My son, just five years old and spry, shambles down a small, dry, high desert wash beneath junipers and ocotillo, mumbling a song. I listen to his words, mostly fun nonsense rhyming words, for a hint that he gets it—gets the wonderful and desperate science of this place. His singing suddenly stops. “Feet!” he yells. He’s found a bear track in the sand near a holdout of water—snowmelt from the nine-thousand-foot peaks of the Chiricahua Mountains that rise just north of the U.S.–Mexico border. We see the claw points, heavy toes, and metacarpal pads dug in deep where the bear leaned in heavy for a drink. We can almost hear an ursine tongue lapping the ephemeral water. Farther on, mouse bones bleach under a sad flower, and my son collects a femur so tiny he has to ask if it’s a butterfly’s bone.
We come to this spot, traditional land of the Apache, several times a year not for its beauty—it must be told that much of the landscape seems to bend with want—but because it sits at the crossroads of four incredibly wild and diverse communities that I monitor with remote wildlife cameras for the Center for Biological Diversity. This area is, to borrow the parlance of Sedona hippies, a vortex of sorts: the bear tracks mark the place where the biotic communities of the Colorado Plateau lumber down from the north to mingle with the biotic communities of the Sierra Madrean archipelago that prowl up from Mexico. Likewise, the drinking hole the bear slurped from sits right where the Sonoran Desert to the west and the Chihuahuan Desert to the east collide, transition, and blur. If biotic communities were recognized nations, then this wash and the hillocks that surround us would definitely be an international highway running through a multicultural border town. Desert cacti, grasslands, evergreens, and temperate forests smash together over several thousand feet of elevation gain before being battered by deadly aridity and extreme heat, only to be later confounded by monstrous monsoon rains and the occasional blanket of snow.
Biogeographic transition zones make strange bedfellows. During one remote camera check not long ago, my son and I flipped through video footage captured over a few weeks and saw coatis, javelinas, deer, ringtails, mountain lions, one human with a metal detector, one human with an assault rifle, three humans with light packs and weary gaits who seemed to be looking for a new start. We saw a roadrunner, a red-tailed hawk, a turkey vulture, a Gould’s turkey, cows, gray foxes, bobcats, and a black bear cub. We saw two mountain lions and a spider crawling across the camera. Then we saw a jaguar.
Yeah, a jaguar.
We must have sat speechless for almost a minute. Though this would be the third wild jaguar spotted in Arizona since 2015 and the historical record shows they’ve lived in the Southwest for millennia, it’s not the kind of thing that registers with modern American desert dwellers right away. Most jaguars this side of the border were wiped out by the early twentieth century. In the video clip, a handsome male jaguar sits roughly three feet from our camera, facing the lens, dappled and made more mysterious in the infrared’s black-and-white. He is in a moment of rest and contemplation at two a.m. Ghostly and comfortable. We both sort of lost our shit when we saw him. “Is that for real?!” my son asked.
I sometimes bring my child on these work trips to “toughen him up,” but that language is more convenient, saltier, than precise. Besides helping him grow his hiking legs and grit, I want to teach him to be tender and open to the inconspicuous beauty that lurks out here. “Walk smartly,” I say. “Don’t trample a hedgehog cactus or step on a rattler.” I want him to learn to value emptiness and biodiversity. And he does. He pauses at every bug, fungus, and track. He stops at overlooks to look at nothing but distance—range after range unfolding. He stoops to examine the purple blooms of a solitary tapertip onion but doesn’t care about its name. He seems at peace in this world of pollen, canyon wrens, compound eyes, and dry breezes that rob the body of moisture. And despite the number of thorns and incisors and stingers, it’s a delicate place, and it’s in danger. Viewed from newsfeeds, these borderlands are, to some, poorly regarded, empty wastelands. Yet my son and I have experienced firsthand a jaguar rewilding this place, creeping up from the northernmost breeding population some 150 miles south of the border. In 2014, under the Endangered Species Act, more than 750,000 acres of “critical habitat” in southern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico were protected for jaguars. This is no wasteland. This is some of the most outrageously wild land in North America.
Driving home, we hear talk of border wall expansion on the radio. My son is still so young, but living here he can’t help but know. We drive through checkpoints, cringe at concertina wire, hear about his school friends’ parents held in custody by ICE. In the distance, we see fragments of a patchwork wall constructed by other administrations, a concrete scar.
I’m hoping my boy senses that not all borders are so rigid, so alien and cold. I hope to teach him that the desert has its own beautiful borders, wild borders that are fragile and built of heart and photosynthesis and hunger and reciprocity. Wild borders that follow the constraints of sky and terrain, rain and sun and longing. O
Russ McSpadden works as a visual storyteller and environmental activist for the Center for Biological Diversity. He is a former poetry editor at Earth First! journal and spends much of his free time roaming the wilds of Arizona’s sky island mountains.