Posted on April 21, 2021
I woke one recent morning to bright sun streaming through the hatch a few feet above my pillow. Through the open deck I could see morning shining on the face of our life raft’s grand title: Fortune Favors the Bold. (The jury is still out on this idea. If we ever end up needing this raft, we’ll know for sure.)
Bill snoozed beside me and, feeling quite content, I could have stayed, forever. But I climbed over Bill as gently as possible, lowered myself out of the berth and made my way onto the port side deck where I looked over the water, interested to find out how the morning sun hit the land of Warderick Wells Cay, what shadows it cast, what illumination it brought.
Mostly I saw glare that stung my eyes, but in that glare two flippered hands and a bald little head crested the bright shimmer of water beside the boat. Baby turtle.
Heart soaring I turned to the starboard side of the boat where Maggie May and the water were still well shaded from the rising sun. In the cool blue below I saw a mass of legs floating by about a foot beneath the surface.
“Bill! Come up here!” I could hear he was up and rustling about in the galley, getting a bowl of granola. As he rushed on deck I began to doubt myself. The squid I thought I’d seen was starting to resemble something less interesting.
Bill, looking into the water, said “Palm frond! Nice!”
“It might have been a squid,” I said, over-loud, as he was already descending the companionway stairs toward his granola. I then saw another dark thing floating toward us on the ebb current. Uncertain, I didn’t call out to Bill, but he was headed up to have his breakfast on deck.
“That may be something,” I said from the side deck.
“Plant,” said Bill, mouth full, standing momentarily, then sitting back down in the cockpit.
“Oh shit! Get out here!.” I countered, because this is what I saw: He was right about the plant, another palm frond, but nosing up to investigate the frond (possibly also mistaking it for a squid) was an 8-foot long shark, and then another larger shark following close behind. Ten minutes earlier the three-year-old boy on the sailboat next to us had yelled in his baby voice “Lemon Shawwwk! Lemon shawwwk!” I don’t know my sharks yet, so I took his word for it. His father had said he’d seen a bull shark the day before. So this family knows their sharks or they are damn good liars who know their shark names.
The smaller of the sharks nosed up to the palm frond, lifted it lightly out of the water, so that a beam of morning sun kissed the sharks smooth head, and then sunk back into the water. It swam a few feet away then circled back, nosed the frond up again, then moved on to follow the larger shark.
Such wild beauty, curiosity and grace I have rarely witnessed so closely, some 40 feet away. And this was just one of the unforgettable sights of the Exuma Land and Sea Park in the Bahamas.
It’s hard to convey what this means to me personally. Some who are reading this know me well, so they know that the past decade has been one of profound grief for me as I’ve watched the US-Mexico borderlands being decimated by border wall construction through three presidential administrations. Having dedicated my life to fighting that destruction of rare wildlife habitat and migration corridors as well as human lives and communities, I left for this sailing voyage broken. Often I feel beyond repair. In the end, when I stepped on the SV Maggie May, I had lost hope.
I won’t say I’ve regained it. I continue to follow the news in the borderlands. The Biden administration has already begun seizing land through eminent domain and talk is ongoing of finishing wall construction started under the Trump administration.
And it isn’t as if there are no wounds here. There is trash in the wildest places, plastic carried from the ocean to the windward side of every island. There are obscene mega yachts, each one a climate disaster. There are people who care not at all when they anchor in coral beds.
I wish I could train myself not to see these things, but I know that once open to ecological degradation the eye cannot close to it. What I want more than anything is to be able to open my eyes wider to awe and beauty and resilience and wonder. At least as wide as they have been opened to wound and scar and loss. To let the grace of sharks and the guileless vulnerability of baby sea turtles and the mind-boggling diversity of coral fill every available space in my psyche.
The Bahamas are vast, and the people are relatively few and the tourists are concentrated in places they can buy diesel and get internet and see pigs on beaches and swim in the cave where James Bond Thunderball was filmed. Fewer people means fewer wounds and more space for wildlife and healthier water and air. Where beauty can breathe and maybe thrive without the crush of human hands there is life, there is grace.
I have been working on strategies for letting go of what I wish we humans were. Trying to accept us for what we are. Trying to believe in what we might be someday. Trying to just do my best to be a good human.
