughts of storybooks and enchanted forests, and a question. What would it be like to look out those windows every morning and see the Andes-topping sun warming the back of dragons—or to climb into the pale blue boat and row off between the deep blue sky and the soft blue waves?
Wrapped in the magic, the group walked along the black volcanic shore. Beyond, the white cones of Osorno Volcano wedged the sky. As they walked they threw volcanic rocks into the water, frolicked with a German shepherd that happened past, and sang the songs of Chile. Meanwhile, the sun curved down the sky, silvering the blue water and announcing that it was time to start for home. Reluctantly, they did.
But Halloween was waiting for them that night. This jack-o-lantern, trick-or-treating holiday is unknown to most Chileans, but North American missionaries have spread it among the Saints. And so, a genuine Halloween party shrieked and howled at Mutual. A butterfly danced with an undertaker, a cowgirl with a sultan, an Indian princess with a doctor, a fairy princess with the Lone Ranger, a hula dancer with a gypsy, a soldier with a nurse, a queen with a singing star, and everybody with everybody. A good old-fashioned spook alley in the basement dispensed authentic Halloween goose bumps, and strange Halloween lights flickered on the dark surface of the Rahue River, which curved past the meeting house with liquid murmurs and Halloween sighs.
The next day was a holiday, and the young Mormons awoke with snowflakes tangled in their dreams and snowbanks turning into pillows. Today was the big day they had worked and saved for. Today they were going to Antillanca, a ski resort high in the mountains. Spring had a firm grip on the countryside, and the skiing season was past, but at Antillanca there would still be plenty of snow—and fun!
Green filled the windows of the bus as it rolled toward Antillanca—green in endless shades and patterns—green enough for a thousand springs—greens to make even an Irishman jealous. And inside the spring-dazzled bus, guitars began sprouting from nowhere, as they always seem to in a group of Chilean youth. Soon, green-tinted songs were floating around the bus as a changing orbit of voices surrounded each guitar—hauntingly beautiful folk songs, lively rounds, and romantic ballads. Many of the songs laughed and wept with an inexpressible yearning that was both heartbreaking and joyful—and very, very Chilean.
Leaving songs and lakes and valleys in its wake, the bus rose from spring to late winter, and then, with groaning gears and straining engine, into winter itself. Tall timber hugged the steep mountainside as the group jolted up the narrow road. They could look almost straight down at the tops of lofty pines and up to see pine stacked on pine to the rim of the world.
The lodge at Antillanca perched on a mountainside, and above it a snow hill slanted up against the sky—huge and overwhelming, like a mountain-sized Moby Dick hanging above a frail lifeboat. A ski lift climbed the slope at a breathtaking angle, a thin black strand rising into a mist that kept the top of the hill (if it had one) an intriguing secret.
The students had constructed a sled and toboggan just for the trip, and after struggling up a long slope to the base of the hill, and then a ways up the slope itself, some of them trusted their fate to their creations and the heavy hand of gravity. The mountain soon chewed up their sleds and spit out the pieces, but undaunted, the snowmasters fashioned skis out of the runners, and mounted another attack.
Turned loose on the vast expanse of snow, the rest of the group tumbled and jumped and scuffled until they were wet and cold and happy.
Back in the lodge after finally surrendering to the snow, they all logged some fireplace time, dried their feet, warmed their hands, and ate lunch. Fortified, they then bounced back for a round of impromptu folk dancing featuring the cueca, Chile’s national dance. Some passed the time with chess, Ping-Pong, fireplace gazing, quiet conversation, and sleep.
They also shared their feelings about the gospel as the aroma of pine and cedar filled the room and the fire crackled, soothing and rosy, behind the grate.
“There is a great happiness in my soul,” said a young lady named Margoth. “Only three months ago I became a member of the most beautiful of churches. I never thought I would be as happy as I am. I now live in a different, very pure world. I want to open my heart and tell all the youth of the world to keep the commandments. I testify to them that our Father in Heaven will fill them with happiness and with the great love he knows how to give his children.”
Marianela Patricia smiled and nodded. “I, too, have experienced the happiest moments of my life in the Church. I have always had a dream of serving a mission. I wanted to be like those special young men and women who taught me the gospel. I didn’t really know why at first. I only knew that I had a great desire to do so and to improve myself each day. Now that I am actually preparing to go on my mission, I know why I had that desire, and I want to go more than ever.
“I know that by keeping the commandments I will be able to sanctify myself and progress spiritually. I will be setting forth with sure steps to return to my Father in Heaven. I want to become a blessing to my family and everyone I know.
“My goal is to someday be a worthy wife for a great man. I don’t have a boyfriend now, but I know that he will come in time, and I want him to be the best—a worthy priesthood holder. I want to be the beloved wife who sacrifices for her husband, who will be self-denying for him and our children—in short, the best. President Tanner once endorsed the saying, ‘Behind every good man there is a good woman.’ I want to be that woman and be sealed in the temple to my family.
“Sometimes my joy in the gospel is so great that I suddenly realize I am crying and I don’t even know why. I only know that I am happy.”
In the fireplace, castles rose and vanished, bright ballerinas danced, and dark magicians fought with flaming armies. Outside the lodge it was spring and winter, but inside it was a glorious summer of the Spirit.
Miguel spread his arms wide for a visual aid and said, “I would like the young people from all around the world to meet together some time, from every country, town, province, and island, to worship God, holding hands and forming a fantastic circle, every one of us praising our Creator. There would be Indians, Chinese, Germans, Africans, Russians, English, Chileans, Peruvians, Mexicans—everybody! We would sing songs of love and tell our Heavenly Father that we have fulfilled the commandment his Son gave to us—‘Love one another.’”
If Miguel’s marvelous youth conference ever takes place, Chile’s Lake District wouldn’t be a bad place for it. In the meantime, there is joy in knowing that the waters of Todos los Santos still lap the high shores of two nations; that the magnificent, impossible Petrohué still runs down to Llanquihue, day and night, blue as a baby’s eyes; and that southward a thousand green islands are still reflected in the glittering sea. And most of all, there is joy in knowing that a generation is rising as beautiful as the green and singing land they call home.
Sing, sing little bird, Sing, sing your song; Sing because life is sad And your song gladdens my heart.