Having recently returned to the UK following several months of fieldwork in USA and Mexico, Jared Margulies writes this blog about his zine ‘Welcome to Otay Mountain, an alternative field guide’.
During the course of fieldwork earlier this year, I spent a month in California investigating an emerging illegal trade in the succulent species Dudleya farinosa—an unusual, and as of yet, poorly understood phenomena. In pursuit of understanding the perspectives of conservationists, law enforcement agencies, and botanists in California about this trade, I found myself increasingly distracted by news reports about the humanitarian emergency happening nearby along the US-Mexico border. I watched and listened to news about the unfolding ‘border crisis’, and how a humanitarian and human rights crisis, the result of the Trump Administration’s increasingly hostile (and largely, illegal) policies towards migrant refugees, was being dubiously recast as a matter of geopolitical security and an existential threat to US citizenry and the US economy.
Amidst this (still ongoing) disaster, I found it difficult to remain focused on my research about the politics of plant conservation and illegal plant trade. It didn’t take long, however, for the themes of US geopolitical security and biodiversity conservation to converge in my fieldwork. I learned from scientists in the San Diego Natural History Museum’s Botany Department about how botanists would be acting as expert testimonies in the State of California’s lawsuit against the Trump Administration’s declaration of a State of Emergency at the border, which was declared while I was in San Diego in February. While San Diego County’s borderlands with Mexico have long been fenced, walled, and surveilled, gaps remain. The Trump Administration proposed to close these gaps with his declaration of a State of Emergency after his previous efforts in Congress to obtain border wall funding failed. One such site where a new border wall would be erected is the Otay Mountain Wilderness, a formally designated US Wilderness Area just north of the border with Mexico.
Otay Mountain is one of the few areas of the borderlands in San Diego County that doesn’t feature a physical barrier, in part because its steep and rugged topography serves as a natural deterrence for those attempting to move across these borderlands. But Otay is also (currently) protected from border wall construction by a variety of other unlikely actors: rare and endemic plants, which, protected under both California State and Federal endangered species laws, have previously been cited in environmental impact assessments to stop border wall construction because these rare species would be irreparably impacted by border wall construction. But endangered plants may not be enough to stop the wall. A previous attempt to protect Otay Mountain from new border wall construction on the grounds it would significantly impact a diversity of rare and endangered plants was rejected by the Supreme Court in December.
As I learned more about Otay Mountain, its unique ecology, and the way that the politics of plant conservation and the humanitarian crisis at the border were colliding in this contested geographic space, the more I saw concerning integrations of security narratives playing out in the borderlands invoking value-laden terms like invasive and native, endemic and exotic, alien and refugee. The politics embedded within and co-producing these terms are nothing new to geographers or political ecology. Yet at the same time, I also saw unexpected and even creative spaces of resistance to unjust social policies through leveraging the political positions of rare plants, ones who similarly find legal protection through many of these same terms political ecology often (rightly) unsettles and critiques. With some of these ideas, contradictions, and concerns in mind, I decided to visit Otay Mountain. I hoped to gain a more grounded perspective on how those resisting the construction of an ever-more securitized (and violent) border were finding unlikely allyship with botanists concerned about preserving the ecological integrity of Otay Mountain as an exceptionally biodiverse landscape with a large number of endangered plant species. Several of these species only grow on Otay Mountain or directly across the border in Mexico. At the same time, I felt uneasy about the emergence of this moment of ‘emergency’ in which rare plants protected by endangered species legislation seemed to find greater rights to protection under US law than people seeking refuge in the United States from violence at home, violence attributed by many scholars and journalists to US geopolitical strategy and statecraft.
The ‘results’ of this exploration are detailed in a zine I produced following my visit to Otay Mountain called, “Welcome to Otay Mountain: an Alternative Field Guide.” It will be featured as part of the upcoming exhibit entitled, No Walls, No Bans, No Borders in Baltimore, USA, “a benefit photography and art exhibit featuring the work of Baltimore-based activists connecting ideas of the violence of capitalism, colonialism, and the racist/fascist state both locally here in Baltimore and globally.” The exhibit is curated by Rebel Lens Bmore – a photo and video-based activist group documenting social movements in Baltimore. The exhibit opens on May 9th and runs through June 2nd at the Peale Center in Baltimore.
Unlike a peer-review academic output, “Welcome to Otay Mountain” does not attempt to answer a particular question or offer any clear analysis. Instead, I think of it as a prompting, a means by which to pay attention to unsettled yet politically powerful ideas about biodiversity, security, and violence. I created this zine because I think there is growing agreement that the work of doing political ecology, and writing political ecology, is strengthened when our work extends beyond formal academic writing whose accessibility and style rarely speak to those impacted by, or actively working to upend, the systems of oppression we tend to study and engage with as researchers. This is not a novel insight by any measure, but as I look to creating and editing more “Alternative Field Guides”, I wish to share but one example of how creative practices might energize, and at least in very small way, financially support, those doing the difficult work of direct action in the face of social and environmental injustices.
If you are interested in purchasing a print copy of this limited edition zine please contact Jared directly—all profits from these sales will be directly donated to No More Deaths, a charitable organization whose mission is “to end death and suffering in the Mexico–US borderlands through civil initiative: people of conscience working openly and in community to uphold fundamental human rights.” The zine will also be for sale at the Peale Center throughout the duration of the exhibit No Walls, No Bans, No Borders. This work includes providing direct aid to people crossing the desert borderlands in the form of water, supplies, and emergency medical treatment.