“Continental Divide: Wildlife, People, and the Border Wall” – a short review and an interview with Krista Schlyer

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The 700-mile long “fence” – the Border Wall – between the US and Mexico has not stopped illegal immigration, which is the purpose for which it was built by the US government.  But it is proving to be lethally effective at stopping the natural movement of wildlife along its length.  Continental Divide: Wildlife, People, and the Border Wall, by Krista Schlyer, is a beautifully written and photographed essay on the ecological and sociocultural impacts of this preposterous wall.  I’ve been showing the book to everyone who enters our house, and now I’m bringing the enlightenment campaign to you.

In Continental Divide, Ms. Schlyer first introduces readers to the biomes of the Borderlands – the desert and grasslands, and the lower Rio Grande valley – then takes them on a tour of the Border Wall itself, describing its inception and political history, and the devastation it is already wreaking on wildlife and human families.  Her intimate knowledge of the region is evident on every page.  The photographs are stunning, and often jarring.  In one, two javelinas are shown wandering away from the Wall, back toward where they started, after walking along the fence looking for a place to cross.   This particular section of the wall is especially devastating: “The stretch of wall in Arizona bisects the San Pedro River corridor, one of the last free-flowing rivers in the state and a haven for wildlife traveling north and south.”

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But any stretch of impassable fencing is devastating to any creature that cannot fly over it.  As the author notes, animals of the borderlands have “a similar essential need: the ability to move freely to adapt to changing conditions.  Unlike politically imposed boundaries, natural boundaries do not begin and end at a single straight line.  Instead, they gradually blend and overlap and move fluidly with the changing climates of Earth.”  Of course, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist – or an ecologist – to anticipate the effect of placing an impenetrable barrier across a wildlife corridor. But the US government made sure these considerations would not slow construction of the border wall; it simply waived any environmental regulation in its path.  Sadly, we’ll now have plenty of empirical evidence to back up our intuitions about what happens when you prevent border animals from reaching seasonal sources of food, water, or genetically diverse mates.

Schlyer also describes and illustrates the economic and cultural impact of the Border Wall on the people of the region – where “concrete and steel” now separate communities “that had coexisted as neighbors, friends, and families for centuries.”  And as she points out, the wall has not stopped the determination of those who want to cross into the US for better jobs or the opportunity to reunite with family members; it has only made their determination more desperate and deadly.  Each year, hundreds of people die trying to make it through the desert into the United States.  Meanwhile, the business of “coyotes” (those who smuggle humans across borders) has become “almost as lucrative as drug smuggling…”

In her concluding chapter, Schlyer writes, “the wall and anti-immigrant essence of the current policy cuts to the heart of how we define ourselves as a nation and it begs an important philosophical question that we as a society must answer: What are we willing to sacrifice for the perception of safety?”  If you haven’t spent much time thinking about the Border Wall, this book will be a revelation.  If you have, it will fill your head with unforgettable images of what this “perception of safety” will cost.

I mentioned awhile back that I was reading this book, and that I hoped Krista Schlyer might agree to an email interview.  To my delight, she did!  What follows is our “conversation” about the book and her work as a professional photographer (my questions are in plain font; her responses inset in color and italics).  The wonderful photographs shown above and below are used with her generous permission.

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First, I have to congratulate you.  I just read that in November, “Continental Divide” won the National Outdoor Book Award for Nature and the Environment!  Has that expanded the book’s reach and audience?

Thank you Marilyn. It was a great surprise and honor to win the award, and most importantly, I think it does get the book out to people who might never have seen it otherwise.  Much of the impact of awards, I can’t see, but I do think this one has prompted a couple of speaking engagements and several important reviews.

A couple of more general questions before we get into specifics about the book.  You spent a number of years studying and photographing southwestern wildlife before you started the project that would become “Continental Divide,” and your familiarity with (and dare I say “affection” for?) the desert comes through in your photographs just as well as it does in your writing. I can’t recall where I read this – in the book or in a write-up about the book – but I recall that you currently live in the east.  Where did you grow up and when did you first encounter the desert?  Were you immediately smitten with it, or did you have to learn to love it?

I first encountered the Sonoran Desert when my Mom moved to Tucson Arizona just as I was entering college. I would go visit her on breaks and my first response was the same as many easterners–its so brown. But the more time I spent there, including attending graduate school at the University of Arizona in Tucson, the more my eyes adjusted to the incredible beauty of the desert. In the desert, you have to look a little harder to understand what’s happening, and you have to spend some time using your senses to experience the place. I can say now that some of my strongest sense memories, sight, smell and sound and touch, come from the desert. When I smell creosote after a desert rain, or even think of it as I’m writing this at my home in Maryland, it brings tears to my eyes.

