“Letter to 2050” published in January 2021 issue of Scientific American in the Meter feature curated by Dava Sobel. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/poem-letter-to-2050/
Tune in to our December 3, 2020 conversation. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GAW5UhKu9Hg
Adam and I talk discuss my forthcoming book A Woven World, fishermen, women forgotten in history, how and why I keep journals, and more.
GUEST POST BY ABBY DOCKTER
The Thirty-Thousand-Foot View
When I interviewed Richard Collins, retired Southern Arizona rancher, he asked the first question: “What have you read?”
Specifically, he wanted to know if I was a Sand County Almanac fan or a Monkey Wrench Gang member, and where I fell on the Aldo-Leopold-to-Edward-Abbey scale of ideas about wilderness preservation. “I lean much more towards Leopold and people like Wendell Berry,” he said. “Abbey just wanted it all to himself.” Collins, like the writers he admires, believes there is a way for humans to eat and drink and take up space without wrecking too much. He operated a ranching business for three decades in the Canelo Valley, working first for the Sibold family, then buying some acreage along with grazing permits for surrounding state and federal lands. His background was in epidemiology, which, he said, is the ecology of tiny, disease-causing organisms, so he had a handle on ecological principles. Disease is perhaps the prime example of how humans are part of a broader ecology.
Then an endangered species of fish, the Gila Topminnow, appeared in Collins’ grazing lot. The Fish and Wildlife Service wanted all grazing in the Red Rock Canyon watershed to stop, which would have made Collins’ business a no-go. In many ways, it was a classic conflict between a federal agency and private ranches. But this experience with federal regulation prompted Collins to wonder if there was a way to run his business that also addressed ecological concerns. He and his neighbors formed the Canelo Hills Coalition to see if they could insure the health of the watershed just by adjusting their grazing practices. They brought in George Ruyle, UA’s sustainable rangeland management expert, who set up vegetation surveys. They monitored conditions and put up new fencing and water sources to control where cattle could go in each season. And they were considered successful, says Collins, “by the people who evaluate these things. The federal agencies and the university and my peers in the ranching industry.” Not to say the fish.
Collins reminded me of some of my own family. Retired, but habitually dressed for outdoor work. A busy brain and sturdy opinions. Even his sense of humor and turn of phrase, and the way he pronounced a long period without water “drouth.” But what I liked most about Collins, and so many other people from the Patagonia area that I met during Southwest Field Studies in Writing, was their blend of practicality and idealism. Agriculture is an undertaking with a pretty clear rock bottom. But people around Patagonia think there must be a better way of doing things, and are willing to take a chance to find out.
One evening I wound my way along the Santa Cruz River to talk to Dean Fish, manager at the Santa Fe Ranch Foundation. He situated me immediately: “We’re located about six miles north of the US-Mexico Border, northeast of Nogales, Arizona. The Santa Cruz River bisects the ranch, and so we have what we call uplands on both sides and semi-riparian river valley in the middle. The main ranch is approximately 25 hundred acres of private grazing rangeland and about 65 acres of that is irrigated to provide forage for livestock and wildlife.” He spoke loudly over the hollering goats, and ignored the light rain falling as we sat in front of an adobe wall with peeling whitewash.
Fish is a good communicator, knowledgeable, generous, and extraordinarily nerdy about cattle. Exactly the kind of person you might want at the helm of a foundation that provides not only beef, but also education, a model for management, and even an animal therapy program to the surrounding community. The Santa Fe Ranch Foundation employs people through the Santa Cruz Training Program, which connects developmentally disabled people to opportunities in the county. This ranch is a private business with its own bottom line, but it is operated by people who know how their business fits into something larger. When I asked Fish what principles guide his decisions around here, he talked about “the 30,000-foot view.” From 30,000 feet, this ranch is part of a landscape, these cattle are not the only ones who need the river water, and people who live nearby will always be part of the picture.
I asked Collins and Fish a few of the same questions, and some they answered alike. When asked how they know what to do day-to-day as managers, they both answered, essentially: Go look. Get to know how water moves, how grass responds, how the animals look, and how weather impacts everything. Both Collins and Fish maintained long-term vegetation monitoring programs to make sure they had accurate information for their decision-making. Collins believes “fiction writers and bad movies and songs and all that kind of stuff” that romanticize agricultural life have done real harm to people’s understanding of where their food comes from. But I still find something romantic about this eminently practical, deeply observant experience of a place.
I asked both men what it means for land to be healthy. I am interested in this question both practically and idealistically—the principles that guide decisions, and the practices that create them. I am interested in the 30,000-foot view and the view at the end of a microscope.
