Posted on February 15, 2019
Wednesday morning at dawn a solitary pied-billed grebe paddled through a misty oxbow lake called La Parida Banco in the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge. La Parida translates from Spanish as: one who has just given birth, perhaps the most apt description I’ve ever heard for a wildlife refuge. I contemplated this meaning as the little grebe and I shared a cold February sunrise in the North American tropics of South Texas.
Though we occupied the same space, we came to La Parida on different errands: his was a search for food and safety on an island of wild sanctuary within an ocean of human development. Me, I was surveying the site of the first major border wall construction in Texas since 2009, the construction that would devastate the pied-billed’s home.
Yesterday, wall construction began. I walked the Rio Grande levee at dawn and instead of the usual hawks, herons, turkeys and orioles, I was greeted by a battalion of law enforcement. I knew by the ripping feeling in my heart that this signaled the beginning of wall construction, a feeling that was confirmed when I saw an excavator arm moving like a giant insatiable insect over the forest. My mind went to the birds that had been building their nests in the forest; the butterflies who had laid their eggs on the underside of leaves hoping to keep them safe from predators; the tortoises and snakes in the brush, the bobcats and coyotes quietly hunting shrews and cottontail.
Grief has made itself a home in the borderlands of late.
But my thoughts were quickly interrupted by a by a Border Patrol agent, kindly telling me to leave. I backed slowly away, eyes still on the arm of the excavator moving purposefully over the forest just beyond a long line of Border Patrol and other law enforcement officials.
My walk back to the parking lot in Bentsen state park was one of my lowest moments in the past ten years. I have been documenting the US-Mexico border for more than a decade, since the Secure Fence Act of 2006 mandated the construction of more than 700 miles of border barrier through one of the most important biological regions on the continent. [See Embattled Borderlands ]
This land provides home to the highest diversity of birds and butterflies in the continental US; five of North America’s six cat species; resting and refueling for 700 migrating animal species; and a last hope for some 100 threatened and endangered species, including Sonoran pronghorn, desert tortoises, cactus ferruginous pygmy owls and many more whose futures are tied to this land. [see this report by the Center for Biological Diversity]
That future hangs by a fragile thread. In 2018, Congress approved $1.6 billion for wall construction on the border. Last spring, the Trump Administration began building wall in New Mexico. Construction began yesterday in La Parida. Surveyor stakes have been planted delineating the “enforcement zone” where forests will be cut. And Congress is adding another $1.3 billion in border wall funding in 2019 in order to avoid another government shutdown. Several locations in the Valley have been given a reprieve in this legislation, but not the Lower Rio Grande Valley refuge, not La Parida, she who has just given birth.
The ecological stakes of this political bartering have been well documented. Since the 1990s the US government has constructed about 400 miles of solid barrier, through the 2,000-mile borderlands. This wall has severed migration corridors for endangered bighorn sheep, ocelots, jaguars and wolves, caused damaging floods, degraded fragile watershed ecology, and fragmented and destroyed tens of thousands of acres of habitat essential to wild species. The barriers and habitat loss come at the worst possible moment, as climate change is exacerbating the frequency and intensity of droughts in the Southwest–a time when wild species’ best hope of survival is the ability to migrate.
These threats would normally be prevented by bedrock environmental laws like the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, and National Environmental Policy Act. But a provision in the Real ID Act of 2005 allows the Department of Homeland Security to waive all laws to expedite building of a border wall.
Here in the Lower Rio Grande Valley the direct damage of habitat fragmentation and destruction is compounded by a history of large-scale agriculture, energy and residential development. More than 95 percent of the native habitat in the Valley has been replaced by agricultural fields, oil wells, wind farms, roads, subdivisions, and shopping centers. Within what remains of this endangered ecosystem, one of the most unique wildlife communities on the continent fights for survival. South Texas sits within a natural borderlands at the overlap of the north and south of the natural world, where temperate bird, butterfly, mammal and reptile species coexist with their tropical cousins.
