Henry David Thoreau has lived in my head all my adult life, a kind of intellectual companion I have counted on in both epiphany and, now, resistance. When I was younger, in the decades when winters of below-average temperatures still rolled across the Northern Hemisphere, his voice in my mind was more often the one in the Pond chapters in Walden, plangent with wonder and observation. I wish to speak a word for nature, for absolute freedom and wildness . . . to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of nature, rather than a member of society. I squirmed about his scorn for what he called the bog-trotting Irish and I felt pretty certain he wouldn’t have had much room for me, a woman, in his literary chats in the cabin or his excursions into the land of moose and mountains. Still, I loved him, Henry of the awkward hair and perspicacious wit; it’s a love that’s lasted from late adolescence on past menopause.
But these days some of the lines I memorized in my 20s come to mind with different inflections. Thoreau chides me not just about the lack of simplicity in my life, but about the nation’s Hobbesian violence toward Others, the antagonistic greed for property, the lust for guns—and the country’s betrayal of its best intentions.
Sometimes snippets of his own sentences quote themselves from my memory, as if in italics. And then, his silence seems to imply, just what am I going to do about it?
I can’t turn my back on my own need for visceral transcendence, the loss of the self in the planet’s generative forces and landscapes, even as they’re shape-shifting under the carbon canopy the last 200 years has cast. Contact! Contact! Thoreau wrote, in the ecstasy of stone, and wind, and mountain height. Who are we? What are we?
And now a voice says, yes—who the hell are we?
Once, years ago in Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park where the Rio Grande slips between two nations, I hunkered by a trail to watch leaf-cutter ants—the first I’d ever seen—carrying aloft their tiny excerpts of tree canopy, heading for invisible lives underground. In that jerky gait that looks like early moving pictures, which I now can re-cast as the slowed-down WWI footage from Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old, they threaded across the dust, a paragon of order, until they reached their pencil-sized portal and disappeared. They didn’t start an ant war with anybody else. Another time, after a day on the water glimpsing the bright forms of whooping cranes, I camped at Goose Island Wildlife Refuge on New Year’s Eve, which was like spending the night in somebody’s paroxysmal Fourth of July, pounding with fireworks and gunshots.
But in these few travels in southern Texas, I had never been to Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. It’s a green splotch along the Rio Grande, just 2,000 acres where a tiny bit of managed wildness lies between U.S. Military Highway 83 and the Klump Gas Field of Mexico. Santa Ana was first established in 1943. That was 40 years after Theodore Roosevelt created, by executive order, the first in what would become the system of national wildlife refuges. In wildness is the preservation of the world. It was also the year Teddy’s fifth cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, changed the U.S. classification of Japanese-Americans from 4-C, “enemy aliens,” to 1-A, “fit for combat,” although more than 100,000 Americans of Japanese descent remained in the internment camps for the duration of WWII, in camps from Arkansas to Wyoming, and of course in the border-obsessed states of California and Texas. And it was 95 years after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, at the end of the Mexican-American War, which resulted in Mexico’s loss of half a million square miles of land and established the Rio Grande as the political border between the two nations.
Four hundred species of birds and half of all butterfly species found in North America make their home or pass through the tiny refuge. Green jays, chachalacas, great kiskadees, groove-billed anis, hook-billed kites, gray hawks, jaguarundi, ocelots, Altamira orioles, indigo snakes, Mexican free-tailed bats, Mexican bluewing butterflies… All these predate the arrival of Homo murus by millions of years. Atoms eroded from Colorado’s Wolf Creek Pass meander through on their way to the Gulf of Mexico. When a call came out to protest the Trump administration’s plans to route his wall right through the Santa Ana, my partner Dave and I decided it was time to head to the border to help with the effort to wake our (American) neighbors up.
The day of the march was hot. People milled in the parking lot, paid the $5 per car fee, and crossed over the levee, into the piebald shade of the refuge. While I focused my binoculars on a group of chachalacas rustling near the visitors’ center, a boy no more than three or four came to stand beside me until I put them into his tiny hands and showed him where to look—there, could he see the birds? His parents, speaking alternately in English and Spanish, cheered him on.
Although leaders from national conservation groups had flown in, too—the president of the American Birding Association, Jeffrey Gordon, was there, as was the brand new president of the Sierra Club, Loren Blackford—this was a grassroots event. Everywhere I turned, the people in charge and actually making things happen were local: lots of women, often young, and mostly brown-skinned.
I talked with Betty Perez, who ran a nursery for native plants and had supplied the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as they worked to restore endangered habitats. “All the seeds are locally gathered,” she told me. The genetic treasure surely traces back millennia.
I sat in the shade with a woman from the planning committee and she said she loved my shirt, blazoned with tropical birds, resplendent tails draping from my shoulders to my ribs—Ann Taylor, wasn’t it? She’d seen them on sale last month, too, with shorts to match. “I wish I’d bought it,” she said, “it’s perfect for today.” Our talk was of new clothes and not being new wearers of clothes, another moment in my life that Thoreau would have scorned—but it was fun and we laughed a little before she moved on to help guide protesters into place. It was the conversation of women, the gentle chatter of bonding before they get down to the real work.
There were nearly 700 of us, of all ages, moving slowly in the rising heat.
