This weekend, I set myself free.
The much-needed atmospheric rivers of late have swollen the nearby creek, and with two crossings in the first two miles of trail, it soon became a barrier to the longer walks I’ve come to enjoy. All that was required was a change of footwear—shoes to barefoot and back again—twice, then I was on my way to the miles of trails into the backcountry. But it took me days—weeks even—to see that the barrier was only ever in my mind.
There are plenty of metaphors in life for barriers, real and imagined, and they are powerful forces. For millennia, natural barriers have led to speciation—isolating populations long enough that they become their own species. Take, for example, the Grand Canyon—squirrels on the north rim are similar but different than those on the south rim, separated from one another once the Colorado River cut so deeply into the earth that the rift could not be crossed.
Barriers are used for protection—we installed a fence around the perimeter of our back yard to keep the dogs and chickens from wandering the neighborhood and getting into trouble. Sunscreen limits ultraviolet radiation, protecting the skin. In the -40-degree winter of the Boreal forest, I wore what would under any other circumstances be a ridiculous amount of clothing and gear to protect my appendages from freezing: a barrier from the dangerous cold.
In the same way that barriers protect, they also divide. Once divided, disparate parts change, no longer able to exchange—in the speciation example, alleles (variant forms of a gene)—between them. Is speciation a good thing? Sure, inasmuch as it allows the divided to adapt to new conditions. This would be the case for species that are fairly abundant on both sides, and—more importantly—allowed to adapt over the course of geologic time, as the squirrels at the Grand Canyon did. But what about species that are already struggling due to persecution, over hunting, and habitat loss, like the Mexican gray wolf and the Sonoran pronghorn? What happens to those species when a barrier is placed in the middle of their range, preventing them from accessing food, water, mates, and other important resources?
The outlook is not good. According to recent research, a continuous barrier along the U.S-Mexico border would disconnect approximately 350 species whose habitats currently straddle the human-made line from the largest portion of their ranges. Adding more border barriers will only further sever critical migration corridors. Our human-conceptualized borders turned to real-life barriers have made arbitrary and artificial boundaries between individuals that were once free to roam for millennia. The existing boundary has only been present for an infinitesimally short period of time compared to the time span that situated the plants and animals there in the first place.
For those unable to appreciate the intrinsic or ecosystem value of wildlife, consider the $26 billion in hunting, fishing, and wildlife watching revenue generated by the biodiversity in and around border towns. We stand to lose much as a nation and a global community when additional border barriers alter the normal patterns of wildlife, flood regimes, and entire landscapes in its path. Researchers are working to count biodiversity at the border to take a baseline before construction—and the damage—ensue.
North America is not alone in its anguish over large-scale perimeter fencing at its borders. Denmark plans to install 40 miles of fencing to keep wild boars—and presumably African swine fever—out. The fence is only slated to be 5 feet high, but it is enough to disrupt the migration patterns of wolves, which have only recently begun to recover after a 200-year absence. Swine flu threatens the pork industry in Denmark, which is one of the largest pork exporters in the world and boasts more pigs than people. Sweeping, drastic measures to solve complex problems cannot be implemented without consequences, both intentional and unintentional.
I am fortunate to live in a place where it is safe to be a woman hiking alone, that I can afford to take a day off to go for a walk in nature, and that I live on the doorstep of 1.7 million acres of barrier-free open space. Public lands are one of America’s best ideas—that land and waters can be held in the public trust for all to enjoy. This is one of the many privileges of being an American, and something that we entrust the U.S. Government with stewardship of.
I removed my shoes, rolled up my pant legs, and walked across the frigid, bubbling barrier that had only moments before been impassable in my mind. Our attitudes are powerful, and can trick us into fearing the harmless, the other—that which could enrich us, make us more human, more whole.