It would be hard to overestimate the natural value of the La Parida refuge. It is one piece of the larger Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, a collection of the most valuable ecological lands along the last 275 miles of the Rio Grande. The refuge began as a desperate attempt to save what was left of a vanishing ecosystem. Decades of work, thousands of volunteer and staff hours, and many millions of dollars have created what is now one of the most important wildlife corridors in the country. Refuge land and state parks, along with private preserves like the National Butterfly Center, offer one last hope for thousands of wild species. But this corridor along the Rio Grande sits directly in the path of the border wall, which will be built on the Rio Grande levee.
Few in the United States have ever heard of La Parida, but this refuge has given birth to the grebe, kiskadee, green jay, ringed kingfisher, red tailed hawk, bobcat and javalina. This land is essential. It is home. It is life. But as I look across the water to the Rio Grande levee where construction equipment moves over the land, I see death on the horizon.
Come and protest the desecration of the Rio Grande Valley-noon, Saturday, 2-16-19 at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park. If you can’t come, call your members of Congress today or write an op-ed for your local newspaper. Be a voice for the borderlands.
Krista Schlyer is a conservation writer and photographer and author of the book Continental Divide: Wildlife, People and the Border Wall. She is currently working on a film with Jenny Nichols and Morgan Heim called Ay Mariposa, which tells the story of two fierce women and a community of butterflies on the front lines in the battle against the border wall.
Category: Borderlands, Borderlands Project, Continental Divide, Featured, Uncategorized, Writing Tagged: ay mariposa, beauty, border, border wall, conservation, construction, ilcp, immigration, international league of conservation photographers, la parida, Lower Rio Grande Valley, national butterfly center, nature, resist, resistance, texas, wildlife, wildlife refuge
Posted on January 14, 2019
The following text is excerpted from River of Redemption: Almanac of Life on the Anacostia, published in November 2018 by Texas A&M University Press.
At icy dawn, the city remains gentled in night’s deepest repose. Walking past slumbering bungalows and a shuttered gas station, through deserted streets, across empty railroad tracks and along the edge of a sleepy forest– I traverse a dark, noiseless mile to the frosted footbridge at Bladensburg Waterfront Park.
Upriver, near the confluence of the Anacostia’s northwest and northeast branches, hundreds of Canada geese huddle together, raising a dark feathered shield against winter’s white knife and its unusually sharp edge this January morning. Last night an angry north wind descended on the watershed, driving temperatures to a low of minus 11 degrees Fahrenheit, more than 20 degrees below normal.
Today’s river landscape testifies to the hard hand of that north wind. At low tide a rigid silt sandbar covers the west side of the riverbed, and a half-inch of ice caps most of the remaining water surface. Downstream, the river departs to the southwest through a luminous white forest, gleaming toward the heart of Washington D.C.
I stand at river’s edge in Bladensburg, Maryland, once one of the busiest shipping ports in North America, a nucleus for trans-Atlantic trade in tobacco cultivated by the hands of enslaved Africans. This soul-weighty cargo succored a fledgling British colony and fueled an American revolution, all while sending a webwork of moral and ecological fissures spidering through the foundation of a young nation.
The thought sends a tremulous chill through my bones, though the Bladensburg waterfront before me bears little witness to this tortuous historical fault line. A few memorials to the War of 1812 are all that’s left as direct physical reference to what happened here, and day-to-day this humble space exists as a much-loved nexus for people and the Anacostia River. But in the silted shallow riverbed and bare-turf landscape, the river remembers.
On a slow stroll along the park’s riverside walk, I step out onto a floating pier, where I encounter a single Canada goose asleep on the cold wooden platform. I stop, wondering why he is separated from the larger flock and surprised that he has not been roused by my presence. Inching a few feet closer I observe that the morning frost, which has settled on the river landscape, its trees, riverbank, and pier, has also laid a glittering glaze over the goose himself, whose head is locked tightly in the thick down of his back. When I approach within a few feet of the bird, he still does not stir. I reach out, tentatively, and lightly touch a tail feather, preparing myself mentally to be scared witless when the goose awakens.