I recently read a book that was very helpful in this regard. It is called Deep, and in a way it is about freediving, but the author also presents a story of the ocean at various depths, from the surface to the deepest trenches we call the Hadal Zone-named after hell. These deeps, where humans haven’t even really begun to explore, were once thought to be wastelands, empty spaces devoid of life, but we’ve been learning over the past decades that in fact they are filled with strange and wondrous life and may even be where life on this planet began.
This gives me such great solace, knowing that there is this reserve of life on Earth, that whether or not we humans can cure ourselves of our hubris and solipsism— the Earth has creatures beyond count and description waiting in the wings to begin again.
I so hope we figure it out. I’m rooting for us. I’ll be working toward that all my life. If everyone could see the curious shark and the squid-palm-frond, the silly baby sea turtle, the stingray, the poisonwood the saguaro cactus, desert turtle and jaguar, and how all of them are counting on us to figure our shit out, I believe we could do it. I do believe.
Category: Almost Anywhere, Borderlands, Featured, Maggie May, Photography, Uncategorized, Writing Tagged: adventure, Bahamas, beauty, boat, border wall, conservation, environment, environmental grief, Exuma Islands, grief, Maggie May, national park, nature, ocean, sailing, sea turtle, shark, sv maggie may, wildlife
Posted on April 27, 2020
The virus has offered lots of unbidden time for reflection. Time is a coin I was yearning for, if not in this manner and upon dry land. But it is valuable and I spend a lot of it thinking about what has moved me toward SV Maggie May over a 15-year period.
Bill and I hatched the circumnavigation idea after our last big journey, a year-long road trip around the United States in 2001. We both felt that the time spent away from human-structure was important, fundamental even to our long-term health. And so we had a conversation about what our next adventure would be and when. Within minutes we had settled upon sailing the world within 5 years time. Sailing has stayed constant, the time element elongated considerably.
I wasn’t a sailor when we started thinking about this but I had always had sailing around the world somewhere in my mind. (I’ll have to try and unearth a first-cause back in my brain folds.) I was drawn to some intangible something of sailing life. I now have a more specific sense of what that something is, a sense that has become stronger over the years as the 5-year-plan stretched into 10 and 15.
Sailing, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, has a way of making you feel small and insignificant, but also powerful and eternal at the same time.
I’ve spent most of the past decade working on a project in the US-Mexico borderlands, witnessing destruction of land, decimation of wildlife and plants, desecration of culture, all of which made me feel small and powerless for years on end. This project prevented me from making faster progress toward SV Maggie May, and it also made her transform from an idea, then a desire and finally into a necessity. The borderlands kept me from the ocean, even as they pushed me toward it.
I’ve worked on other projects, including extensive work on one of America’s most degraded rivers, trying to give voice to urban wildlife, documenting the British Petroleum oil spill. But none has been a driving motivation in my life for as long as the borderlands, and none has caused so much self doubt and undoing as fighting the border wall.
My motivations at the border grew out of a desire to make my life mean something. Not…just a desire, a compulsion, born of the greatest disappointment of my life in March 2000. I’ve written a whole book about those events, so I won’t go into it in this blog. But in essence I lost a good part of myself and afterward set out on a path to find what I had lost and find some grip on life again. I found a focal point in conservation photography, and a specific anchor on the US-Mexico border. I’ve also written about the borderlands extensively, so I won’t cover it here, except to say that by spending time with the wildlife of that landscape I felt I had made a compact with them, that I would do everything I could to be a voice for their future.
I stayed true to that commitment for more than 10 years, and over that time I went from feeling I was certain to be able to help turn things around, to feeling I had no power to even help, to feeling I could make a difference over a longer period, to feeling I had made no difference at all despite trying everything I could think of. And now, just feeling tired and destroyed, laying on a battlefield, eviscerated but somehow still living.
I’ve tried so many times to come to terms with the fact that I am small, just a person. And the forces that compel people to build walls are far beyond my scope to heal. And that the best I can hope for in any such endeavor is to open a window in people’s minds to see what they otherwise could not, something beautiful that might instill some responsibility for lives they will never encounter, but nevertheless impact gravely through direct action or passive complacency.