Fish said his overarching priority is always to leave the land better than he found it. But he also offered specifics, his picture of ideal rangeland: “I think that healthy land is land that has seen minimal erosion, that has good ground cover and a diversity of plant species on it. And that supports multiple uses: wildlife habitat, livestock grazing, recreation, hunting or camping.”
Collins took longer to answer. He rubbed the back of his neck thoughtfully. “You’re talking about health, and it’s a hard term to get my hands around because it’s so broad and ambiguous.”
“Intentionally so,” I said.
He nodded. “But it does convey the sense that like human health, you have to have all your systems working. At my age they’re beginning to break down a little bit, so I understand. Things fall apart. It has that same sense. But how you evaluate it and describe it is difficult.
“I guess in a nutshell, if you want to summarize my view of land health: It’s got to work for the rancher, got to be able to make a profit. It’s got to work for the health and integrity of the watershed, and that means the plants, the water cycle, and the other animals that are using it, including obviously endangered species. And you’ve got to work very hard to do it. It’s not an easy thing to do.”
“Multiple uses” has a dubious history in the U.S., and there is no hard-and-fast line between use and exploitation. But listening to Collins and Fish, I was imagining an ag industry with these priorities. Imagine for a moment that the economy exists to serve quality of life, and not the other way around.
GUEST POST FROM GABRIEL DOZAL
“Patagonia Simulator: A Blog Post”
There’s a border arachnid called a vinegaroon. It looks like a Tarantula mixed with a Scorpion. I asked the students from BECY (Borderlands Earth Care Youth) if they had seen any vinegaroons while doing their work around different Patagonian farms. They said they found four at the community center. And they gave them Disco names: Earth, Wind, Fire, and Donna Summer.
One of my favorite borderland/Tejano singers is Freddy Fender. His voice sounds like a trapped furry animal. But his songs, a mix of Mexican Country and American Country, represent a lot about the people in Patagonia, as well as in Nogales, El Paso, and other border communities.
As Kate Tirion from Deep Dirt Ranch said: “whether you’re from Mexico or the U.S., country people are country people.”
When are you past versions of yourself?
Today we broke rocks with students from Patagonia, AZ
We also received a chainsaw usage and cleaning tutorial
Later at the Wagon Wheel, while Freddy Fender sang
Me and Abby spoke to Paco
about our PC radar and when we go back
to our hometowns (El Paso, Prescott, Farmington)
the country folk are the people we grew up with
And the negotiations of this feeling of hats
we put on: the academic snapback/the folksy sombrero
(Are) There (are) hats we can never take off
When should you meet someone where they ( )?
When ( ) you future versions of yourself?
La frontera es un rancho
And these were border people
On our second day working in the fields with BECY I met a man from Nogales, Sonora by way of Oaxaca, named Primi, short for Primitivo. Summer, the owner of the farm, would go pick up Primi in Nogales and bring him to her farm to work as a hand. I talked to Primi about his family in Nogales. He has three kids, and one just graduated from college in Nogales. This was the story I’ve heard over and over and one that I’m a part of: A family coming from Mexico/Central America to work harder than most humans, so that their kids could have a better life. Primi had braces, good for him.
Si, I came to Patagonia with a project in mind
called the Border Simulator and the poemy/prose/instruction manual
I’m working on for the border simulator describes what it does, what it sees
How this connects to my time in in Patagonia?
I‘m thinking about how my time here in Patagonia
rides the line between reality and simulation
Even now, as you’re reading this, you’re simulating
what my time was like in southern Arizona
near the border of the twin Nogales
Today was the 4th of July and we watched a simulated parade
A parade that simulated water fights
A parade that simulated water fights by not having any
A 4th of July that simulated a parade
Karaoke was a big part of our saturday
at Southwest Field Studies
It was something we had looked forward to
I sang Okie From Muskogee and Rocky Racoon
I’m not Merle Haggard or Paul McCartney
Raquel sang Proud Mary and Lovin Touchin Squeezin
Raquel is not Tina Turner or Steve Perry
but here we were simulating these voices
their songs flowing out of us
The project I’m currently working on is about simulations on the U.S.-Mexico border.