The feather crunches beneath my finger–the goose remains utterly still. Here is a sleep my winged friend will not be waking from.
Leaving the bird to his eternal rest, I make my way to the bank on the opposite side of the river. Ring-billed gulls have gathered on the western shore, tapping their beaks softly against the thin crust of ice covering the mud flats, searching for soft-bodied creatures in the warmer earth below. Gulls are argumentative, pushy birds by nature, but today they are solemn and respectful of each other, and barely bother to look up when I approach. In this deep cold, there exists a momentary truce. We are all too busy surviving the deficit of light and warmth to meddle in each other’s affairs. There is too much to lose in January.
We all, each Anacostia and Earth resident in our own way, have strategies for surviving the deprivation moon. And in this month of scarcity and dark vulnerability, we each harden our creaturely resolve and lean, as ever, toward a universal prime directive– what Aldo Leopold called, “freedom from want and fear.” It is a desire never attained in life, not really, but ever sought-after for all who move about on this planet, whether they are rooted to the earth and reaching toward the sun, or walking, flying, or swimming in search of life’s next pressing need. This elusive prize fuels our action and existence, from humble subsistence to greedy conquest. How a creature or community pursues this fundamental freedom, will ultimately define it.
Leopold’s anxious ambassador for this universal endeavor was a meadow mouse, gleefully building his snow tunnels and food storage rooms, gathering his brittle brown grasses, all in the safe obscurity of winter’s white cloak on the Sand County land.
“The mouse is a sober citizen who knows that grass grows in order that mice may store it as underground haystacks, and that snow falls in order that mice may build subways from stack to stack,” Leopold wrote.
For mouse, unlike goose and gull, a long harsh winter offers rest, a relative reprieve from the ever-keen eyes of winged predators. It is here, under the deprivation moon, he has a frosty window on a world free from fear and want. For this clever mouse, snow is a building material and shroud for protected transportation pathways out of the eyesight of raptors, and for storage rooms to house a larder of grass for a well-fed winter mouse. The hawk, whose great advantage of speed and vision is stymied by the snow, will hold on over hungry months, awaiting a warm spell or the spring thaw, when mouse pathways are generously revealed, and another winter has passed into spring–a season of increasing freedom from fear and want.
My Anacostia gulls, if they live through this trying winter, will surely experience a similar spring euphoria, and will undoubtedly squawk and caw about their spring fortune loudly and often. I anticipate shaking my head and rolling my eyes at their brash boasterisms sometime in a near warmer future, but in truth, they will then have earned bragging rights. Though they themselves are not modest, gull, like hawk and mouse, seek a modest fortune, nothing more than freedom from hunger, and a sheltering space insulated from the icy grasp of death. They harbor no desires for superfluous luxury, their pursuit is simple–they want only a chance at life in all its luminous elemental dimensions.
Today, that pursuit demands determination, discomfort, and an efficient stillness. Gulls keep their wings tucked tight, voices quiet, and heads down.
I do the same, substituting arms for wings, and leave them to their winter misery.
On normal days, even in winter, attempting to walk out onto the silted shallows of the Anacostia would be treacherous. Many have died in the urban sludge that has accumulated on the Anacostia bottom over the past four centuries of America’s pursuit of freedom from fear and want. Our proclivity to hound every manner of superfluity led to the felling of ancient forests, silting of the river and elevation of the historic riverbed some 40 feet–bringing an end to the bustling port of Bladensburg. It is now almost beyond imagining that ocean-going ships once docked at this spot on the river.
I test the earth of river bottom and find it icy-firm, a rare opportunity to experience a moment within the arterial wall of the Anacostia. We are all, always, within the body of a river. Every upland and lowland inch of the watershed plays a part in the river system, from my own backyard, to the headwaters at Sandy Spring in Olney, Maryland, to the smallest trickling capillary entering into the Watts Branch. But here, upon this artery at river-heart is where it all comes together.
