New Landscapes on the Southern Border
In 1854 with $10 million and a decided political advantage, the U.S. bought a large swath of land from Mexico, then bankrupt after losing a war to the U.S.. The Gadsden Purchase pushed the U.S. border in New Mexico and Arizona deeper into Mexican territory. It was rough and beautiful country then, and it still is. Much of the region is what geologists call “basin and range;” great expanses of desert that rise abruptly into mountain ranges that then descend sharply into the next basin, one after another, like heartbeats across an EKG. But it’s the border itself that defines and animates the landscape.
In recent years another political stratagem, a fence, was visited upon the southern border. When the dust cleared, a discontinuous line of 30-foot concrete and iron bollard fence spun with razor wire, stood. At a distance, the broad basins and mountains are seen to sweep south into Mexico. In the middle ground, a thin line of fencing races across the basins, disappears into the folds of rising land then reappears at elevation. From such a distance the landscape seems to nearly absorb the fence. At close range, however, the fence obliterates the landscape.
The scale of the new fence is hard to account for. It is the height of a three-story building and less than a foot wide. Looking down its length the fence runs as far as the eye can see creating a straight line utterly foreign to the elemental landscape it cuts across. Where the flat desert starts into the hills the line undulates then pours through notches blasted in the hills and mountaintops, then disappears. At other points the line of fencing simply stops. The construction interrupted, the landscape opens and regains its fullness.
Less visible in the landscape are footpaths beaten by generations of immigrants, their empty water bottles and debris; the vestiges of the silent drama of people risking their lives to find something better in the North. While Border Patrol agents and coyotes hustle up and down the line doing their bit, people wait their chance to come across, fence or no fence, pawns in a rigged game of economic disparity. As that disparity has grown so too has the height and brutality of the border fences.
First marked by simple obelisks, the border has been “secured” with a variety of materials and barriers. From barbed wire to concertina wire, Normandy fence to the new bollard style fence; each new strategy growing less kind to the landscape. The recent surge of fence building has left in its wake drained aquifers and disrupted ecosystems. Towering antennae and communication facilities are dispersed among the hillsides. Hundreds of street lamps are poised to light up long stretches of fence. Thousands of acres of roads have been built or expanded to service the fence and border.
Despite the impact of border infrastructure and an ongoing history of human turmoil, the beauty of the natural landscape reasserts itself along vast stretches of the border. To the south lie a few farms and ranches, scattered houses. On the U.S. side, federal land predominates. Wildlife refuges, national forests and parks abut hundreds of miles of the border in New Mexico and Arizona, as do Native American lands, leaving tens of thousands of acres of country relatively unscathed by development. There is still beauty in the land, perhaps not so different from the time the land was acquired from Mexico.
In the decades after that acquisition, following the Civil War, photographers were dispatched with survey teams to record the terrain and landforms of the West. The country was so starkly beautiful and the pictures so precise and poignant that they evoke a sort of collective memory of the primitive American landscape. But caught in the currents of history, the border lands of Arizona and New Mexico are increasingly becoming battlegrounds; militarized and scarred. Less the idyllic landscape of our forefathers but evermore a human landscape. And we humans do not live lightly on the land.
A continuing interest in the way in which people engage with the landscape drew me to make some exploratory pictures from the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in northern Arizona and Utah. Here lies Lake Powell created in 1963 with the completion of a major dam structure on the Colorado River. This man-made lake attracts over 3 million visitors a year driving powerboats, jet skis, fishing boats, immense houseboats, and paddling SUPs, kayaks and even a canoe or two. Also popular are areas set aside for roaring around on off-road vehicles.
Predictably there are 2 camps regarding the very existence of the lake; one composed of the folks manning the many craft mentioned above- who clearly live for the time they spend at the lake with family and friends outdoors, away from jobs, schools, and the day-to-day grind. And then there are the environmentalists who given half a chance would dynamite the dam tonight believing as they do that the destruction of the formerly miraculous stretch of the river is obscene and the presence of the dam causes a host of problems downstream. There is much much more to say on this impossible-to-resolve topic which runs parallel to several other divisive issues in our country.
The pictures are from Lake Powell and a handful from downriver at Horseshoe Bend. (Work-in-progress)