I’m trying to define what a border simulator does/would do, and what kinds of questions a border simulator can answer. Here’s a poem I wrote toward that project during my time in Patagonia:
nationalism in the border simulator
In the border simulator you spend all day
with the Salvadorans who’ve crossed/made it past talk
about how hormones in pollo make gueros jotos
In the simulator dialect/intuition are immigrant
As you crossed the border you were slimmer and
with debt you think in an accent
and with death you think in accent
My work has been about the border for a long time now. When I started writing poetry I didn’t want to explicitly write about El Paso/Juarez, where I was from. I felt that other writers used stories about the border as a crutch, while at the same time I felt that my border community wasn’t progressive enough. I don’t feel that way anymore, but I still keep a discerning ear for stories that complicate standard narratives of the border. Being from there, I knew I could offer perspectives about the life and language of the borderlands because I know these people deeply, I am that community, that multiplicity of selves. I am rural person and a city person. I am a type of Freddy Fender and a Vinegaroon.
GUEST POST BY KATHRYN GOUGELET
Evening at Dark Harbour
Of the strokes I learned at canoe camp, the feather was my favorite: swiveling the blade of a paddle back and forth against the water, parallel to the gunnel, to approach a dock or another boat. I never thought I’d use it to pull my way closer to a salmon cage, as I was doing in my little red kayak. The Dark Harbour water was calm in its reflection of the purple-grey sky above and my black blade sent ripples in the direction of the fish. They were enclosed in netting suspended by a thick rubber floating rim, presumably netting that fell all the way to the ocean floor. One net on the interior of the cage kept the fish in, and another, on the outside, whose webbing was lined with strong metal wires, kept seals out, lest the dogs-of-the-sea reach in with whiskered snouts and dine their hearts out. Which happens, apparently. From the kayak, as I peered in, it seemed that the wire netting was working so far. No seal in sight.
I had seen the salmon from the Dark Harbour wharf earlier that day. From that vantage, Claire and I looked out at the cages as we interviewed Matthew Ingersoll, who runs the operation. He gave us an overview of his plans for the population of reared salmon, totaling four thousand, sorted by age (smolt to adult) into a set of three cages. When they graduate into maturity, at which stage they develop their archetypal beaks, Matthew’s crew will guide them from their enclosure to the wharf in cages. From there, the crew will lift them into tanks in trucks, then lift those tanks into a helicopter, and then drop the fish from the sky – fins flapping in the air – into a nearby river. (For further reading, see the blog Page Buono wrote about this very operation and in her blog post titled Mort Dives here.)
If you look at the cages from the wharf for long enough, you will see a glint of a salmon flank as it leaps from the water and towards the other side of the cage. I took the kayak out and down the slick intertidal because I wanted to be closer to the fish. Not too close, of course, no trespassing involved. But close enough to watch that leap. As I sat there in front of the oldest, largest salmon I couldn’t see the school, but I could almost feel them like a thrum in the hull of the kayak beneath me. Then, without warning, the jump! An eerie display of fish flesh hurtling through the air and falling. That’s why there’s netting on top of the cages too. Carly Fleet, who has worked on aquaculture projects before, told us that sometimes a heron will perch on this netting and snake its neck through, beak agape, in anticipation of a jump.
When I asked Matthew what challenges he faces in running this operation, he said the biggest task is keeping the fish alive, because if the seals don’t get them, then diseases might. While the Dark Harbour cages hold a relatively small population of salmon, larger operations further offshore contain tens of thousands of fish all living together in conditions that tend to promote the rapid spread of disease. Salmon are especially susceptible to parasitic sea lice, for example, which latch on to the fish and feed on their blood, skin and mucus. The lice spread when fish are in close contact with one another, which is of course inevitable in a cage. To keep salmon alive, some aquaculture companies will go to extreme measures. Back in 2009, Kelly Cove Salmon Ltd. applied the pesticide cypermethrin to offshore cages in an attempt to control sea lice. During our time in Grand Manan, we talked to several residents who are still concerned at what this chemical application has done to the marine ecosystem – and especially lobsters, for which cypermethrin is lethal.
But floating around in Dark Harbour, paddling to the cage where the smolt were making their smaller leaps, I wasn’t thinking as much about the science of rearing salmon or its ecological implications. Instead I was considering the sheer challenge of taking on such a project in the first place. From these cages, humans were making an attempt to restock a major fish population in the rivers that feed the Bay of Fundy. Dropping fish from helicopters! The challenge of managing all of that, of not just heli-transport but simply keeping fish alive, seemed to reveal the severity of the broader decline of fisheries in the region. Such extreme human intervention reflected an increasingly precarious relationship between Grand Mananers and the fish that have supported the island for centuries.
