“In early spring 2008, two young bison bulls jumped a sagging three-string barbed wire fence separating Chihuahua, Mexico, from New Mexico in the United States. On both sides of the international line lay an unbroken grassland valley scoured almost bare by a prolonged drought, which announced itself meanly on the dusty hides stretched taught [sic] over bison bones. … Here is a landscape that has seen the birth of jaguars, the death of Spanish missionaries, the budding of Saguaro cactus, the persecution and dogged endurance of native peoples, and the footsteps of a million migrants recorded in the smoldering sands of the Devil’s Road.”
One of the principles I have offered my children and grandchildren has been that books have the power to take us places we might otherwise never visit. One such book is Krista Schlyer’s new one titled “Continental Divide.” In words and pictures gathered over several years, Schlyer, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental photographer and writer, takes us to this nation’s border with Mexico and the fence intended to block illegal humans, but instead blocks the necessary migration of the area’s wildlife.
“A person can climb over the fence in about 15 to 20 seconds,” Schlyer said as I scanned the prose and pictures for the first time, “but many animals are blocked, which is significant because prolonged droughts are already occurring and expected to get worse with climate change. Many wild species will need to move north in the coming decades to find water and cooler temperatures.”
Unfortunately for the aforementioned buffalo, and an increasing number of species as climate change alters the character of the land, their primary food supply was on one side of the fence, their water on the other.
Thus are the unintended consequences of political decision making.
Schlyer tells of one day following two sets of paw prints, coming finally to a scuffle mark in the sand, from which the tracks of the bobcat, but not those of “the mousey character” it had pursued, led away.
Bugs and frogs and the creatures they eat, and by which they, in turn, are eaten, hide in subterranean paw-hollowed caves from hot sun and desert drought, popping out after sometimes months in voluntary incarceration, on the suggestion that rain might once again fill the pools.
“And all of us are linked, in our own time frames, to the presence of water,” she writes.
The water. Always, it’s the water.
In 2009, Schlyer led a dozen members of the International League of Conservation Photographers on expedition to document the beauty and suffering of the land and the many species of wild life — the Saguaro cactus, to many of us the visual symbol of the desert, is but one of 300 cacti populating the Sonoran Desert along the 2,000-mile border between the United States and Mexico.
The cactus flowers and drops seeds, most of which become bird food, so some plants, such as the Agave, sprout their own offspring, then nurse them by umbilical cord until they can survive on their own.
In places, trees suck water from streams by day, and give some of it back at night. In others, sand from the Grand Canyon or human construction has been snatched up by wind and dropped in the desert, forming dunes.
It’s a diverse region, populated by plants and critters ruled over by politicians sitting in air conditioned offices thousands of miles from land most of them will never see. Even closer, in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, the politics of “illegal job-stealing aliens” seems to have blinded political minds to the plight of the multitude of populations over which they preside.
Along the Rio Grande, dams and industrial land clearing has decimated the land between the early 1900s and the turn of the 21st Century. Now, conservation efforts require tax-funded labor to imitate the former alternating flows of the river, and recover, at least in part, some of the habitat and creatures that once lived there.
At first, it wasn’t the fence that was the habitat removal tool. U.S. federal agriculture supports kept farmers in the region, and encouraged slashing and burning the places where deer, ocelots and javelina had lived, but could no longer find security or food.
Increased efforts to control northbound human and drug traffic has pushed the illicit flow into areas it had not earlier bothered. Crowds of humans and their four-wheel drive vehicles and ATVs have cut the land into dusty pathways leading northward, obliterating habitat that once was home to numerous species and occasional peoples.
In summer, as the desert dries what little water it held, animals such as Bighorn sheep, one of Mexico’s most endangered species, must find their way to the Tinajas Altas Mountains in southwestern Arizona.
“Luckily for him,” Schlyer writes, “the map he carries in his head of the location of water … has no markings of international boundaries; the only laws he obeys are the life-and-death laws of nature.”
At least some of the wildlife could adjust to the disturbance, moving, at least by diurnal cycles, between their natural home in the south and water in the north. Until the wall.
Schlyer has divided her tour into Desert, Grasslands, Rio Grande, The Wall, People of the Borderlands, Shining City on a Hill, and Appalachian Rain – each section punctuated by an album of photographs of the region’s natural and human activities. Her writing draws the reader through the areas, where one can almost touch the cacti and laugh at the photographer who looks like a bald ape, covered with mud from the only moisture available in the baking sun.
“During a winter rain,” she notes from back home in Maryland, “I have watched drops making depressions in the snow the cover the forest floor. Depressions become bare patches of wet earth, and rivulets begin to flow (toward) the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, and finally into the Gulf of Mexico.
“I have met the same Appalachian raindrops and snowmelt again and again, when I travel to the mouth of the Rio Grande emptying into the Gulf in South Texas.”
“Continental Divide” is a story of an area of division, but also an image of connections – between species, land regions, history and peoples. Like a place we love to visit and explore, every time I reread a page, I find something I didn’t see the last time through.
It was for me a difficult book to read straight through. I’ve worked with many photographers, but the ones who had the photographic eye AND could write have been rare. Schlyer is one of those. There is so much to be seen, and so well described, even though I’ve reached the last page, I’ll have to visit and explore again. And probably again.
“Continental Divide: Wildlife, People, and the Border Wall” is published by Texas A&M University Press, and available in bookstores, in person and online.