On any given day the Anacostia, like all rivers, is ever new. It is the same water course, but eternally changing and ever changed, reinvented by moods of wind and weather, the magnetic pull of the moon on its waters, the restless angle of sun’s illumination, and the wingbeats, splashes, and songs of its wild inhabitants.
I stand in the middle of a unique moment flowing together with an infinity of distinct river moments–there is a timeless surge of power here that jolts the senses and urges me forward.
Cautiously I test each step before I take it, and when the river begins to give beneath my weight, I go no further. By this point I am nearly standing in the middle of the Anacostia and can view the sculpted work that winter wind and restless tides have made of the river. The deep freeze that came in the night during a higher tide capped the river in thick ice, but when the tide began to go out and the air began to warm, rigid sheets of Anacostia began to buckle and break apart, like a river-puzzle–each piece now set aglow at the edges by the subdued light of a far-distant sun.
The fractured ice gives new voice to the Anacostia, a grumbling, groaning river-resentment as tide and current jostle the river’s assemblage of broken ice sheets. But the real river drama must have happened sometime in the dark early morning hours, when shifting tide and climbing temperatures pried the largest pieces apart. This thunderous cracking, for a massive volume of water must have be something to hear–a soundtrack echoing the epic ecological dynamism that over so many eons of fire, ice, water, and wind–of continents colliding and seas ever-rising, ever-falling–created and continues to recreate this river watershed.
Somewhere in the earth beneath my feet there lies a record of the grand incomprehensible ages of river life. Somewhere, running deep beneath the riverbed, back through time beyond reckoning, it leads down to a primal era where river life radiates in its purest form, from some ancient infernal source, through a billion years of rock, clay, sand, and silt. Down 50 feet, 100, 500, 1000–there lie the hallowed earthen halls of river memory.
Posted on January 16, 2018
There are some places in this world where life and beauty effervesce from the ground itself, places we simply can not lose. There are landscapes where lines must be drawn in the proverbial sand and we must say, no, you will not take this from the world. Not on our watch. Many such places exist in the US-Mexico borderlands, and Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge is one. Here is a place people will lay down their bodies to protect. It is that rare, that special. I want to show you why.
I wrote a poem about Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in South Texas, and worked with a talented group of filmmakers–Allison Otto, Jenny Nichols, and Morgan Heim–to translate it into a short film. Please take a look.
President Donald Trump has been banging his nativist drum demanding billions of dollars for a border wall. Congress has been deal-making and deliberating behind closed doors, preparing to bargain away the future of the borderlands in exchange for the Dreamers held hostage by the Republican Party. I don’t believe any of them know or care about what they are sacrificing to the altar of political power––all for a wall that will have no effect on human migration but will destroy one of the rarest eco-regions on Earth.
Please share this film with your friends and family, with your members of Congress. Pick up the phone and tell your Congressional representatives: the border is not a bargaining chip. The Dreamers must be saved from exile from the only home they have ever known, and the borderlands must be protected from border walls, fences and militarization. #noborderwall #saveSantaAna #cleanDreamAct #aysantaana.
The number for the Congressional switchboard is: 202-224-3121
The 75th anniversary of Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge is January 27. Many hundreds of people will be journeying to South Texas for a special rally for this endangered landscape. Santa Ana needs our help. If you can join us, here is some information about the event: https://www.facebook.com/events/419603675122981/ . If you cannot travel to South Texas, please take some action for Santa Ana the week of January 27.
For more information about the peril currently posed to the US-Mexico Borderlands, visit my web story: Embattled Borderlands.