Dark Harbour, in all its evening magic, was a place that seemed to speak to that precariousness, and not just in the salmon cages. Earlier that day, perched on the thick round rocks of the Dark Harbour sea wall, our field studies crew had watched the early stages of weir building. A team of six men, moving quickly, winched a boat over a dip in the sea wall, and, on the other side, with a large floating driver, placed and hammered the weir stakes into formation. The machine was nearly as precise as the men who danced around it, their limbs and legs sprawling, grabbing, hoisting, splaying as the operation proceeded. To build a weir on Grand Manan is an investment of not only labor but substantial capital. Each weir stake can cost up to five hundred dollars, and from the looks of it this crew was setting in at least ten stakes before nightfall.
The way the men moved as a crew revealed their expert understanding of the unsteadiness of waves that rocked the craft. As we watched, men and raft swayed together, their silhouettes occasionally blurred by waves of fog that slipped by in sheets from the sea. Pulling up a stake, placing the stake, hammering it with the giant driver, hit by hit, as many clangs as it took to drive the sharpened tip of it into the ocean floor. Soon they would string the weir with twine, seine the weir, and haul herring from the sea. But there would only be a small chance that the profits would allow them to break even. That’s why, on an island where dozens of weirs once lined the shore, this year there are only twelve.
It struck me as we watched them that just beyond their silhouettes, in the distance, was the Grey Zone, another precarious area for Grand Mananers and fish, of the lobster variety (see Paco Cantu’s piece on the Grey Zone here). I’ve been told that the influx of lobster to the region, partially because of rising temperatures and climate change, has led to the “Grand Manan Gold Rush.” The good catches have brought millions of dollars of revenue to the island, so a potential to catch more during the summer months drives a number of boats out to the contested waters of the Grey Zone that lies along the U.S./ Canada border. But the lobster fishery, too, especially in the Grey Zone, is precarious. Will rising temperatures continue to push the creatures northwards beyond the Bay of Fundy? Will the intensiveness of the current fishing lead to a plummet in population numbers? Many of the fishermen we have spoken with predict that they will remain in the Bay for several more years. But after that, what will be fished next?
On one of the last days of our program, I visited the Grand Manan Museum and saw the exhibit that the first director of the museum created, which documents the history of fishing on the Island. It starts with black and white photos of herring seining, a diorama of a weir, and the curious words: The story of Grand Manan begins and ends with people and fish. I wonder what the director’s intentions were in using precisely those words. To claim an ending to any story as it’s still being written is either prescient or bold. But as I reviewed those words after learning from islanders over the past few weeks, I couldn’t help but feel that I had visited this place at a remarkable chapter in the story of people and fish; a story I glimpsed through netting and weir stakes that night in Dark Harbour. If the story of Grand Manan begins and ends with people and fish, what happens to the people as the fish continue to disappear?
Model lobster buoys at the Grand Manan Museum; each color pattern corresponding to a distinct boat or family.
GUEST POST BY JOSHUA RIEDEL
Kent Island: “Prey for Fog”
About five miles south of Grand Manan lies Kent Island, a home for nesting birds and spittlebugs and lots of fog. I’d hoped to visit the island during my stay on Grand Manan, but the trip wasn’t guaranteed. Boats bound for Kent Island are infrequent, and weather conditions needed to be favorable in order to make the journey out. On our daily schedule for Thursday, July 13, the proposed date of our trip, we simply drew a star, superstitiously thinking that writing out KENT ISLAND TRIP might jinx us. What if they run out of room on the boat? Or maybe storms might roll in.
Our superstition rewarded us: we were greeted Thursday morning by calm waters and mild, drizzly weather. The trip was on. We hopped in the car, made a necessary stop at the North Head Bakery for cinnamon doughnuts and blueberry turnovers and more cinnamon doughnuts, and drove down to Seal Cove, where Russell Ingalls waited for us in his boat, Island Bound.
We arrived at Kent Island at low tide, which meant Island Bound and its trusty skiff Chuck, could only take us so far: we’d have to walk through the muddy basin to reach shore. Thankfully, Ed Minot, the director of the Bowdoin Scientific Station on the island, and caretaker Mark Murray guided us across the tricky terrain, offering solid mud-walking advice like, Lift your heel up first so you don’t lose your boots!
Fog attracted me to the Field Studies Grand Manan program, specifically the work of Bob Cunningham, who studied fog on Kent Island for seventy years, in what was the single longest continuous study by one person in one place, ever. I had heard about Bob’s rudimentary methods for gathering fog and had seen photos of him hanging high from an aluminum pole, fixing an anemometer, but it wasn’t until I was out on Kent Island, standing in front of his small 8’ x 6’ shack, named Fog Heaven, that I could really imagine what those summers on the island must have been like for him. With only his shack and a few basic meteorological instruments, Bob performed research that would lead to the Clean Air Act of 1963. A headline from the June 30, 1940 issue of the Mount Washington Daily News describes Bob’s work succinctly: TECH MEN JAM FOG INTO JARS FOR RAIN RESEARCH.
