« Return to this article

for people who care about the West

The Borderlands make America great

It will cost us to make the divisions greater.

 

America was once great. Back then, of course, many hundreds of years ago, it wasn’t called America, but the many regions it contained nevertheless teemed with greatness. In the Valley of Mexico, which encompasses today’s U.S. Southwest, along with the Mexican states of Sonora, Sinaloa and Chihuahua, sophisticated agricultural societies traded far and wide. Highways 30 feet wide stretched across hundreds of miles, the historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz notes, connecting some 75 different communities. In major trade centers, one could find buffalo hides, tropical feathers, obsidian, flint, copper, shells and turquoise — from trade that “extended as far west as the Pacific Ocean, as far east as the Great Plains, and as far south as Central America.”

Today, we call this place the Borderlands, thanks to a relatively modern political distinction that arose after the United States went to war with Mexico over all the land between the Rio Grande and San Francisco. Alongside human networks, black bears, lions and bighorn sheep moved through a land of cactus and oak, spruce and fir, and thousands of other species. Together, they form a tapestry that is unique, and beautiful.

Given the Trump administration’s feverish pursuit of a border wall, though, we wanted to know what was happening to those connections. Our Tucson-based associate editor, Maya Kapoor, spent months traveling through the Borderlands, trying to learn what President Donald Trump’s $18 billion “big, beautiful” wall would actually mean to a place that few U.S. Americans understand. The answer, of course, is unsettling. Even without concrete, rebar, fencing, spy cameras and border agents, we’re building a psychic wall. That’s because humans are so intimately connected to the idea of place. As much as we try to separate our rational minds — our selves — from the rest of the world, we are intricately, intimately connected to place. That’s why, time and again, studies show how healthy it is to be out in nature. That’s also why Wallace Stegner was able to argue so successfully for the preservation of wilderness — not because everyone needs to go out in it, but because we all benefit from knowing it exists.

Editor-in-chief, Brian Calvert
Brooke Warren/High Country News

The same is true of an inseparable Borderlands. I have never been to the Sky Islands, the Rio Grande, or Sinaloa, Mexico. But I can imagine a place where the desert and forests stretch across a delicate, diverse landscape, where people and their languages mix, where goods and ideas flow freely. I like that place. Now, though, I’m daily forced to consider walling it off, seeing it as split, breaking it apart. Every time the president talks about his wall, he puts another brick in our minds. Pretty soon, Mexico won’t need to pay for the wall, and neither will the United States. We’ll already have paid for it, one and all, at great, great cost.