This is wisdom, but it requires a balance that I have always struggled to maintain. Instead I have often found myself on a roller coaster of belief in myself and my ability to make a difference, and despair over my insignificance. Teeter-totter-teeter-totter. And inevitably when outcomes are not what I have worked for, I am overwhelmed with guilt, and more acutely, grief, over what we are doing on the border, and so many other places.
My only true relief from this rollercoaster is on the Maggie May, where these two opposing forces merge peacefully. I am nothing, I am everything. Minuscule, microscopic, but connected to the very forces that make this world and everything in it. Wind, sun, water.
Mostly, I’m just alive.
Bill just came to tell me our Maggie May contractors called. The last of our major boat projects is finished.
I’m coming home Maggie May.
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 February 8, 2019
Like many South Texas mornings, yesterday’s dawn was sung into existence by Altamira orioles, great kiskadees and green jays, warblers and cardinals. It’s hard to imagine any hurt could go unhealed in a world where the birds chorus at dawn. So it seemed for a brief eternity as I walked west through the northern edge of Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park, along the Rio Grande levee.
I stopped for a moment on a low bridge over an irrigation canal to watch the just-risen sun peeking out from behind restless clouds moving with some easterly haste. And it was then I felt it, I was being followed. You know the feeling. I get it often while traveling in the borderlands, usually because I’m actually being followed by border patrol. But this feeling was one of anticipation, not the frustration or mild rage that border patrol provokes in me. And when I looked down the canal, into the light morning mist, what I saw made my heart quiver–a troupe of ridiculous wild turkeys shuttling along the canal bank toward me. I crouched low on the bridge and waited as they approached in unhurried fashion, stopping briefly every few feet to inspect the grasses for food.
When they were less than 20 feet from me, one of the turkeys gave his wings a grand flourish, catching the morning sun for one perfect translucent moment. Angelic he was, a regular borderlands angel. And then the moment passed and the troupe walked up onto the levee and continued on its way.
And I returned to the reason why I had gotten up before dawn to walk down the levee. It was not to hear the orioles or greet the angels, that was just fortune’s mercy. No, this spot, where these turkeys are traveling through their habitat, their home, their source of sustaining food, water and shelter, this is where the border wall will soon be built. And it could happen any day.
I followed the turkey’s path along the levee west of Bentsen park to the La Parida tract of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge. When I reached the refuge I found just what I had come to see, but hoped I’d never find: surveyor stakes lining the levee and an excavator parked next to the National Wildlife Refuge sign. Within days it is expected that this machinery will begin to tear down the trees where the orioles are building their beautiful nests and laying their eggs, and scrape the land where threatened Texas tortoises and Texas indigo snakes are resting and hunting, and pour 20 feet of concrete wall into the Rio Grande levee.
As I was looking at the construction machinery a National Wildlife Refuge law enforcement truck approached and the officer told me to move along, that I was not supposed to be there. (I held my tongue and moved along, but I wondered to myself about his job description, which is supposed to entail protecting wildlife refuges from destruction.)
The money for this segment of border wall construction was approved by Congress in 2018. The day after the bill was signed Senator Chuck Schumer and then Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi declared that they had defeated Donald Trump and not included border wall in the budget. The national news media repeated their claims. And yet here I am, staring at the machinery that will raise a combined 30 feet of concrete and steel through this sanctuary of wild life.
This wildlife refuge, along with the Bentsen state park, the National Butterfly Center and hundreds of other tracts of public and private land, are part of a 30-year effort to try and save a vanishing ecosystem, one of the richest and rarest ecosystems in the United States–from utter destruction. The environmental stakes couldn’t be higher here. Two of North America’s major avian flyways funnel through the Rio Grande Valley, as do major migration pathways for monarchs and other butterfly species, and migration pathways for endangered cats. These migrants depend on the spare remnants of habitat that are left to them and that Valley residents, the federal government, and national environmental groups have been trying to save for decades. And now we are preparing to scrape this precious land to the bone and further fragment it with massive border walls.
I went to a dawn vigil this morning at La Lomita Chapel, a historic church that is also in the path of the border wall. (The church has been fighting the federal government’s taking of the mission land through eminent domain.)