Today, the shack houses a Bowdoin College research student, and the weather station is much more sophisticated: Solar-powered instruments connected to WiFi collect data, and you can even watch a live webcam that shows the current conditions on Kent Island.
Before lunch, we discovered a series of letters sent to Bob by Ernest Joy, Kent Island’s first caretaker who stayed on the island year-round with his wife, Carrie. His letters detail the critical role Ernest played in recording the weather conditions on Kent Island when Bob Cunningham was away. Ernest was also quite funny: he often joked with Bob about the weather, once claiming that the fog was so bad it nearly caused his eyebrows to mold!
After lunch, Savannah-sparrow researcher and poet Ian Pristis led us on a walk through the meadow to see the birds’ nests. Savannah sparrows on Kent Island have their own unique song, Ian explained to us, and the sparrows pass on their songs from generation to generation. As part of his research, Ian and colleagues wanted to find out whether the sparrows can learn new songs. Camouflaged speakers line the trail and play these new songs, mimicking two birds communicating with each other. So far, some birds have indeed learned the new songs, and have even passed those songs on to the next generation.
By 3pm, the tide had gone up, and our boat was waiting for us at the dock. On our walk down to the water, a Bowdoin student offered to show us the storm petrels burrowing in the forest on Kent Island. Whisking us through the forest, she paused at a small clearing and leaned over, reaching her arm deep into a burrow, all the way past her elbow, in search of a petrel. “Feels like there’s a chick in here too,” she said. Carefully, she lifted out of its burrow a mature petrel. “Want to smell it?” she asked. I’d never been asked to smell a bird before. Its scent was rich and musty, like the forest floor itself. She then held the petrel up to our ears, the way you would a cell phone, and we heard its rapid heartbeat. Finally, she showed us the petrel chick, small and gray like a ball of dust, or a rain cloud.
By the time we boarded the boat, the rain had picked up. A group of students from Dalhousie rode back with us, documenting the birds they saw in the water along the way. As I watched them record their findings, I thought about the similarities between scientists and writers, about how close observation is so central to both our work, and about how the boundary between these fields is so much more fluid than is usually assumed. I thought about Ian studying Savannah sparrows and imagined him taking measurements in his notebook, jotting down notes for a poem in the margins. I thought about Zoe, a Bowdoin biology major who studies spittlebugs, who talked with us about the importance not only of performing research but of communicating that research clearly to a lay audience. I recalled the books scattered around the common area tables–field guides to local birds and plants and marine life, as well as novels like David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist–and thought about how Kent Island has all the makings of a place in which the sciences and the arts coexist.
I hope I can return to Kent Island. I have this dream of everyone sitting around the long table where we ate lunch, after the research is done for the day, and discussing the essays and stories and poems inspired by work on the island, new songs to carry with us back to our respective homes when the summer ends.
FIELD STUDIES SOUTHWEST
The University of Arizona Creative Writing Program is pleased to announce the pilot project for its Field Studies in Writing Southwest Program made possible with support from the Agnese Nelms Haury Program Environment and Social Justice and under the leadership of Alison Hawthorne Deming, Haury Chair and Regents’ Professor. Like our Field Studies Grand Manan project, yhis initiative is intended explore how the literary arts can create humane responses to climate change, environmental, social justice and border issues.
The new southwest project will be coordinated by recent MFA alum Paco Cantú; Associate Professor Susan Briante will serve as faculty facilitator. Ethnobotanist and Patagonia resident Gary Paul Nabhan also serves as consultant. Participants will spend two weeks in southern Arizona, working in collaboration with the Borderlands Earth Care Youth Institute. This program, sponsored by the Borderlands Habitat Network, engages marginalized youth in hands-on restoration work of the local ecosystem while providing leadership and educational opportunities. In March two MFA participants joined with graduate students from the Wake Forest University School of Theology, under the leadership of Fred Bahnson, author of Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith, to visit the Native Seeds/ Search farm in Patagonia and the Kino Border Initiative in preparation for the summer program.
2017 FIELD STUDIES SOUTHWEST AWARDEES
Abby Dockter is an MFA candidate in Creative Nonfiction from Farmington, New Mexico. She spent a few years following field and lab science jobs up and down the Rockies, and has written as a science communicator for UA’s Institute of the Environment. Her most irresistible interests are (pre)history and ethnobotany, how we change our surroundings and how they in turn change us. She enjoys long, dry archaeological reports, and usually hikes with poetry.
