On borders, north and south

How the natural world challenges human notions of division.


I have lived in the Southwestern Borderlands for 26 years, moving away from 10 generations of ancestry in New England to further my North American education as a resident of Tucson. I was hired to be director of the University of Arizona’s Poetry Center, so I brought my passion for the transformative power of language and the small revolutions of the soul — my hopes for the larger evolution of the common good that poetry can induce. I knew I had a lot to learn about my adopted region and that I would be learning from the more diverse range of cultures here.

It does not take a newcomer long to realize that the humanitarian crisis of the Borderlands outweighs the security challenges. Beyond the heated bombast about the dangers of undocumented immigrants lie endless stories of hardship, conflict, suffering and death along the 2,000-mile border the U.S. shares with Mexico. I find myself hungry for stories of compassion in this political season when meanness, mendacity and avarice are touted as if they are virtues. One might think that our much-lauded democratic values are insignificant or a scam, judging from the empathy-deficit behaviors on display. But democracy must always be all about the people, and, as Pablo Neruda wrote, the poet must always be on the side of the oppressed.

The call for social justice was planted in me as a teenager: Henry Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” and James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. In the Borderlands, I have been educated by stories brought to me by students, friends and colleagues.

Ofelia Zepeda writes in her poem “Birth Witness” of being a Tohono O’odham woman born in a cotton field, her parents illiterate in the English language. She is required by the state to provide proof of her birth — to offer witness, documentation. “The stars were there,” she writes. “The wind was there. … The pollen of spring was floating and sensed me being born.” This is not the language of the state. “You need records,” says the agency official. But the poem is a more profound document of witness.

Francisco Cantú writes in his essay “Bajadas” of his work as a Border Patrol agent who must tend to the body of a migrant dead from dehydration and exposure. It’s the first of many encounters that will teach him how far we have to go in dealing with the humanitarian crisis on the border.

My students wrote about families who have straddled the border towns for generations, running the local department store or the molino for grinding corn for tamales, who find themselves suddenly challenged as suspects or “aliens.” One young woman wrote about taking up with a drug dealer, who gave her a Glock and taught her how to use it because she “might need to.” She had seen too many deaths on the streets from gang shootings to count. I hoped every week that I would see her back in class, and I hope now she has found her way to safety.

Then there are the families, broken apart by border policy; no regulation will keep them from risking whatever it takes to become unified again. The border, writes Gloria Anzaldúa, is an open wound “where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds. And before a scab forms it hemorrhages again, the lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third country — a border culture.” The border is stained with suffering and bluster and family histories. It is a zone of conflict, a place where U.S. appetites — for drugs, cheap food, cheap houses — feed violence and injustice. And the border is home for families who have known it as home since before Arizona became a state in 1912. The line that defines the border geographically may be clear on maps and at walled border crossings, but the cultural border is permeable, like a cell membrane, and no wall can keep exchanges from occurring across the line in the sand.     

A Mexican migrant child sits on a bus at the San Ysidro port of entry on the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexico border, moments before being transported to a shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, top. A commercial fisherman weathers a storm, bottom.
Guillermo Arias/ZUMA, top; Scott Dickerson/Getty Images, bottom

When I was 8, growing up in rural Connecticut, my parents bought a fisherman’s cottage on the island of Grand Manan in New Brunswick, Canada. For over 60 years, I have crossed the peaceful border from the U.S. into Canada to spend summers in this fishing community of 2,500 residents, descendants of Loyalists who left the U.S. at the time of the Revolutionary War and built a new identity based on the terms set by the fearsome tides of the Bay of Fundy. The island became the sardine capital of the world in the late 1800s, at no small cost to the families who worked the North Atlantic for its bounty. Commercial fishing is the riskiest occupation in the world, and fishermen are rugged and nonchalant in facing the risks. “If you don’t like the water, don’t work on it,” one stalwart fisherman said after being rescued from his burning boat. Then he promptly geared up to head back out. The man who built our cottage in 1864 had a son who was lost at sea for a week, adrift in his dory after the mother ship was lost in a storm. He was rescued; five other island men drowned.