Category: Borderlands, Borderlands Project, Featured Tagged: allison otto, animals, ay santa ana, beauty, birds, border, border wall, butterfly, center for biological diversity, defenders of wildlife, endangered species, environment, film, jenny nichols, mariposa4, mexico, morgan heim, nature, poem, politics, santa ana, savesantaana, sierra club, texas, trump, video, wildlife, wildlife refuge
Posted on November 17, 2015
What: Tattered Cover reading of Almost Anywhere
When: Thursday December 10, 7pm
Where: Tattered Cover Historic LoDo
1628 16th St. Denver, Colorado 80202
Posted on November 2, 2015
Excerpted from Almost Anywhere, by Krista Schlyer
Sufficiently awakened, we decide to make the thirty-minute drive to Cranberry Glades Botanical Area. As entertainment on the way, Bill and I try to sing “The Little Drummer Boy,” but cannot come up with the words. For twenty minutes we sing a loop of: “So, they told me, parumpapumpum, a new born king to see, parumpapumpum, da da da da da da, parumpapumpum, rumpapumpum.”
When we arrive at the Cranberry Glades, we step out into a misting rain for a short hike. Bill sets Maggie in the back while he rummages around looking for her leash and a plastic bag to pick up any droppings Maggie might make along the way. I hear him singing to her as he searches, “You get to walk with us, parumpapumpum.”
Maggie’s ears perk up and she cranes her neck to look up at Bill.
“I’ll get a bag for you, parumpapumpum.
Maggie’s alert eyes say, ‘Yes, yes, go on…I’m listening’
“We’ll put your shit in it, parumpapumpum, rumpapumpum rumpapumpum.”
When Bill has Maggie all squared away, we set out for a walk on the boardwalk that passes over a rare remnant of bog formed 10,000 years ago when glaciers marched over West Virginia. In most places this far south, this ecosystem could not have gained a foothold. But here, nestled in a cool wet crook of the Appalachian Mountains the cranberry bog took root. Cranberries, one of the few fruit species native to North America, were a staple for the land’s earliest human inhabitants. The plant itself can live for 100 years, and generations upon generations of its ancestors have amassed as a spongy platform of peat upon which rests the current blanket of bog plants.
In this place, the death of a thousand years of plant life rests in peace just below the surface of the landscape and forms a springy carpet that cushions the current generation of vegetative, but not vegetarian, life. Because the land is acidic and nutrient poor, some plants must rely on predatory prowess to survive. The sundew attracts insects with sweet secretions along the length of its tentacle like stalks. When the insect takes the bait, it becomes stuck in the sticky liquid, and begins to struggle for freedom. Alert to this movement, the plant contracts to more fully envelop the insect and then secretes enzymes to digest the hapless creature.
In similarly sneaky fashion, the pitcher plant lures insects into its funnel shaped leaf. When prey falls inside, it becomes trapped in a sort of stomach soup of enzymes.
Carnivorous plants hold a special fascination for us humans. We think of plants as benign, sedentary, guileless. But members of the “other” kingdom have special niches and strategies for survival just like we do in the animal kingdom. We are all looking for ways to hold on, enraptured by life in all its cruel kindness. The infinite ways that we manage to do that, conjured up by countless forms of life, offer an eternity of lessons in living. And the pitcher plant in particular, presents a perfect symbol: It represents a form of life that has by necessity adapted itself through the ages of the earth into a creature stunning in its beauty and brutality.
As I observe pitcher plants sprouting out of the boggy ground in the Cranberry Glades, I recall a reflection by Janisse Ray in her book Ecology of a Cracker Childhood.
She writes, “The pitcher plant taught me to love rain…Its carnivory taught me the sinlessness of predation, and its columns of dead insects the glory of purpose no matter how small. In that plant I was looking for a manera de ser, a way of being–no, not for a way of being, but of being able to be. I was looking for a patch of ground that supported the survival of a rare, precious and endangered biota within my own heart.”
Note: These photos not taken at the Cranberry Glades.
Posted on October 6, 2015
The book tells the story of a year-long adventure I took around the United States to almost every national park and many other wild places–from the home of gentle manatees on the Crystal River to the wind-swept hillsides of the Columbia River Gorge. The journey began as a desperate escape from urban isolation, heartbreak, and despair, but became an adventure beyond imagining. Chronicling a colorful escapade, Almost Anywhere explores the courage, cowardice, and heroics that live in all of us, as well as the life of nature and the nature of life.
