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 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 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.
Posted on August 7, 2015
As I watched Donald Trump repeat his “more border wall” mantra last night during the first GOP primary debate, my mind returned to a moment earlier in the day when I was working on an annual report for Humane Borders, a non-profit dedicated to providing humanitarian aid to vulnerable migrants traveling the arid Arizona borderlands. I had been editing a profile of Humane Borders’ Executive Director Juanita Molina, in which she talked of what motivated her to do the work she does. She recalled a day a decade ago when she was working for an HIV clinic in California and a young man came in asking for help. He led Juanita to a car where she saw another young man, emaciated and unmoving. She thought he was dead. But just then he opened his eyes and smiled at her. Juanita got the young man and his partner to the emergency room, where he survived for four days. During that time they told Juanita of the arduous journey that had brought them to the Arizona border, and how, when the one man became too weak to walk any further, his partner strapped him to his back and carried him.
Stories like this, weighty with love, sacrifice and courage, are not rare in the borderlands. I have heard many over the past 8 years since I’ve been working in the region. In my book Continental Divide: Wildlife, People and the Border Wall I recount the story of Josseline Quinteros, a 13-year-old girl who died in the Arizona desert when she grew weak on her journey from Guatemala, and rather than hold up her group she urged a coyote to leave her and get her little brother safely to their mother in Los Angeles.
Donald Trump cannot see people like Josseline and the men in California, or even Juanita, because he understands life only in two dimensions. He is afraid and loud because of this deficit of understanding in a world of infinite dimensions and complexities and beautiful cruel textures. There are an eternity of forms of human relationships and challenges and infinitely faceted connections within the world of nature, a truly eternal complexity of every element interacting with every other. You can see glimpses of it in the love bond of a man who carries his dying partner through the desert and a sister willing to give her life so that her little brother will live, and the many devoted people who like Juanita, and Humane Borders, give everything they have to help those in crisis. And you can see it quite clearly in every moment that you look into the quiet world of nature. This world is an endless imaginarium of beauty, heroics, love and death. So, so much more than a mind constrained in two dimensions of fear and power can understand.
Trump is not alone. Almost every candidate on that stage parroted his call for more wall, more enforcement, more militarization, serious consequences for “illegals.” And with their loud voices they have been able to shape the story about immigration in in this nation built by immigrants–depicting migrants as criminals and freeloaders. These people, migrants, are really no different from us; they are heroes and loved ones and mothers and sons and fathers and daughters, not invaders or threats. And “illegal immigration” will not end until we have a legal immigration system that works by accounting for the great demand for cheap labor and by creating trade laws that treat our neighbors fairly. The economic arguments for border militarization are laughable from every angle, from the tens of billions of dollars we have thrown away building a wall people can climb in 10 seconds, to the idea that immigrants are a drain on our economy. But in Washington DC, on either side of the partisan isle, there are very few who will stand up for Josseline or the borderlands. And the media is complicit for glorifying or even vilifying the Donald Trumps of the world; they help perpetuate the small, distorted two-dimensional mindset that has led to endless ecological distruction of the beautiful borderlands and the deaths of more than 6000 migrants. What a pity. For the Donalds and their inability to see clearly, and for the rest of us, who suffer the consequences.