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Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road

Past@Present: In September, in connection with an upcoming exhibition at the National Building Museum, Professor Marla Miller undertook a trip to the borderlands separating the U.S. and Mexico. Upon her return, she gave a presentation to the department about this work, and now two of our graduate students are completing internships with the NBM to contribute to this research.  Watch for more on this project from UMass Public History in 2020.

Marla Miller, on Kate Harris, Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road (Dey Street Books, 2018)

In September, I had the privilege of accompanying National Building Museum curator Sarah Leavitt to El Paso, Texas, to contribute to the planning of their 2020 exhibition “The Wall/El Muro: What is a Border Wall?”  Together we visited the National Border Patrol Museum, Chamizal National Memorial, and (easier said than done, but that’s a story for another time) International Boundary Marker #1, placed in 1855, in the aftermath of the US/Mexican War. We explored the Texas and New Mexico borderlands, crossing into Juarez and passing through several check-points across the region.  We accompanied hardworking attorneys from Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center to the El Paso Processing Center, and observed asylum interviews at the Centro de Atención Integral a Migrantes in Juarez. 

It is difficult to describe the emotional terrain these physical travels covered.  The border is visible everywhere, a scar of steel and concrete across the Rio Grande Valley. A constant tension, even fearfulness, permeated our movements: particularly memorable was a moment when, lost and high over Juarez on an I-10 off-ramp, we were afraid that we were somehow accidentally crossing the border, even though that wasn’t really possible, and we as white history professionals with solid citizenship were never in any real danger.  And yet our hearts raced, our relief palpable as we returned to surface streets.  We felt keenly the weight of our privilege as we moved freely across these lands in ways that so many of the people around us could not.

As we traveled, I thought about books I have read or want to read to better understand this fraught subject. On the flight to Texas, I listened to the riveting podcast Border Trilogy, which explores the fascinating and difficult work Jason De Leon describes in The Land of Open Graves (University of California Press, 2015).  I recalled the powerful study we brought out in our UMass Press Series “Public History in Historical Perspective,” Remembering the Forgotten War: The Enduring Legacies of the U.S.-Mexican War, by Michael Scott Van Wagenen (UMass Press, 2012), which contemplates how that conflict appears in expressions of collective memory on both sides of the border. I planned to read other books Sarah recommended, including Carrie Gibson’s El Norte: The Epic and Forgotten Story of Hispanic North America (Grove Atlantic, 2019), and Northland: A 4,000-Mile Journey Along America’s Forgotten Border, by Porter Fox (Norton, 2018).

But my border reading began sooner than expected.  As Sarah and I parted ways, I wanted to pick something up for the flight home.  And Serendipity was kind, because there it was, in the airport bookshop: Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road by Kate Harris (for a traditional review of the book, click here)Just then anything with “borders” in the title would have appealed, but Harris also promised insight into the Silk Road—a longstanding interest for this historian of material culture.  This stunning memoir of Harris’ travels, on bicycle, with a childhood best friend, across Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, China, Tibet, Nepal, and India, and the extended contemplation about crossing borders of all kinds, was exactly what I wanted.

Harris’s lifelong fascination with exploration is rooted in her Ontario childhood, as she explored the land in, around, and beyond her family’s home.  She eventually pursued graduate work in science, intending—as part of her lifetime affinity for difficult, unfamiliar horizons—to be part of the team that one day heads to Mars.  But Mars, she realized, would only ever be encountered via the mediated environments necessary to sustain human life, and she wanted to be in and of the landscapes she traversed.  Eventually, this meant travel — inspired by Marco Polo’s “The Description of the World” – along the Silk Road. By bike.

Harris takes readers along several journeys all at once, from her evolution from aspiring lab scientist, to historian, to traveler and writer. She narrates other trips made, by bicycle, across the US and abroad, as she traces this journey along the Silk Road and shares what she learned about herself, and what happens when the abstracts of international power relations play out on natural and cultural landscapes.  Harris’ prose is downright lyrical, with long, thoughtful passages that range widely and comfortably across science, history, and philosophy.  Lands of Lost Borders is many things: a travelogue, an adventure tale, a scholar’s contemplation of histories of exploration, and a meditation on science, global environments, and the impacts of political contestation on lands and communities.

A historian of science (which she studied formally at Oxford), Harris is inspired by, and critical of, other explorers and scientists (the career of Charles Darwin, in particular, gains scrutiny).  For a reader focused on borders, Harris’ musings are powerful and provocative.  She and her traveling companion were constantly traversing, navigating and evading borders and their accompanying tangible and bureaucratic infrastructures.  The effect of these unseen lines across the very material landscape that she covered pedal by pedal offered constant opportunity for reflection. “We’re so used to thinking of nations as self-evident,” she writes (33), “maps as trusted authorities, the boundaries veining them blue-blooded and sure.”  But in truth, borders are “ghost-like”—“a kind of haunting presence on horizons otherwise fenceless and patrolled only by the wind.” (33) In a passage that flows seamlessly from Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 to 1882) to Hsu Yu (or Xu You, c. 2356–2255 BC),  Harris—quoting the latter’s assertion that “Names are only the guests of reality”— proposes that “boundaries are little more than collective myths—fictions that a certain number of people, for a certain period of time, believe are fact” (115).

Harris’s ruminations resonated with our visit to Chamizal National Memorial, which honors the peaceful resolution of a border dispute.  In the years following the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, as the Rio Grande channel naturally shifted, so too did national land claims.  A century of contention ended in 1962-63 when Presidents John F. Kennedy’s and Adolfo López Mateos resolved the dispute: the U.S. returned land to Mexico, and both nations together relocated four miles of the Rio Grande to a more stable, concrete channel. Land that Mexico transferred to the U.S. was set aside as Chamizal National Memorial, to celebrate the diplomatic success. When Harris asks, on the Aksai Chin, “What if borders at their most basic are just desires written onto lands and lives, trying to foist permanence on the fact of flux?” (33) she could just as easily be commenting on this effort to pin down the Rio Grande.  

When asked, in an interview, about the overriding goal driving her work, Harris responded: “Dissolving the borders that divide people. . . waking people up to the fact that this is one small planet and nothing, truly nothing on it, exists in isolation.” “What happens in a factory in Bangladesh,” she continues, “matters in Canada, what happens to glaciers in Nepal matters in Fiji. We’re all complicit, we’re all connected. . . .   I’d use unlimited resources to educate and inspire people – through art, literature, science – to recognize the complex interdependency of life on Earth, this pale blue dot we all call home.”

Lands of Lost Borders explores the consequences of such artificial propositions.  “The problem with borders,” Harris proposes, “isn’t that they are monstrous, offensive, and unnatural constructions.”  Rather, their menace is grounded in the same “evil that Hannah Arendt identified—their banality” (245).  “We subconsciously accept them,” she continues, “as part of the landscape—at least those of us privileged by them, granted meaningful passports—because they articulate our deepest, lease exalted desired, for prestige and permanence, order and security, always at the cost of someone or something else. Borders reinforce the idea of the alien, the Other, stories separate and distinct from ourselves. But would such fictions continue to stand if most of us didn’t agree with them, or at least quietly benefit from the inequalities they bolster?”

In the end, it’s hard not to follow Harris to the end of her through-line.  “The barbed wire begins here, inside us,” she concludes, “cutting through our very core” (245).