Gabriel Dozal is an MFA Candidate in Poetry at the University of Arizona from El Paso TX. He is concerned with defining the extreme code-switching, camouflage, and chameleon nature of the culture of the borderlands.
Raquel Gutiérrez is a bilingual poet and essayist pursuing an MFA degree in poetry at the University of Arizona. Born and raised in Los Angeles, she writes about language, history, space and institutionality and publishes chapbooks by queers of color with the tiny press Econo Textual Objects, established in 2014. Her work has found homes in Huizache, The Portland Review, Los Angeles Weekly, GLQ: Gay and Lesbian Quarterly and Entropy.
GUEST POST FROM RAQUEL GUTIERREZ
July 12, 2017
I Pledge Allegiance To *THIS* Flag: Arivaca Riding with Humane Borders
by Raquel Gutierrez
I have been living in Tucson for a year now. Friends, acquaintances, and strangers from near and far tell me they love the images they see on my various social media feeds of this mysterious moonscape-like desert surrounding Tucson. Many of “my followers” live along both coasts so of course it is gives me great pleasure to be able to ignite an awe for the uncontainable beauty of the Sonoran Desert even if it is from afar. For me being in this desert on any given morning or early evening means being given over to the expanse of possibility the landscape offers. It has been the way to get new perspectives when stuck on a writing project—to step out into any number of trails and parks that surround Tucson and take it all in. Whether it’s the way the light moves across the shallow valleys of Gates Pass before sunset or the way the temperature surprisingly drops ten degrees when your trail takes you into the shadowy parts that sit below Pima Canyon, the infinity of surprise that lives here is hard to deny.
But as the temperatures increase, as they have this summer with every indication of the 110-117 degrees pointing to a climate change that may not be reversible in years to come, there is another thing one cannot deny—any slight carelessness on your part and the desert will kill you. And that fact made itself clear on a recent ride-along outing with Guillermo and Stephen, two volunteer truck drivers for the Southern Arizona organization Humane Borders/Fronteras Compasivas. As soon as we—Abby Dockter, Gabriel Dozal and myself, a trio of Creative Writing grad students from the University of Arizona currently engaging in a Southwestern Field Studies program sponsored by UA’s Agnese Nelms Haury Program—climbed into the water replenishment truck we were told that if we broke down in Arivaca, an hour and fifteen minutes south of Tucson, we would be exposed to the same conditions as the Latinx migrants we were trying to help. I looked at both my comrades and shook off any doubt that we would not be okay. We were the lucky ones after all traveling with over 100 gallons of water into the harshest topographies in the Southwest. At the worst, we would be sweaty and uncomfortable, changing the imaginary flat tire in my mind’s wandering to worry—but we wouldn’t die. That’s how I made contact and peace with the privilege I carried into different parts of the valley that blanketed the infamous border town of Arivaca. If there was anything to do with the privilege it was to risk it.
According to their website, Humane Borders maintains a system of water stations in the Sonoran Desert on routes used by migrants making the perilous journey to the North mostly by foot. Getting into the truck at Green Valley, we were promptly driven to the first water station situated behind a pecan orchard. The orchard looked strangely out of place and time with its trees lined up tightly towering above a few acres covered by bright green grass, an indication of the obscene amounts of water it must have consumed on a daily basis for it to look that way. But I was thankful nonetheless for its existence and hoped it was there to offer some shady respite to the men, women, and children who made the orchard a part of their journey.
As soon as we got to the water station my heart swelled with a convergence of emotions. I may have quietly gasped at sight of concrete blocks, a quartet of 2×4 wood planks, and a 55-gallon plastic blue barrel sitting stoutly but bravely above the dried out arroyo behind it where I imagined weary travelers would emerge. In the distance, I continued imagining that I could hear a chorus of sighs of relief at the sight of a purple flag whose color had been made dull by the daily solar pounding it takes while waving intrepidly in the hot summer wind.
After surveying the water station for cleanliness, potability, visibility, and instances of possible tampering, we moved on to the next water station destination in Arivaca proper, Elephant Head. But before heading out of the pecan orchard Stephen asked Guillermo, who was driving, to stop by a peripheral section of the orchard where he spotted empty water bottles and a spectrum of detritus of migrants past. Plastic bottles that were empty but still intact signaled recent passage. However, there were old, discarded backpacks that like the life they carried inside them looked as desiccated as any living creature that succumbs to the harsh conditions of a merciless desert. It was those bits of human evidence that made the area seem anachronistic—to travel by foot in a time saturated by every imaginable technology is maddening, if you think about it for too long.
