Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Reflections: Organ Pipe National Monument

A small tinaja, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, AZ.
A raven is cruising the campground, sweeping by and landing with trills and squawks and all manner of raven-speak. They are one of my favorite birds - so iconically Southwestern, they always make me think of the wild desert places I've visited, lived in, loved. Where do they find water here? Come to think of it, where do the many birds here - Gila woodpeckers, Northern flickers, cactus wrens, desert quail - find water? They're here, so it's somewhere. But apparently it's easier to find on two wings than on two feet.

Craig Childs writes about this general area in his book, The Secret Knowledge of Water (he focuses on Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, which is just west of Organ Pipe). He has traveled through many arid places, always on foot, in search of water, and in this region he says you must go to the mountains to find it, where it is stored in tinajas, or waterpockets within the rock. If you just understand the lay of the land, the geographic circumstances required for such catchment, you will find it. This knowledge has been passed on, from generations of indigenous people and even to Spanish missionaries like Father Kino, who explored a large portion of this region in the early 1700s. But now, people cross this desert under dire circumstances and can't find water, because they don't know where to look for it. It can't be found along what seems to be the path of least resistance: the mesquite flats crisscrossed by dry washes that flash during storms only briefly, and then only a few times a year. The water is stored in the mountains, but to traverse them would make an already difficult journey both longer and more dangerous.

For all the beauty of this place, it has become impossible to ignore what's happening along the border. As we drove back from a hike yesterday, we came across at least a dozen Border Patrol vehicles, parked at angles along the dirt road, not an agent to be seen. Clearly they were out on foot. Any consideration for the fragile ecosystem is lost completely in the pursuit of those who, at best, simply wish to pursue economic opportunities that are made readily available to them once they cross the border, and at worst, are smuggling drugs that current US policies have made highly profitable.

Of course, the impact on the ecosystem, though at the forefront of my own mind having just hiked through it, pales in comparison to the crisis of violence and meaningless suffering that currently pervades the borderlands. I am often struck when hiking in this area, comfy in my synthetic, wicking clothing and three-liter Camelbak full of cool water, by the level of desperation that would motivate someone to cross this landscape in the summer, in the dark, in second-hand tennis shoes and with a gallon jug of water painted black to avoid detection. It's an unimaginable journey. (I should say that I'm referring here to migrant workers, not drug smugglers - that's a whole different issue.)

I sometimes long to just forget it all, to see this place as one of simple and immense beauty, and not as symbolic of a conflict born of economic disparity, in which I am both complicit and on the privileged side. I want the natural world to transcend the muck of human affairs, and I want it to take me with it. And yet, that would be deny the interconnectedness of all things: of humans to the natural world and of it to us; of me to the Gila woodpecker and of the migrant to me. And so here we are in the muck, without answers, except the knowledge that the paradox of pain and beauty represented by such a place is surely one small, inescapable piece of being human.