The water drop I did recently was legal. Leaving gallons of water under a plastic tub weighted with rocks on BLM lands does not violate any laws, though as I hiked with a friend into the Sonoran desert in Arizona, we discussed the nuances of legality, as evidenced by a recent famous court case in which a local was arrested, then charged, then acquitted by a federal jury for offering humanitarian aid to migrants who had fled Central America.
We planned to meet this man later in the day, but on this wintry silent morning, I was focused on this expanse of organ pipe cactus, and I was thinking of all I did not see, could not see, would never see.
I had no notion that I was doing anything particularly useful or good — I was just visiting from Colorado and wanting to be reminded firsthand about the environmental and social injustices, knowing full well that this one drop was nothing compared to the efforts of the highly active locals.
But I’ve always been fascinated by the proximity principle, which posits that humans tend to care most about what they can witness or feel, and I’m intrigued by the ways humans can tune in — or not — to issues beyond their purview.
Case in point: I have my grad students watching “Fantastic Fungi,” “My Octopus Teacher” and “Symphony of the Soil” in a class about science writing, because I’m making the case that visuals are sometimes essential for humans to conceptually grasp creatures — fungi, octopus, soil microbes — that we can’t see. Effective and connective storytelling often benefits from images; there is a science to making people care.
I am no exception to this rule. I find it hard to keep issues related to the U.S.-Mexico border in my sphere of concern, despite some formative time in Mexico earlier in my life that broadened my worldview, and since have declared social and environmental justice in this area a priority.
It’s just that I go for long periods without thinking about any of it — because it is out of sight — and I wanted to be viscerally reminded.
Why? Because I strongly believe we absolutely must find ways to combat this proximity principle — everything from climate chaos to global injustices depends upon it.
In other words, we can resist the urge to only care about what we see and feel close to — in part by recognizing that these unseen issues are closer to us than we may think, and also by empathic imagination.
The U.S.-Mexico border situation is a prime example of the out-of-sight, out-of-mind problem. By its very location and the fact that migrants on their journey wish to be unseen — there isn’t much proximity to be had, which is why the myriad of ethical and humanitarian border issues is so easily ignored. But that does not mean that mass suffering is not occurring.
The situation is dire. But few know that. As we walked, my friend explained that more people die here than any other place along the border, and deaths are higher than they’ve been in decades, nearly 300 this past year. Fundamental policy shifts need to occur, obviously, but in the meantime, groups like No More Deaths, The Samaritans and regular citizens leave water, cans of beans, blankets.
While I was standing in the vast quiet — the sound of wind and distant jets from the nearby bombing range echoing — I could feel the truth of that old adage: “People don’t remember what you say or do — they remember how you make them feel.” That’s true of the land, too — if you haven’t felt a place, it’s less likely you’ll want to protect it.
And it’s true for extending empathy to strangers, too. If you haven’t felt frightened by the expanse of this area, or the extreme temperatures, you may not be able to imaginatively conjure up what it would be like for a child out here.
As I stood in the silence, shifting my water-filled backpack, I was struck by how astoundingly invisible and diverse the damage out here is because of that gap.
That night, I gathered around a bonfire with some locals. We sat far apart because of COVID-19, but as close as we could get to the fire because we were cold. The conversation circled round but kept landing on this area’s unique unseen-ness.
After all, the water being left is just for the vague idea of a person, not someone you’ll likely see. The environmental damage is hard to see, too — wetlands depleted or animal migrations routes interrupted or remote sacred spots ruined are not always visually evident — though the beginnings of the wall obviously are.
And what about the invisible damage to human relationships? The Tohono O’odham peoples, for example, have been split apart, and those on the U.S. side can no longer visit relatives in Mexico easily. All this matters, whether we see it or not.
As the night wrapped up, the stars bright in the cold sky, I asked everyone what they wished people knew. What story was not being told?
In one way or another, they all echoed the same thing: So many don’t see what’s going on out here. We wish they could see.
Laura Pritchett is a Colorado teacher and writer. Her novels Red Lightning and Sky Bridge are concerned with social justice issues in this area.
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