You mention in the introduction to “Continental Divide” that your moment of clarity about the ecological impact of the border wall – and the need for this project – came when you were watching bison move back and forth across the international border.  Did you intend from the start to document the wall’s impact on human communities, as well, or did you experience a sort of “mission creep” as you studied the issue?

It was definitely mission creep. My work is about wildlife and biodiversity and that was my main mission in the borderlands. But I learned from this project that often you cannot separate wildlife and ecology from the human experience. We are a part of it, and this is very clear in the borderlands. So often, when there is a damaging policy, particularly sent down from the federal level, it is the least powerful that are most impacted by it and the least able to do anything about it–and the least powerful often includes people, wild creatures and ecosystems. It is life and death for migrants and wildlife, its just politics to people making the policy in Washington DC.

What kinds of actions do you encourage people to take, once your book has made them aware of the issues?

The number one thing anyone can do is pick up the phone and call your members of Congress. The policy won’t change as long as Congress is acting in a political vacuum. I hear this from offices when I visit: “We hear from the people who want a wall, but we don’t hear from anyone about wildlife and the environment.” That has to change. So telling Congress you want environmental law returned to the borderlands is the biggest step. But there are many other ways to help. Buy the book, give it to someone else, send it to your members of Congress. Post a review of the book on Amazon or Goodreads. Post to Facebook and Twitter about what the wall and border policy are doing to wildlife. Do a blog! 😉

Another great thing to do is join the Sierra Club Borderlands Team (or donate)–we need members and this is the only ongoing national advocacy group in the country working on this.

You have made a documentary, and make it available for group showings.  Are you getting a lot of interest?

The documentary that was made during the borderlands expedition in 2009 is a great video that I have showed at the borderlands exhibit, in Congress and many other places. You can see it here: Borderlands, Continental Divide, produced by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

I also have just recently had a video made of my Continental Divide book talk, which you can see here:
Continental Divide: Book Talk and Slideshow.

You are active in the International League of Conservation Photographers, and started E-pic, Environmental Public Information Campaigns.  Did you go into professional photography knowing that yours would have a strong element of activism, or did this role evolve as you realized the power of your photographs (or the gravity of the threats to wildlife and ecosystems)?

I knew when I started out in nature photography that I wanted to use my work to help wildlife and ecosystems, but my connections with other photographers, many of them members of the International League of Conservation Photographers, was what pushed me more toward activism. And I think especially my work in the borderlands has molded my work. Seeing those bison at the border that day was an aha! moment for me, and has fundamentally changed what I do. I think before I was playing a more passive role. Sort of as a mirror for the beautiful things I would see. But I don’t feel that is enough any more, I feel a deeper sense of responsibility toward the wild world and gear my work toward honoring that responsibility.

May I ask what you are working on now?

I have modeled a second project on the Borderlands Project, so for the past four years I have been documenting the Anacostia River in Washington DC. This is one of the most polluted rivers in the nation, a testament to the unrealized promise of the Clean Water Act. So far I have put together an exhibit that is traveling the watershed, and may do a book in the next few years. I have also been doing a lot of work on the longleaf pine ecosystem, which was the dominant forest in the Southeast when Europeans arrived, but now has been reduced to 4% of its historic range. It is a fascinating project in a beautiful place, and it all keeps me busy.

Am I allowed to ask anything about your equipment?  A favorite camera?  A favorite lens? 🙂

I am a Canon user, and have a 5d Mark III, which I love. My favorite lens at the moment is a wide angle, 14mm–very fun lens!

3 Sunset in the  Sonoran Desert with cholla and saguaro cactus.

My thanks to Krista for indulging these questions and for creating this important book.  Read more about Krista Schlyer here.  Get the book here.  And watch that book talk.

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4 comments

  1. Marilyn, thank you very much for the review–and for all you are doing for wildlife and ecosystems, in the borderlands and beyond!

  2. I knew the border wall was wrong for all kinds of reasons; this one may be the most devastating of all. It’s a sad report on another way public policy is rushing us toward extinction. Thank you for this interview and to Krista Schlyer for speaking for those without a voice. Awareness of the issue, and then acting on that awareness, is the only way we can create solutions.

  3. Reblogged this on zen crunch and commented:
    The Border Wall in Arizona is preventing wildlife from reaching “…seasonal sources of food, water or genetically diverse mates.” The harm done to these creatures who cannot speak for themselves ultimately harms us all. A review by my friend Marilyn of the book “Continental Divide” and her interview with the author sheds light on this important issue and suggests ways you can help change this ruinous public policy.

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