I visited the Tohono O’odham reservation around 5 years ago. I was floored by the beauty of this place! A friend and I, camped in the Baboquivari Wilderness which I wrote about here: Sacred Wild Places. Very much aware we were in lands considered to be sacred by the O’odham Nation. There was a sense of place. Walking among ancient beings, in a Saguaro forest, was like being in dreamscape. Yet, these ancient beings stood as real and alive as ever. We camped, hiked and star-gazed, and took in the breath of this enchanting place. We listened and witnessed the nighttime bustling with life.
Not long ago I read the devastating updates of wall’s construction through this place. My heart sank as I peered through pictures of severed Saguaro cactus. I cried. I needed to go back. I needed to see and feel this in person.
It was also my intention to meet with Borderland Campaigner/reporter for the Center for Biological Diversity, Laiken Jordahl, at the construction site within the monument. My schedule opened up for a trip and he informed me of a local protest that would be taking place that weekend. So, on February 15th we drove five and a half hours to meet with the O’odham people near the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.
Going back this time was, different… Though the Sonoran desert was still as beautifully stunning as ever, the nearby construction at the border gave the experience a completely different flavor. Seeing people from all over, vacationers escaping cold winters, alongside campaigners and people native to the region, there was a lingering sense of division in the air. An unspoken, almost taboo sense of what’s been taking place in the borderlands.
Of course, you would very well guess my standpoint on this matter. I see the enormously ecological devastation taking place which causes a discord in the very rhythm of my heart. I can’t, even now, shake this feeling.
Upon arriving, my heart swelled at the sight of people already lined up with signs in support. One woman held a sign which read “Honk if you’re Humane”. Encouragingly the rally received lots of support from drivers passing through.
While there I ask a couple of demonstrators if they’d speak to me about the wall. Their concerns were deeply embedded in their understanding of these ancestral lands. Both were natives of the O’odham Nation. (You can hear what they had to say on my latest episode of Wild Roots.)
After the rally I visited the construction site that was situated within the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Already the violation is apparent. Before, when I had seen the pictures of the wall’s destruction, I was moved to tears. This time, standing before the enormous symbol of hate and disregard, made up on steel beams and concrete I couldn’t cry. My tears were trapped. Instead, an anger sat with me, simmering in the shear confusion of what my eyes were seeing. Taken aback by the surreal-ness of the reality. This, happening within my lifetime. It was absolutely nightmare-ish. I had no words of worth.
Intriguingly, in the Tohono O’odham language, there is no word for wall…
While there, I stood along with some others, absolutely perplexed. We spoke a little about Memorial Hill, the sacred burial site directly on what is considered the border, that could be seen atop a nearby mountain. The site had been plowed through where part of the wall is to be erected.
The mountain in the background of this picture is Monument Hill. It is an ancient Native American burial site:
It’s truly a surreal sight to see. This. However, as I look through towards Mexico’s beautiful countryside, I find irony in the fact we are somehow now behind bars:
Later, I asked the reporter whom I had planned to meet, some questions about what he’s witnessed during his visits to this site (which you can also hear in the latest episode). He spoke eloquently about his time in the borderlands. He spoke about the fact that so many laws have been bypassed including laws that were established to protect endangered species, wilderness and sacred burial sites of ancestral lands. He also spoke about Quitobaquito springs, an amazingly, unique oasis found near the construction site in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. While I didn’t have the time to visit the Quitobaquito springs, I’ve had many opportunities to see many naturally-occurring desert springs throughout the Southwest. They are treasures, utilized by incredibly unique species and are truly invaluable.
From an ecologist’s point of view, even if this wall were to be dismantled sometime in our future, much of the damage done would be irreversibly done. It is truly catastrophic! From the loss of the Quitobaquito Pupfish, who utilize the local spring (also sacred-to the O’odham) to the damaging impact on migrating land animals. The Quitobaquito Pupfish, by the way, lives no where else in the world. Yet, it’s very waters are being used to mix concrete for the construction of this wall. This means that construction workers at this site could quite literally wipe an entire species off the face of the planet! About one week before my visit to this construction site, I was able to meet with a Fish Biologist who worked with the Quitobaquito Pupfish. He shared with me what he learned about this species in this audio:
I also found a butchered Saguaro segment. I wondered about it’s years of life on this earth.
Saguaro cactus are not only ancient living beings, they are keystone species as well. A host of animals including Mexican free-tailed bats, insects and birds depend upon their presence in the Sonoran desert. The Saguaro is the largest cactus species in the world! And it is also, only found in the Sonoran desert. Like magnificent, big, old trees, Saguaros take countless abuse from humans just by the very fact that they stand out. But they are remarkable species and should be regarded better!
It takes up to 35 years before a Saguaro can produce its first flower! And 50 years until it can produce its first arm. They don’t even reach what’s considered their “adulthood” until they are 125 years old! They can weigh up to 4 tons, especially post-monsoon season, and stand at up to 40-60 feet high. Biologists know that their live-spans are between 150 to 200 years old. They’re incredible beings…
Some things are hard for people to hear, but it doesn’t negate the fact that we need to talk about them. I notice that if I mention things like the border wall, wildlife services, public livestock grazing or over-consumption, my audience numbers tend to dip. Oh well.
I can’t exactly say why exactly, but this whole “wall ordeal” haunts me. It seems to represent so much of what we’ve misunderstood here on this living earth. Actually, I don’t have the words to sufficiently say what this means to me or how it shapes my understanding of humanity at this time in history. What I can say, is that we are at the crossroads in our lifetimes where we need to do something, because if we don’t we’ll lose these valuable assets of our living, natural world for-ever.
The Sonoran desert is located within one of the most bio-diverse region in the country. Southern Arizona is part of over-lapping bioregions which makes the area incredibly unique. In fact our borderlands from the Pacific coast to the Gulf of Mexico may arguably be the most unique span of diversity of the United States. A sacred region that ought to be shared. Not only Sonoran desert but the borderlands themselves, could be considered an exceptional monument of natural diversity. This is how I think the borderlands deserve to be regarded. Recognized by their enormous diversity! Of social, cultural, wildlife and plant diversity. My wish for the borderlands is that this recognition could be made apparent.
A Wall represents so much more than just the division of people. Walls lead to distrust; and ultimately fuel an overall sense of mistrust in society. A broken relationship to our fellow man, and to fellow living beings, in general. A wall is a division of all of our roots. Whether you are from this region or not, it doesn’t matter. A wall through nature’s systems is a devastating blow to each and every one of us. This is our land, our earth. I wish for the day that is our mission default that we recognize this fact. And that we all, act as the stewards of Gaia which I think is at the heart of our true humanity.
While I was publishing this piece, blasting of the ancient burial sites were taking place. Forever changing the landscape of these sacred lands, and forever erasing the culture of the Tohono O’odham people.
The young O’odham member, I interview at the rally is named Victor Garcia. He’s also been featured in this incredibly powerful piece at the Intercept: https://theintercept.com/2020/02/27/border-wall-construction-organ-pipe-explosion/
The featured photo is of a naturally fallen, very old Saguro cactus.