A new monument to fishermen from the counties of Washington, Maine and Charlotte, New Brunswick, who have been lost in the region since 1900 went up this summer in Lubec, Maine. The monument sits on state land and was locally funded by yard sales, golf tournaments, potlucks and bottle drives: a wave-form wall engraved with names of fishermen who died at sea “in pursuit of their livelihood.” Two storm waves rise to form a wall of water engulfing the lost. It is a wall of shared mourning intended to unify families on both sides of the North Atlantic border. This is not a wall of exclusion but a wall of inclusion.

Hiking along the edge of rugged basalt cliffs on the western side of the island, I can see the blue haze of the mainland across the Grand Manan Channel. This is a Canadian island, though it lies only 10 miles off the coast of Maine. In the waters between us and them is an area known locally as the gray zone. No one knows precisely where the border lies. Or if they do, the local patterns of use allow the line to remain murky. U.S. and Canadian lobstermen both work the water. Jurisdiction is unclear and hostility is not unknown. Fishermen cut one another’s lines, or lay traps on top of their competitors’, or — in the most hostile takeovers — steal another fisherman’s take. It’s a zone of tension and competition. But no armed border. No wall.

Machias Seal Island, a rocky outcrop lying at the southern stretch of the gray zone, is a sanctuary for pelagic birds — puffins, arctic terns, razorbills — that come off the sea only during their breeding time. I like the birds’ approach to borders: Who cares? This is a good place to raise our young. But that’s the naturalist’s perpetual naiveté, giving oneself over repeatedly to the wonder and love of Earth’s bounty. Why can’t we all get along? After all, life is a gift, suffering is real, and the day is here to be savored and shared with loved ones.

The natural world always challenges any human notions of borders. Never has that been more profoundly true than now, when the science of climate change tells us with utter certainty that we are heating the planet to a degree that threatens the future of our fellow creatures, as well as our own way of life. Climate change is a fact. We know enough to act, given the will.  Many borders continue to bleed, but when it comes to climate change, we live now in a borderless world, sharing a common fate, a unifying cause. That cause just might be the sanctuary that saves us from the plunder of democracy, the plunder of Earth, the plunder of the future.


A U.S. Border Patrol vehicle through the border fence in Tijuana, Mexico, top. The United States and Mexico share 1,989 miles of common border, and about 650 miles of it is fenced. The United States and Canada share 5,525 miles of common border, some separated by a space in the trees, bottom.
Guillermo Arias/ZUMA, top; Mark Stevens/cc Flickr, bottom

As of mid-June this fiscal year,  the U.S. Border Patrol had apprehended nearly 43,000 unaccompanied children from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico on the U.S.-Mexico border. The official acronym for them is “UAC,” Unaccompanied Alien Children. I can’t bring myself to call them aliens. That’s a little too Area 51 for me, and these children are very much from our own beleaguered planet. They have made a frightful journey lasting weeks, seeking refuge from violence, drug wars and intolerable living conditions.

This is a fact: nearly 43,000 children. I find myself hungry for facts in this political season dominated by the dangerously unhinged, disdainful and vindictive Donald Trump. At his rallies, the mob chants, “Build a wall — kill them all.” Are these children the ones they have in mind? No. The Trumpsters have given their minds over to a torrent of rage in which facts are irrelevant.

The wall is a metaphor, of course, one that embodies the longing for safety, though what threatens the lives of most Americans has nothing to do with the U.S.-Mexico border. We are more likely to be killed by an open-carry nutcase or drunk driver than an unaccompanied child crossing the border. We don’t need a wall. We need a renewal of values, American values that dictate that the hardship, suffering and death of others, or the peril to the planet, are a call to the moral imagination, a call that we dare not refuse to answer.

Alison Hawthorne Deming is a Guggenheim fellow and the Agnese Nelms Haury Chair in Environment and Social Justice at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Her most recent books are Stairway to Heaven, a book of poems, and Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit, a collection of essays.


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