There's an old reporter's rule that says "Follow the money." While photographer and writer Krista Schlyer may have avoided that particular aspect of homeland security and who benefits from the billions spent on the militarization of the Southwest border, the rest of her powerful new book is right on the money.
Continental Divide: Wildlife, People, and the Border Wall is a strange and wondrous book. It relates, in colorful photos and breathless prose, the story of the U. S.-Mexico border in the dawn of the new American Century of Fear. In many ways an ugly story about what we've become, it's also a love story about one of the world's loveliest places. It is about our home.
It is ironic that one of the countries that clamored loudest for the removal of the Berlin Wall has now embarked on a massive wall-building project of its own. We have stabbed a massive steel structure "through the heart of one of the continent's richest and rarest ecological and cultural regions." We have created a police state in the region along our southern border. We have become the bad guys, bypassing our own laws, seizing private property, decimating our natural and human environment, flagrantly violating human rights, creating policies that have directly led to the horrific deaths of thousands of poor people (and untold numbers of our precious animals and plants), and turning a blind eye to the creation of violent criminal organizations.
Schlyer shows that the wall is ultimately a failure—it doesn't do what it was designed for, yet the disruptions to land, culture and ecosystems are monstrous.
At our peril, we thumb our noses at history and its lessons and proudly wear our ignorance on our sleeves. The border wall is an embarrassment, an abomination, an insult to all true Americans. The wall is a catastrophe—if we fail to acknowledge this, we are lying to ourselves. This book clearly explains why.
But Schlyer's argument is carefully entwined within the complex natural and human history of this region, where two vastly different nations slam up against each other in what formerly was an invisible line on a map or, at most, a few rusty strands of barbed wire. Nature, as is always the case in classical economics, is completely ignored and bears the brunt of our latest folly.
The book's gorgeous photos range from wildlife to human portraits and from art shots to landscape photos. There is a single illustration of the somewhat bizarre, even grotesque, 1872 painting by John Gast called "American Progress." It features a blond goddess floating magically through the air at the forefront of Manifest Destiny, her diaphanous white gown held up on her left side by a single protruding nipple (we may slaughter Injuns, Meskins, and buff'lo, but by Gawd we're modest!).
If there's any weakness in the book, it's a failure to clearly offer and discuss specific solutions. However, that should not detract from its value as an overview of why this whole border thing is a big deal and important for all of us. If I wanted my dear old mother in Indiana to understand what's going on along the border, I'd send her this book.
Continental Divide should make you angry. Furious even. It is about tyranny. The U. S. government has lost control, not of its border, but of itself. The environmental and social destruction being done in the name of homeland security is appalling and ignores real solutions. It shows America at her worst and most jingoistic. The emperor state has seldom been more naked than it is here, portrayed in this clear-eyed, honest book. In many places I was deeply struck by the simple beauty and grace of Schlyer's prose.
She ends with a thoughtful reframing of "the border question":
The question is not: How do we keep people out of the United States who are poor and desperately need work? But rather: How do we best share a border with a country whose economic realities are different from our own, and how do we protect the natural world that connects us and is precious to both nations?
Krista Schlyer has thrown down a challenge to all of us—surely we can do better as Americans than to hide behind a giant steel wall like frightened children.