“Brave, beautiful, and utterly captivating, Almost Anywhere breaks your heart and puts it back together again on a long and often arduous road trip across an America where the uncertain future is always just beyond the horizon and the immutable past rushes at you without remorse. Measuring the sharpness of loss against the hugeness of life, Krista Schlyer has found her way, page by page, to a rare state of grace. An amazing book.”
—William Souder, Author of On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson
“Outstanding, wry, heart-wrenching and healing. Those words describe Almost Anywhere, which hits the bull’s-eye as a cross between Wild and Let’s Pretend This Never Happened. Krista’s unique voice will draw you in and take you on a journey to the intersection of unfathomable grief and the healing power of wanderlust.”
––Michele Theall, Author of Teaching the Cat to Sit
“This book is an American map. . . . If you want to feel a journey at skin level all the way to the heart, this is your route.”
––Craig Childs, Award-winning author of House of Rain
Posted on September 18, 2015
For 10 years, ever since the passage of the REAL ID Act in 2005, the wildlife, people and ecosystems of the US-Mexico borderlands have suffered the destruction of unprecedented militarization and the waiver of environmental and many other laws. Senator John McCain is working to expand borderlands destruction and disenfranchisement through a bill S750, cynically titled “The Arizona Borderlands Protection and Preservation Act.” I visited his senate office yesterday with members of the Sierra Club Borderlands Team, and sat down with a staffer who listened politely and patiently waited for us to leave. Today I wrote this letter to Senator McCain via his legislative aide–asking him to withdraw his bill waiving all laws within 100 miles of the Arizona border:
Thanks so much for the meeting yesterday with myself and the Sierra Club. I realize there are many issues we see differently, but I hope we can find a meeting place of common ground in the borderlands. In this region over the past 10 years, our national parks, environmental laws and wildlife conservation efforts have been reeling blow by blow as our nation has erected walls and moved border enforcement further and further from the actual border. Senator McCain’s bill S750 would further expand that region of lawlessness to 100 miles from the border, stripping the land and its inhabitants of all laws, and putting all of southern Arizona at the whim of whoever controls DHS.
Border patrol already has unprecedented authority over all other federal agencies on the border, (and in the entire nation–with the CBP budget exceeding that of all other federal law enforcement agencies combined). People, environmental and civil rights organizations are essentially powerless in relation to the massive presence of DHS in the borderlands. I have seen the destruction that has come from this excessive power for a single federal agency. And I have been at the receiving end of this undemocratic imbalance of power–with my vehicle searched multiple times (nowhere near the border), being stopped and questioned by armed agents and intimidated just for being on public lands within 20 miles of the border.
DHS itself has repeatedly testified to Congress that it does not need or want further waiver authority in the borderlands, making all of the recent attempts to strip environmental protections from the region curious. Immigration is at net-zero and we know most illegal drug imports come through the ports of entry, and there has never been a single documented case of a terrorist coming across the southern border–so we have to ask ourselves, what is motivating the never-ending string legislation that aims to remove environmental protections and increase expensive border militarization that is born on the backs of American taxpayers?
Basically what we were asking in our meeting, and what the Sierra Club is asking going forward, is for a commitment from Senator McCain to protect our borderlands parks, refuges and people from further disenfranchisement and destruction. Please urge your boss to withdraw S750, and to oppose any other form of expansion of legal waivers on the border. And in the future to oppose any further attempts to add walls and waivers to immigration bills. The lives of the people and wildlife, and the ecological integrity of our national parks, wilderness and wildlife refuges on the border should not be handed over as a bargaining chip for immigration reform or electoral politics. We need Senator McCain’s help.
I am attaching a link to a slideshow/book talk that I have done around the country to help the public understand what’s at stake in the borderlands. I hope you will take a look at it and show it to your boss
Again, thanks very much for your time.
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