Young couples pushed strollers or walked with toddlers in backpack carriers; teenagers scooted past the slowpoke adults to climb the observation tower; elders with the patient faces of seasoned protesters ambled at the procession’s edges. We were a slow-moving river of people, flooding the pathways of the forest and pooling beneath the Canopy Walk, a swinging bridge that offered breeze and light and the arboreal perspective of connectivity itself.
Then we headed for the levee which cuts through the refuge. It’s where the wall is planned to run.
On my right a woman held a protest sign the size of a bedsheet. She asked me to take one corner of it, then turned to recruit more human signposts. SAVE SANTA ANA, our banner said. A young woman who called out, “THIS IS MY TEACHER VOICE AND I’M NOT AFRAID TO USE IT!” moved up and down our disorderly line, urging people to spread out. “SHOW HOW BIG WE ARE!” she shouted. We did, all holding hands.
With 2,000 miles at our backs, from the river north to Canada, we looked at the ponds and trails of Santa Ana. Construction of Trump’s wall will replace the refuge with a military zone. Construction plans call for installing what’s called “tactical infrastructure”—a “reinforced concrete levee wall” to replace the current levee; “18 feet tall steel bollards installed on top of the concrete wall”; and scraping a swath 150 feet wide, shaved of vegetation, as an “enforcement zone.”1 Afterwards whatever is left of the riparian habitat will lie on the far side. Trump’s efforts in both Congress and the courts seek to first gut a rare, enlivened biome and then toss the remains over the fence, essentially delivering the dead corpse back to Mexico.
I hear of a convention to be held at Baltimore, or elsewhere, for the selection of a candidate for the Presidency, wrote Thoreau, but I think, what is it to any independent, intelligent, and respectable man what decision they may come to…? Can we not count upon some independent votes? Are there not many individuals in the country who do not attend conventions? But no: I find that the respectable man, so called, has immediately drifted from his position, and despairs of his country, when his country has more reason to despair of him. He forthwith adopts one of the candidates thus selected as the only one available, thus proving that he is himself available for any purposes of the demagogue. His vote is of no more worth than that of any unprincipled foreigner or hireling native, who may have been bought.
I realize it’s time to shift tone, to change authorial voice, leaving wonder and humor both behind for another day. It’s time to name names. The Border Security for America Act of 2017 (H.R. 3548) introduced by Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX) and co-sponsored by 77 Republicans would waive 36 environmental laws, including the Wilderness Act, the Migratory Bird Act, the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act, among others. It hangs in limbo, a legislative threat stared down, for now, by the Democratic majority elected in November 2018. The Secure Our Borders and Wilderness Act (H.R. 3593), introduced by Rep. Mike Johnson (R-LA), would directly amend and weaken the 1964 Wilderness Act. The bill aims to enable U.S. Customs and Border Protection to override all the protections of wilderness lands, opening them to militarized activity, including the construction of new roads and so-called “forward operating bases.” It, too, hangs fire, having been placed on the Union Calendar in December 2018, before the swearing-in of the new House.
But the courts have rendered congressional action unnecessary. U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel found that Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s waivers of some 29 laws to build the wall in was permissible. The Supreme Court, under Chief Justice John Roberts, refused, without comment, to hear environmentalists’ appeal.
“Now,” as one reporter remarked, “he just needs the money.”2
The president’s apparent recreational sadism seems to have dovetailed—an ironic term, I recognize—with mobster-styled extortion.3 The administration’s policy to deter migration by stealing children from their parents continues the nation’s long history of seizing the bodies of brown children. A form of extortion, it may yet be successful in wresting concessions from Congress for “fencing” or “barriers” to destroy the islands of intact habitat left in the surrounding sea of commercial land use, in the countdown—another showdown—toward the next government shutdown.
Trump’s threats to use “executive authority”4 to divert funding, against the actual will of Congress, rumble like the heavy equipment assembling in the valley to destroy the privately owned and protected National Butterfly Center and the Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park. The ironies are fractal, self-replicating, and too numerous to parse while the engines idle, ready to move. Thoreau spoke pointedly about machines, and injustice, and evil. But when the friction comes to have its machine, and oppression and robbery are organized, I say, let us not have such a machine any longer.
Trump’s plan is, all over again, the annexation of land in Texas. This time the value of the territory seized isn’t specifically the expansion of slavery or free-range capitalism, the concerns that Thoreau decried, although those legacies of empire aren’t far off. I think of it as a kind of death-cult obeisance to nationalism. The videos of Border Patrol agents kicking over water jugs left in the desert; the children (say their names: Jakelin, Felipe) dying in the custody of the agents; the administration officials (say their names, too: Sessions, Kelly, Whitaker) who praise the hard logic of “expedited removal” for “deterrence.”
Witness the present Mexican war, the work of comparatively few individuals using the standing government as their tool; for, in the outset, the people would not have consented to this measure.
I recall that time at Santa Ana. While residents along the Rio Grande and their supporters from elsewhere stood along the levee holding hands, hundreds of miles away on the very same weekend, American Nazi-boys and KKK thugs marched in Charlottesville. As the police stood by, declining to stop violence and assault, the State bled out a little more of its commitment to its own charter.