I’ll be speaking at the Public Interest Environmental Law Conference this weekend in Eugene, Oregon. Come on out and learn about our Continental Divide in the borderlands.
A dusty trail meanders along the Rio Grande into Boquillas Canyon, a cleft carved by the river between land that is now Texas on one side, and Coahuila on the other. On that trail there sits a scratched-up old plastic jar beside a note weighed to the ground by a rock. The note reads, “The Singing Jesus. Donations please.”
In late October I came across this curious note and jar in Big Bend National Park. Intrigued, but having no money in my pockets, I walked on down the trail and set up my camera to capture the light as it stole into the canyon corridor. While I was working, out of the silence came a voice singing from the other side of the river, near the small village of Boquillas in Mexico. My eyes followed the singing voice to the figure of a man, Jesus I immediately assumed, who was crooning a Spanish song I knew well, “Ay, Ay, Ay, Ay. Canta y no llores.” I considered his distant figure briefly and continued working while he sang.
After a moment, I stopped suddenly and listened more intently. Jesus’ voice had begun reverberating off the canyon walls. It traveled to the north side of the canyon in the US and back again to Mexico. Once this symphonic loop was started, it continued as long as Jesus continued singing. And I was riveted, enveloped and arrested, as I so often am in the borderlands, by the music of two worlds coming together and alive within the landscape.
It was this convergence of cultures–both wild and human since this international border also spans a natural north-south transition between the temperate and tropical zones–that had first drawn me to the US-Mexico border. On this most recent trip to the borderlands I encountered some old friends and made some new ones, including Jesus, all of them reminding me why I started this work five years ago, and why I wrote Continental Divide: Wildlife, People, and the Border Wall.
It all began with a couple of bison bulls who serendipitously crossed the international border at the exact moment I was flying a few hundred feet above them in a small twin-engine Cessna research plane. Wildlife scientist Rurik List, who I had been trailing for a story about a long-lost herd of wild bison found in the arid grasslands spanning New Mexico and Chihuahua, had explained to me the dire predicament a border wall would pose for transboundary wildlife species. But seeing these bison cross the international border en route to their main food resources in New Mexico changed my theoretical understanding of migration pathways, and changed my life. Since that day most of my working and waking hours have been devoted to documenting, researching, understanding and communicating the ecological underpinnings of a decades-long failure to craft smart, realistic border and immigration policy. About the waste of taxpayer money on endless enforcement and infrastructure; about the wildlife who will die if they cannot reach food and water resources on both sides of the border; about the jaguar, ocelot and other imperiled wildlife, whose trajectory toward extinction within our borders will be hastened by choked-off migration corridors; about the more than 5,000 human migrants who have died traversing the borderlands since the 1990s.
My work in the borderlands has unearthed countless stories and images of heroics and heartbreak along the border, many of them contained in the pages of Continental Divide, published last month by Texas A&M University Press. Some of those stories I am just now learning or will continue to learn in the future, like that of the Jesus and the people of Boquillas.
This trip to Big Bend was my fourth in 10 years to one of the nation’s most isolated national parks, indeed one of the most isolated regions of any sort, in the United States. The trip was going to be short, just a brief stop to observe and document any changes that had taken place since the last time I visited in 2011. As is always the case when I travel to the US-Mexico borderlands, I found much more than I was looking for.
The note written by Jesus was one of dozens that dotted the trail along the Rio Grande. Most of them were written by Mexican artisans and were accompanied by small craft works, caricatures of local flora and fauna fabricated from wire and beads. Beautiful works of art, these scorpions, roadrunners and flower sculptures were accompanied by notes that asked for donations to be placed in plastic cups and coffee tins. This wasn’t always the entrepreneurial approach of the local artists. Prior to 9-11, the town of Boquillas had a thriving trade with the many tourists that came to Big Bend and across the river to Mexico. I myself had walked across the river in 2001 and eaten dinner, prior to the closing of the border later that year. I have often considered the cultural loss for both sides of this border, when the government shut down access, and I remember that first crossing as one of my favorite moments in life. But it wasn’t until this most recent trip that I came to understand the grave economic consequences of that decision by the US government. Boquillas is a small village, hours from the nearest city or border crossing. The lives of people here, the education of their children, their health and well-being depended on tourists and a passable border. One decision made two-thousand miles away cleaved their connection to the United States and eviscerated their economy.
Today, Mexican people cross the river at night or when the coast seems clear, they place their work, and their donation jars, and hope that visitors will engage in trade that was commonplace and essential to their lives. The US Border Patrol calls the craftwork ‘contraband’ and forbids US visitors to buy it. But the artisans keep coming, keep leaving their work, keep checking their plastic jars.
The Singing Jesus has taken a different approach. It would be a hard case to make for the border patrol to call a song contraband–though not unthinkable in the current reality. Jesus sings and hopes people will hear him and his endless echoes and place some money in the jar.
