Three years ago, I published a book called Border Land, Border Water: A History of Construction on the US-Mexico Divide (University of Texas Press). It is about the built environment of the border and how the accretion of fencing and surveillance projects on land, as well as hydraulic engineering projects on the border rivers, came to overwrite the natural environments through which the border passes. Today, as I look back on my research, I see this history not only as a story about political will and the evolution of construction technologies, but also about something deeper: the widespread impoverishment of environmental knowledge and imagination.
The history of technology in the twentieth century is often thought of in terms of atomic science, chemical industries, as well as, of course, computing and software design. But I interpret it from a different angle. I think of the twentieth century as a unique time in human history when our species developed technologies to mask environmental conditions, technologies that made it possible for many people to live in places like deserts without having to confront solar radiation and aridity in a daily struggle for survival. Interstate highway driving, air travel, aquifer pumping for drinking water, air conditioning—the seemingly banal infrastructure of daily life has certainly increased social connectivity and physical comfort. But it has also created a platform for extreme anthropocentrism, placelessness, and environmental amnesia.
Seen in this light, the accumulation of megaprojects on the US-Mexico border is a logical outgrowth of a much broader North American phenomenon in which infrastructure of all kinds quietly restructured our understanding of the world around us. The forgetting has been largely imperceptible, the kind in which one does not know that anything has gone missing at all. We have dissolved into a species-based provincialism without even realizing it.
One way to begin a process of environmental remembering is by looking at different kinds of maps. Consider the image above, a detail from a continent-wide map called Ecological Regions of North America.1 It was created by thirty-seven people, representatives from provincial, state, and national-level environmental agencies in Canada, the United States, and Mexico. In the center is the Chihuahuan Desert, the subject of my current book project. It is labeled “10.2.4” which corresponds to three environmental “levels,” each one more specific and localized than the last. The 10 refers to all North American deserts, 2 demarcates warm deserts, and 4 identifies a specific desert: the Chihuahuan.
This map might appear to re-create a fundamental stylistic problem of political maps. In addition to the dotted lines that designate familiar boundaries between states and nations, the ecological regions themselves have borders delineated by unbroken lines. But what kind of ecological region starts and stops on a dime? The fuzziness of nature’s margins is part of what inspires us about the non-human world, so much so that even a well-respected literary journal derives its name from the scientific term for environmental transition zones: Ecotone.
The map’s creators, all of them trained in one or more traditional scientific disciplines, understood this challenge well. Each object of study—rocks, soil, plants, mammals, reptiles and amphibians, birds, insects, river systems, climate, elevation—produces its own outline on the land. In their report they wrote, “Ecological classification is science-based, but, in a way, it is also an art… a mapped area must be considered a partial abstraction of real ecosystems.”2 In the minds of the map’s creators, then, the lines that designate the boundaries of distinct ecological regions are mere placeholders for decades of debate and compromise. The stark margins merely point in the direction of deeper understanding; they are humble lines, not the hubristic lines of political borders.
The US-Mexico border is 174 years old. It can be dated precisely, its origin traced directly to an 1848 legal document called the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The border is still relatively new and, in the scope of deep time, experimental. The Chihuahuan Desert, on the other hand, is somewhere between 8,000 and 12,000 years old, depending on how you measure and what knowledge system you use. But perhaps more importantly, asking the familiar historical question “When did it begin?” might be the wrong question entirely, a misapplication of a human concept to the world that lies outside the margins of our comprehension and experience.
I love this map for the way it breaks free from political borders as the default option for organizing space, for the way it liberates us from anthropocentrism and anthropocentric time. I read it as an invitation to the land, a way to look beneath our infrastructure, a path toward environmental remembering.
- Map: Ecological Regions of North America. Commission for Environmental Cooperation, 2006.
- Ecological Regions of North America: Toward a Common Perspective. Commission for Environmental Cooperation, 1997.