Over the course of the next nine hours I would be mad and quite maddened. It is this affective drive that impels volunteers like Guillermo and Stephen to make this trip every 2-3 weeks for the last two years. When we arrived at Elephant Head I noticed something that wasn’t on the first blue container.
La Virgen de Guadalupe. I should clarify that it was just a glossy sticker with her likeness.
All of my twelve-years’-worth of nostalgic Catholic School hackles went up at the sight of the feminine deity that made her debut on a hill in Tepeyac, Mexico. An apparition that only an indigenous man re-christened Juan Diego could witness. Stephen noticed me noticing her and said it’s hopefully a way migrants can understand that the water station is there to help. I nodded approvingly, but behind my sunglasses and smile I bit my lip and pinched the muffin top peeking over my belt loop to keep from crying.
Time seemed to be marked by how close or far we were to the curious mountain peak known as Baboquivari, a sacred place for the Tohono O’odham nation as the home of the creator, I’itoi resides in a cave at the base of the mountain peak. For the Tohono O’odham Baboquivari is where it all begins. Throughout our ride-along Guillermo would stop for all of us to take in the scenery, snap photos and stretch our legs. It felt like Baboquivari was looking out for us as we
did our best looking out for others. Gabe asked what would we do if we encountered a migrant to which Stephen quickly replied we’d give them food, first aid, and water.
As the morning progressed and the sun’s rays intensified, I felt the sweat pooling in and around my body’s various concaves and then disappear. The desert was taking its rightful tithe of moisture from me. We snacked on sweet baby peppers and threw the ends out the window to which Guillermo would say it would be a few hours tops before the desert consumed our biodegradable trash. We could all be untraceable. It would be so easy here traversing Arivaca’s desert veins and arteries.
I started thinking about the ways in which the untraceable is made evident. Or how the migrant’s journey has been represented to me throughout my life as both reader and writer as well as the 1980s child of Latinx immigrants from El Salvador and Mexico and the one in the here and now—the adult child. In prose we have writers like Rubén Martínez and Reyna Grande rendering the experience of crossing over, their portraits of others or selves desperate to reunite with family in the North, all of whom in various pursuits of better economic stability. As a reader, these literary voices have meant to me finding the language to illustrate the ways these migratory traumas continue to haunt families both constituted by and torn apart by inhumane border policies. But my parents’ migration took place in the late 1960s and early 1970s—they were essentially crossing an imaginary wall with nary an agent policing those boundaries. Dare I say they came to the North in the innocent hey-day of border crossing on par with episodes of The Brady Bunch? Or the golden age of border law breaking when detention centers meant nothing more than a bus ride to Ciudad Júarez or Tijuana while Los Tigres del Norte sang earnestly about contraband and betrayal in a drug deal between lovers gone wrong.
But here in the desert the migrant’s journey is represented to itself and to strangers like me who witness that representation, making the experience of being here that much more urgent. Take the work of Alvaro Enciso’s monuments to fallen migrants for example. These are colorful crosses affixed to coordinates that mark where a migrant lost their life during the journey through Arivaca and other parts of Southern Arizona. Seeing these crucifixes made unique in color and metal details in complimentary colors in their intended habitat allows the spectator—whether another migrant, a border agent, or someone engaged in humanitarian aid—a profound empathic encounter that enables a communing with the recently deceased while bringing to the mind’s fore the realistic circumstance of future migrants dying in the desert nearby.
It is these kinds of artistic representations that operate as both homage and reminder that we need each other to get by. We need each other to remember. We need each other to witness.
Being out in Arivaca—as we traveled at 3mph towards the water stations at Rocky Road, Cemetery Hill, Soberanes, and the last station closest to the Mexican border at Martinez Well—as the mesquite trees like night sky constellations took every shape possible in each of the landings where we stopped, I kept thinking of the work by Salvadoran poet Javier Zamora. Javier’s poetry focuses on his own experiences as a child who bears witness in his poetry to what it means to endure passage in the desert and what it means to be one of the lucky ones. As we checked for the frayed flags and water levels at each stop, I thought about the young man named Chino remembered and made flesh again in Zamora’s poem “Second Attempt Crossing.”
In the middle of that desert that didn’t look like sand
and sand only,
in the middle of those acacias, whiptails, and coyotes, someone yelled
“¡La Migra!” and everyone ran.
In that dried creek where 40 of us slept, we turned to each other
and you flew from my side in the dirt.
Black-throated sparrows and dawn
hitting the tops of mesquites,
beautifully. Against the herd of legs,
you sprinted back toward me,
I jumped on your shoulders,
and we ran from the white trucks. It was then the gun
ready to press its index.