The priest saying the mass, Father Roy, spoke passionately about the wrong-headedness of the wall and about the foundational Christian teachings that demand an open heart and hand towards those who need your help. It was a stirring speech, but what reached me was not the affirmation of the core religious and humanist beliefs of generosity and love, but Father Roy’s caution that we not let anger over this impending desecration overcome us. We must maintain a core of peace and love, or be destroyed by rage against those who are most responsible for this.
As I have heard Van Jones say, ‘When it gets harder to love, love harder.”
But it is getting harder and harder with every dollar Congress gives to president Trump for border wall construction; with every denial by the Democratic party that they have done so; with every news story that parrots this Washington DC delusion; with every new piece of machinery that arrives at the border and every new surveyor stake that is planted in a land of living sanctuary.
It is getting harder and harder to love. And I’m not sure my border angel and his winged compatriots, who depend on this land for their very lives, think peace is the best option at this point.
Category: Borderlands, Borderlands Project, Uncategorized, Writing Tagged: Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, birds, border, border wall, borderlands, butterflies, donald trump, environment, Father Roy, fence, La Lomita, nancy pelosi, national butterfly center, national wildlife refuge, nature, south texas, texas, wall, wildlife
Posted on February 7, 2019
Today is also the 10th anniversary of a much lesser known historical event — the Borderlands RAVE. It was an expedition I organized with the International League of Conservation Photographers, focused on raising awareness of the beauty and biodiversity, value and vulnerability of the US-Mexico borderlands after the passage of the Secure Fence Act of 2006.
There were 15 of us on that trip, some of the most committed photographers, scientists and filmmakers I’ve worked with. We traveled the border from San Diego to Brownsville from January 19 to February 19 of 2009. We documented some of the most exquisite beauty and rarest habitat in North America; stayed with border residents who opened their homes to us and shared their stories of love for their homeland on the border. We were detained by Border Patrol and by flat tires and desert sand. We slept under the endless desert sky.
The last days of the trip were spent in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, where less than 5 percent of native habitat remains and border wall construction had already begun to fell forests and scrape the land bare, leaving no secret passageways or gentle quarter for endangered ocelots and jaguarundis; setting the stage for massive flooding that would drown imperiled Texas tortoises in 2010; and diminishing an already nearly vanished refuge for birds and butterflies.
When the trip ended we had gathered thousands of photographs, undeniable evidence of the importance of the borderlands and the threat that a wall posed to them. I believed then that if we just showed Congress our evidence, that this kind of destruction would end. In March of 2009, I created an exhibit of our team images and worked with Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, Mennonite Central Committee and friends and family to install the exhibit in the House of Representatives. We had a reception and briefing, where many members of Congress came to speak of their opposition to wall. We did the same thing in the Senate in November 2009, on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. And senators came to speak about their opposition to the wall. We had a newly-elected president who, when he was campaigning, had said:
“The walls between the countries with the most and those with the least cannot stand. The walls between races and tribes, natives and immigrants, Christian and Muslim and Jew cannot stand.”
But President Barack Obama had voted for the Secure Fence Act, and he would continue to build the border wall that George W. Bush had started.
Flash-forward 10 years: I left my home in Washington DC this morning and got on a flight to South Texas where border wall construction in the Rio Grande Valley is starting up again. Donald Trump has become the fourth successive president, starting with Bill Clinton in the 1990s, to expand the US-Mexico border wall. Trump will, like the others, start on National Wildlife Refuge land, because it is easier to destroy the homes and futures of wildlife than to take land from Texans. Trump will also take private land, but he will start with the low-hanging fruit, public land, where he has already waived the Endangered Species Act, Clean Air Act, National Environmental Policy Act and every other law that would impede construction. Congress gave the executive branch that power under the Real ID Act of 2005.
Tomorrow I will witness and document the destruction of forests where birds have begun to construct their nests and butterflies have laid their eggs; they will be torn down by machines funded by American taxpayers.
My first instinct is to end with something snide, like: Happy Anniversary.
But that would suggest it’s possible to simply shrug off this moment, and accept walls as an inevitable feature of the modern world, along with mass extinction of Earth’s biodiversity, climate chaos and nationalism. It isn’t and they aren’t. So instead I’ll end by asking every person who reads this to make a phone call to their members of Congress, because one thing I’ve learned is that politicians don’t do things because they are right or wrong, they do them because their constituents demand it.
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