Having no money in my pockets, I was all set to bypass his jar but he stopped singing and made the ask.
“Will you leave some money for the Singing Jesus?”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t have any money with me.”
He paused for a moment and asked, “Do you have food?”
I looked through all my pockets and my camera bag and all I could find was a piece of candy. I held it up to him, still standing across the river.
“Will you put it in my jar,” he asked.
“Do you have more food in your car?”
I said I did and watched as he jumped with quick desperation into his canoe and paddled across the river. His demeanor changed as he approached the US shore, his eyes darting about looking for border patrol or park police. I followed him quickly toward the parking lot, on the way he told me how the closing of the border had crushed the village economy, and how he had heard and kept hoping that the border would soon reopen. When we reached the parking lot, he hid behind a rock–getting caught would have serious consequences for him. When border patrol catches crossers from Mexico here, they don’t just allow them to cross back, they arrest them and cart them to a city crossing hours away. Most have no money to get back home.
I grabbed a bag of food and a jug of water from my car, and walked back to the trail, handing it to Jesus. I thanked him for his song and watched him disappear quickly into the canyon.
The story of the people of Boquillas is one that our policy makers and many members of the public need to hear. It is one of many thousands of stories about human and wild communities all along the border that are at the mercy of a federal policy that seems to serve no constituency but continues to be fueled by a politics of misinformation and fear. In hopes of getting these stories to those who need to hear them most, I am seeking funding to purchase a book for every member of Congress and key people in the White House. For the bison, the artisans and visitors to Big Bend, and the Singing Jesus of Boquillas Canyon.
This week I have a new exhibit opening at the 39th Street Gallery in the Gateway Arts District, a group show that explores varying perspectives and artistic approaches to the common theme: migrations.
Not a bad time to reflect on this theme. This week, a coalition of groups and individuals I have been working with for the past few years on border policy on the US-Mexico border will release the results of a poll at a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. The poll shows how a lack of information, and a general frustration over immigration issues, has led to confusion as to just what is happening on the US-Mexico border. Respondents went from supporting a wall on the southern border to not supporting this infrastructure and associated costs, just with a few simple facts about what has been happening on the border. This information–a cost of several billion dollars, a lack of effectiveness, and environmental damage that has come from the construction of border wall–is really just the tip of the iceberg. But a little bit of information can make a big difference.
Melanie Emerson, the executive director of the Sky Island Alliance, one of the groups involved in the poll, put it this way: “In times of economic uncertainty it is important to focus resources where they will be most effective. There is no excuse for wasting billions on a program that we know – and even the strongest advocates admit – won’t work.”
Beyond the idea of efficacy of walls and other expensive infrastructure and enforcement activities, there is the question of what exactly it means to be building walls between nations, through ecosystems, across continents. Which brings me back to the exhibit. There is no doubt that human migrations are cause for some reflection in societies, they have to be. They bring up issues of economic disparity and cultural difference, and even environmental sustainability. Reflection is not bad, and determining a smart way to guide and reduce immigration is inevitable. But the problem comes when we start to identify migrants as “others” rather than understand we are all migrants in some sense over time, either in our own lives and past, or through our familial heritage, and certainly through our evolutionary history. People move, animals move, every living creature of the earth is bound to move, and must in some circumstances, if it is to survive.
“Migrations” is a series of reflections on this urge toward movement, and what can happen when government policies seek to block or force that movement.
Come to the opening Saturday, July 16 if you can. It’s from 4-7 pm, at the 39th Street Gallery, 3901 Rhode Island Ave., Brentwood Maryland. There will be several other gallery openings in the building that same time. All free and open to the public.
We will also be doing an artist talk on August 13 at 7pm.
**This exhibit was created with the support of the Prince George’s Arts Council
Just over 40 years ago, 20 million people participated in the first Earth Day, a groundswell moment that had been simmering for decades in the polluted air and water, the paving of wilderness and impending extinction crisis for wild creatures. That special day in many ways marked the beginning of the modern environmental movement, which had been built brick by synaptic brick laid by conservation leaders like John Muir, Rachel Carson and Teddy Roosevelt and the work of organizations like the Sierra Club, Audubon and Defenders of Wildlife. These pioneers, along with a string of environmental disasters, were midwives to a nascent consciousness that human health and human ethics are inextricably intertwined with environmental health and ethics.
That Earth Day was organized as a teach-in at tens of thousands of high schools and colleges around the nation, and, as with any meaningful historical event, it was couched in a climate of action. Within a decade before and after that first Earth Day, almost all of the United State’s environmental laws were crafted and passed. The year 1964 saw the passage of the Wilderness Act, which defined and codified the intrinsic value of places “where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” In 1970, the U.S. Congress enacted the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires all actions by federal agencies to be governed by a scientific process to minimize environmental impact. In 1963 and 1977, Congress passed the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, because industrial society and corporate pollution threatened the very air we breathe and water we drink. Human health and the health of the Earth was at that point a bipartisan value, with groundbreaking bills signed by presidents like Richard Nixon and Lyndon B. Johnson alike.
