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.”
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.