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A Literarea Review: Continental Divide: Wildlife, People, and the Border Wall

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Continental Divide: Wildlife, People, and the Border Wall
Krista Schlyer
Texas A&M University Press

“Even with a wall blocking their way, many humans will succeed. Wildlife will not.”

When you hear someone referred to as a “photojournalist," the emphasis is usually on the first two syllables of that somewhat Frankensteined word. But Krista Schlyer shows in her latest book, “Continental Divide: Wildlife, People and the Border Wall”, that she is as adept with a camera as she is with the written word.

Having said that I must admit I might be a bit biased in the matter. That’s because the author is a good friend from my high school and college days in northern Indiana. In fact, I recall vividly the last time I was lucky enough to enjoy Krista’s company. It was September 12, 1996, in Tucson, Ariz., where she was living and I was visiting. How can I be so sure of the date? Easy. I am a hip-hop fan and on the next day in Las Vegas, Tupac was killed.

On that day, she picked me up in her car and took me on a tour up nearby Mount Lemon. I call it a tour because every so often she would stop to point out some unique natural feature or take me on a short hike to one breathtaking vantage point after another, culminating with lunch at a chalet-like restaurant at a near-alpine height. She clearly knew and had a love for the mountain, and was a gracious host.

Along with having a love for nature in general, when I think of the author’s earlier years I recall a very smart, driven and determined person, and all of those traits are evident in her new book. But enough of the backstory…

The topic of the border wall between Mexico and the U.S. is one of the most ugly and sad political issues of our time. But the true impact has been lost in the bumper sticker banter of the 24-hour news networks.

The goal of the border wall was to stop the flow of illegal Mexican laborers, which it has failed to do (jobs trump barriers). But in something of a cruel twist it has stopped the flow of entirely different creatures, like the Sonoran pronghorn antelope herds that have been freely traveling these arid lands eons before American businesses began actively seeking out illegal laborers.

And the pronghorn are just one victim. There are literally hundreds of others – from the kit fox and gray wolf to ocelots and jaguars to frogs and birds to plant life and…the list goes on and on. While it may be a border to us, to them it’s a migration corridor (but then again, there are probably those who are against “Mexican animals” taking food from “American animals”).

As I mentioned earlier Schlyer’s photographic skills are equaled by her journalistic skills. In this book you will find stunning and unique images of the wildlife, vegetation and people of the region, interwoven with a dramatic narrative of what has become an environmental (and a human) disaster.

But make no mistake – this is not propaganda of the tree-hugging, hippie variety. Schlyer shows how both the political left and right, in ham-fisted attempts to mollify voters through wasted activity, are equally to blame.

Here it is in a nutshell: during the Clinton era, in a stunning example of battling the effect (illegal immigration) instead of the cause (American businesses actively seeking out illegal immigrants to make a cheap buck), Operation Gatekeeper was initiated.

The idea was to make it impossible for Mexicans to enter the U.S. through larger cities like San Diego, which would somehow reduce crime. With their only recourse being the remote desert, it was thought that Mexicans would be deterred from making the attempt. But again, jobs trump obstacles. And bodies started turning up in the desert. Hundreds of them. And instead of reducing crime, there was – and continues to be – a surge.

“This border – and the laws and social climate surrounding it recently – suggest our allegiance to a country’s legal code should be stronger than our connection to another human being.”

But the main focus of this book is the accidental victims. While you will see breathtaking photos of Pronghorn running in the Chihuahuan grasslands and buff-bellied hummingbirds grooming, you will also see heartrending photos of javelina turning away from the wall after traveling hundreds of yards looking for a place to cross and Sonoran desert toads lying dead at the foot of the wall, with the sought-after body of water on the other side.

Along with providing a political perspective, Schlyer gives a historical context to show how the impact on wildlife, landowners and border towns has been glossed over – or ignored perhaps is the better word. Ignored because to tell this story requires a true journalistic effort, i.e. hard work. And as we know true journalistic efforts are few and far between.

“Where there are borders…it is easy to amplify fears to the point that they distort reality.”

But don’t take my somewhat-biased word for it. “Continental Divide” has been awarded the National Outdoor Book Award, the American Library Association’s “Best of the Best” award, the Southwest Book of the Year award and the Eric Hoffer Award (awarded for “salient writing” and “the independent spirit of small publishers”).

This truly is a vital and important work, perfect for those who simply love great nature photography as well as those who are alarmed by the environmental and human impact of a continent divided.

About the Author
A Juilliard-trained writer, Kevin Kizer has fought against numerous world-champion writers during his career, besting the reigning middle weight writing champion in an exhibition bout in Helsinki in 1976. He also played a crucial role on the U.S. gold-medal winning writing team during the 1984 Pan-Am games, where he came off the bench in dramatic fashion to write the winning prepositional phrase just as time expired.