Hands go up for questions at the end of a talk and someone asks, “What gives you hope?”
I say the usual, believing the future to be long, all sorts of twists and turns in the plot.
No, not that. Too weak. Too…hopeless. I’ve got to go home and think about this.
So, here’s what gives me hope. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in southern Arizona shares 30 miles of border with Sonora, Mexico. All wilderness and monument regulations have been waved by Congress so that construction of the border wall will not be impeded. Sacred hilltops, sites of native O’odham history and legend, are being bladed and blasted. Saguaros hundreds of years old have been photographed toppled as the wall nears Organ Pipe. A bunch of bad news, but wait for it.
In the near-border town of Ajo, Arizona, with its colonial plaza and rings of palm trees, I was recently keynote speaker for the 6th Annual Tri-National Sonoran Desert Symposium*. While there, I shared dinner with a few biological interns from Organ Pipe who said that for three months they’d been working almost frantically ahead of bulldozers transplanting every cactus, from towering saguaros to tiny pin cushions, for 30 miles. What they couldn’t move, they reduced to cuttings which they took back to the monument nursery. They collected bags of seeds from grasses and devil’s claw, a ground hugging hook plant. One rare milkweed was found, its single seed pod gathered. As the wall comes, they are saving everything they can.
This is an ecological drop in the bucket, but it is the hope I’m looking for. The interns recounted their months on this transect, a riveting focus from remote, rugged backcountry to neighborhoods in Mexico coming close to the boundary, one side busy with drying laundry and kids playing in dusty back yards, the other untrammeled desert.
In turn, I told them about other similar drops in the bucket I’d encountered. I’d met a woman in her 80s taking care of half an acre of virgin prairie in Iowa, surrounded by industrial monoculture on all sides. She took me to the fence at the back of a small cemetery, pushing her walker over humps in the grass, and wagged her finger, pointing out native species, rattlesnake grass blooming white. She complained about the non-natives, prickly weeds and foreign flowers, saying she needed to get in there and clean the place. When I asked why she cared for this one plot of uncultivated land in an empire of GMO corn, she just gave me a confused look, as if the question made no sense. It was like asking, why do you breathe?
I told the interns about this old caretaker so they didn’t think they were alone, because 30 painstaking miles can seem daunting. Watching a wall constructed across a landscape that has been open until now, the desert split visually in two, ground sterilized for 60 feet on either side, is not easy for anyone to bear. But there is a constant force pushing back against it, so many drops in the bucket that they have weight, 987 small cacti replanted outside the path of the wall, 130 mammallaria pin cushions taken back to the monument nursery along with 37 fragile night blooming cereus. What they couldn’t get themselves, they flagged and a crew from the monument came, hauling saguaros out of the path.
While most reports from the border tell of horrifically fallen cacti, the creation of an ecological dead zone, the word I’m hearing is that some of the taller, taller saguaros are being spared by construction crews. Bulldozers have been going around them. This is the good news. Better in my estimation would be uprooting this slatted wall and raising it into a shade ramada, but in lieu of that, voluntary biological mitigation will do.
One of the young scientists told me she ran into a young man while she was working the line. He walked up from the south, from out of the desert. Her in the US, him in Mexico, no wall yet, he asked what she was doing. She told him about the grass she was studying and collecting. He’d been walking for months, he said. She told him she was 25, and he said he was 26. He said he wanted to come across and work. She said he couldn’t, not with her watching.
I asked how this ended and she told me they said goodbye. But did he come across? She said she didn’t know, she didn’t look.
*Tri-National refers to the US, Mexico, and the Tohono O’odham Nation, which straddles both countries.
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