Through the prism of nonviolence
Fall Quarterly 2017
By John Heid
On my first trek across the Growler Valley in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge some years back, I was smitten to the core. A stillness I have rarely known settled within me even as a bone dry wind piqued my sensibilities. Mountains rim the horizon of this seamless plain in every direction. Few trees or rock formations interrupt the valley floor. The world is half earth, half sky—no in between. Time collapses in the Growler. Only the sun seems to move, and slowly at that.
While this valley’s horizons are well defined, they are distant and illusory. Like an outgoing tide, they recede as you approach them. Never before have I experienced this sort of motionlessness. As if I was walking in place, all day.
Austerity understates the character of this Sonoran desert expanse. Herein lies the Growler’s wonder, and paradox. Its plainness is a ruse. An unassuming landscape disguises both power and fragility, innocence and danger. While vast, the valley offers scant water and no shelter, save the many burrows where all sorts of small lizard and mammal reside. Most are nocturnal. Conditions are harsh in summer and not much kinder in winter.
Her stories are hidden in plain sight. Petroglyphs and murmurs in the wind offer hints that there is more to what you see than you can imagine. Sometimes I have heard whispers in the zephyrs in languages I do not recognize. And I ponder. Who has walked here before? Who scribed the rocks? And why?
Mardy Murie, grandmother of the conservation movement, encouraged people to know their places of enchantment. To cherish them. To protect them. The Growler Valley is one of those places for me.
Edward Abby too was drawn to this valley. In life. And in death. It is here that he was clandestinely buried in 1989. His undisclosed grave site is reportedly marked by a simple head stone that reads: “Edward Paul Abbey, 1927-1989 No Comment.” Ed is not alone out there. Not anymore, if he ever was.
“We did believe that geography would be an ally to us. It was our sense that the number of people crossing the border through Arizona would go down to a trickle”
— Doris Meissner, Commissioner of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1993-2000
The others simply don’t have grave stones, let alone identities. These unknown ones are part of the growing number of desert fatalities which I wrote about earlier this year. (Spring 2017 issue of the Nukewatch Quarterly.) The marked increase in the number of bodies recovered in the desert in the months between writings compels me to revisit this crisis from a more personal perspective. I cannot get these disappeared ones off my mind, or heart. One-hundred and thirty-one sets of human remains have been recovered in the Tucson Sector of the US-Mexico border this year, dozens in the Growler Valley alone. One cartographer calls this route “the trail of death.” Cabeza Prieta which boasts “one of the most biologically diverse deserts in the country” in its brochure is our deadliest National Wildlife Refuge. It’s grandest valley, the Growler, has become a veritable cemetery of the unknown. This is neither an accident nor a miscalculation. It is a premeditated crime against humanity and nature.
Immigration and Naturalization Service personnel predicted fatalities decades ago when they proclaimed the desert as their “ally.” Militarization and enforcement plans have intentionally funneled people into some of the harshest terrain on the continent. These policies have taken countless lives and irreparably torn up the desert’s fragile cryptobiotic soil crust. Border Patrol 4-wheelers have cut hundreds of miles of unauthorized roads on land ostensibly protected by the Wilderness Act. US border policy has turned the region into a weapon and desecrated it.
The desert is not to blame for these deaths. For its part, the Sonoran has done the best it can with the bodies forced upon the rugged terrain. Celestial and terrestrial burials involve vultures, coyotes, and bone-bleaching heat. It is human policy, not Mother Earth, that is culpable, if not indictable, for what is happening here. The desert is no ally of any government.
In a recent administrative change, Refuge personnel revised the annual land use permit. As of July 1, 2017, it is illegal to distribute humanitarian aid sup- plies on Cabeza Prieta. While the Refuge brochure emphasizes the need to carry water, the revised permit prohibits the supplying of water.
Many in the humanitarian aid community have strenuously criticized this change in policy, just as we have denounced the border enforcement policies which have pushed people into isolated terrain in the first place. We grieve and decry the calculated loss of life and the lethal implications of this procedural change.
As I hustle this article to meet a publication deadline, aid workers are preparing to hand-carry gallons of water to the Trail of Death and other refuge sites. Access to potable water is a human right. We intend to make water available to anyone in need, no exceptions. Humanitarian aid is never a crime. Not now. Not ever.
May the Sonoran desert one day be at peace again. May no one take their final steps there. May the voices one hears be the rustling western wind whistling through the creosote bushes. May the last words be stillness as loquacious Ed Abby’s last words remind. “No comment.”
— John Heid is a humanitarian aid worker with No More Deaths and Humane Borders. He lives in Ajo, Arizona 40 miles from the US-Mexico border.
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