I said, “freeze, Chino, ¡pará por favor!”
So I wouldn’t touch their legs that kicked you,
you pushed me under your chest,
and I’ve never thanked you.
Beautiful Chino —
the only name I know to call you by —
farewell your tattooed chest:
the M, the S, the 13. Farewell
the phone number you gave me
when you went east to Virginia,
and I went west to San Francisco.
You called twice a month,
then your cousin said the gang you ran from
in San Salvador
found you in Alexandria. Farewell
your brown arms that shielded me then,
that shield me now, from La Migra.
The University of Arizona Creative Writing Program is pleased to announce the third year of its Field Studies in Writing Program on Grand Manan Island in the Canadian Maritimes, made possible with support from the Agnese Nelms Haury Program Environment and Social Justice and under the leadership of Alison Hawthorne Deming, Haury Chair and Regents’ Professor. This initiative is intended to explore how the literary arts can create humane responses to climate change, environmental, social justice and border issues. The program has launched a companion project Field Studies Southwest this summer in southern Arizona. We will include posts for that project here as well, so stay tuned for portraits of two “border” regions.
Three MFA Creative Writing candidates will participate in each project, spending two weeks in residence to work on research and writing based on site visits, field trips, archival research, oral histories and interviews. The goal is to spur documentary arts project and community collaborations bringing to light new place-based stories.
GRAND MANAN, New Brunswick, Canada
Grand Manan with its 200-year history in traditional fisheries is in a period of radical cultural shift due to the decline of fish in the North Atlantic. This working island with 2500 year-round residents is Deming’s summer home, where she has been a part-year resident since childhood. The viability and sustainability of the local culture is deeply tied to the sustainability of marine life. In recent years the island has enjoyed a bountiful lobster harvest, as the crustaceans move north with warming ocean waters.
2017 FIELD STUDIES GRAND MANAN AWARDEES
Katie Gougelet is an MFA candidate in Creative Nonfiction Writing. She writes about environmental change, contamination, health, and justice. She is currently working on a project to understand the United States’ transition away from coal power, and what this transition means for the long-term health of communities that used to provide this resource to the rest of the country.
Claire McLane is an MFA candidate in poetry, born and raised in Tucson, AZ. The natural world of the Sonoran Desert and the Sky Island region play a critical role in her creative process. Claire’s poems are interested in the unseen structures of self/body, environment, family, economy, memory, and grief. Claire has a five-year-old son whose presence is strong in her writing, as is her experience of motherhood. Claire has been interested in black and white photography since she was a child, and has logged many hours in the darkroom, but hasn’t dived fully into the digital world yet, and would like to explore combining photography with her writing.
Josh Riedel is a fiction writer from Oregon. Before enrolling in the MFA program at the University of Arizona, he worked for eight years in the technology industry, at Facebook and Instagram. He writes about how technology (re)shapes the world around us. He serves as a digital editor for Fairy Tale Review and reads for Sonora Review. He’s taught English in Vietnam and at the University of Arizona and has also operated two Ferris wheels.
POST FROM ALISON
Introducing the island to newcomers is always a pleasure. From Swallowtail Lighthouse to Southwest Head, beauty abounds. At this time of year when the lobster fishing as just ended (except for the Grey Zone) for the season, I especially enjoy seeing work begin constructing herring weirs. In North Head near the fishermen’s wharf, stacks of timbers have arrived, sharpened to a pencil point, that will become weir stakes. The stakes are up to 70 feet long, some a bit longer. They are sugar gum and oak, some spliced with metal collars to attain the needed length for driving them into the ocean floor to anchor the twine.
Herring weirs are a commercial
scale adaptation of the traditional brush weirs built
along the Atlantic seaboard
by Native Americans. They work well at capturing herring
that come close to shore to feed. And they are a beauty
The Intruder is a weir built below Swallowtail Lighthouse.
This one is not yet up for 2017, but rumor has it that it will be soon.
We also spent 45 minutes of hard labor helping Friends of Grand Manan Trails lay down asphalt shingles along the boardwalk at the Anchorage Park. With about 20 able workers, a job we thought would take 3 hours was speedily accomplished The boardwalk has been perilously slick in wet weather, so this will make it safe for all such occasions. And it turns out our writers are quite capable with a hammer.
And the job site was certainly no hardship.
Checking out the spreading ground where fresh-picked Dark Harbour dulse is drying in the sun.
Later today we will have a guest post from Raquel Gutierrez who is participating in this summer’s Field Studies Southwest! Much more to come.