Environmental disasters—including the Santa Barbara oil spill and the burning of the oil-polluted Cuyahoga River in 1969—were bringing the issue to a head and the nation to a common purpose. The disasters were a jolting wake-up call for the United States and ultimately the world. In 1990, 200 million people worldwide participated in Earth Day.
But over the years our tolerance for environmental alarms has increased, and we have again begun to slumber amid the clamor of bulldozers, drills and dynamite. What may be the biggest environmental challenge in the history of the human species, climate change, continues at a rolling boil, but we have been sluggish to react, unable to rouse. A year ago, the nation watched as millions of barrels of oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico, an event that riveted people everywhere for months, but as yet has resulted in little more than a momentary halt in deep-water oil extraction. And BP, one of history’s biggest environmental polluters, made $5.6 Billion in quarterly profits in the first quarter of 2011, while working to expand its offshore operations.
And most recently, on the very eve of Earth Day, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT) introduced legislation in the House of Representatives to allow the most powerful arm of the federal government, the Department of Homeland Security, the authority to ignore environmental laws within 100 miles of any border of the United States. The legislation, H.R.1505, the ironically named National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act, would allow DHS to ignore environmental law over about 180 million square miles of land that make up the perimeter of the nation, in effect making the entire states of Hawaii and Rhode Island exempt from environmental protections for any roads, walls, and any other infrastructure or activity that the department conducts.
The bill would remove environmental protections for dozens of national parks, wilderness areas and national wildlife refuges, making the government unaccountable for its environmental impacts on an area of land home to two-thirds of the human population of the country, and hundreds of endangered animals and plants. Species that are barely clinging to existence here, like the whooping crane, jaguar, and wolverine, would be stripped of protections.
In a different world, reason would suggest that this type of regressive legislation, introduced by a member on the fringes of the right wing, stands no chance of enactment. But in reality, the passage of this law and other extreme anti-environmental measures recently circulated by Arizona senators John McCain and Jon Kyl in the Senate stand a reasonable chance of becoming law. Bishop’s legislation is nothing more than a broadening of powers already given to DHS under the Real ID Act of 2005. Real ID allowed Homeland Security to dismiss all laws on the southern border, an unchecked authority which has resulted in widespread destruction of habitat and cultural sites, massive flooding of border towns, the severing of wildlife corridors critical to species like the jaguar, bighorn sheep, and ocelot, and disruption to the ecological dynamics along most of this 2000-mile border.
For the past five years, I have focused much of my work as a journalist on the ecological fallout of the Real ID Act. On a recent expedition to gather photographs for an upcoming book on the borderlands, I encountered a landscape and series of communities that have for several years experienced the impacts of environmental lawlessness. More than 30 federal laws, including the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Air Act and others, were dismissed by one stroke of a pen held by the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff in 2008. As a result of this flippant dismissal of law, I saw some of the continent’s last open grasslands and pristine deserts bisected by roads and walls. I saw globally rare forests and wetlands overrun with border patrol agents, National Park land torn up by machines, roadless wilderness areas with newly cut roads spilling silt into waterways and wetlands, helicopters on constant patrol over the last habitat for the shy and nearly extinct Sonoran pronghorn, animals like javelina, cottontail and deer traveling along endless lengths of wall looking for passage south.
Though I was a year shy of existence on that first Earth Day, I consider myself a part of the generation inspired by this new ecological consciousness. Our generation, now in our early 40s and 50s, has seen a change in national awareness regarding our interdependence with the Earth, but some disturbing trends have taken shape over the past decade. In some ways, I understand the difficulty of tackling climate change—it is intangible, complicated. But it is hard to understand how in only 40 years we could elect members of Congress to systematically dismantle the environmental protections that we have through Herculean efforts already won. It is possible to be patient with the slow pace of progress, but regression into the tragic and dangerous mistakes of the past is torturous.
Some in Congress and on the far right side of the political spectrum may have missed it, but in the 1960s and 70s we as a society asked ourselves some critical questions: Do we have a fundamental right to clean air, clean water, open spaces and a healthy environment? And do we have a right to destroy these things for other species? Given the laws we enacted around that first Earth Day, it seems clear that we answered those questions unequivocally—yes, we all have a right to a healthy environment, and we won’t tolerate a government or corporations who pollute the world we all share.
Rep. Bishop would be wise to remember that we as a nation value the health of our children, our water, and our air above politics, and that national security is as intrinsically linked to environmental health and protection as it is to any other enemy or threat we may perceive. We established environmental regulation for a sound reason: to keep ourselves from becoming our own worst enemy.
For more information about the borderlands visit E-pic.