See the first-ever survey of the Atascosa Highlands
An ecologist and a photographer teamed to document and build a living archive of the Borderlands’ biodiversity — before it’s too late.
For a few weeks in April and May, the elegant trogon (Trogon elegans) breeds in the rugged Atascosa Highlands that straddle the Arizona-Mexico border, flashes of its brilliant crimson belly occasionally visible among the sycamore trees. The birds are migrants, exiled from a historic range that extends through Mexico as far south as Costa Rica. Driven by climate change, habitat loss and wildfire, they flee north in search of a cooler land.
Trogons are one of the many rare birds found in the four small mountain ranges that make up the highlands at the junction of the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts. Some of the peaks rise 6,000 feet above the surrounding desert, creating their own ecosystems, each so distinct and biologically diverse that they are known as “sky islands.”
The Atascosa Highlands are the homeland of the Tohono O’odham and Hohokam people, and the area is full of the remnants of human history: the Indigenous stewards whose controlled burns encouraged an even greater variety of vegetation; the 19th century miners who scoured Walker Canyon for silver; the buffalo soldiers of the 10th Cavalry who fought in World War I. The land is scarred by the infrastructure of an arbitrary border, with razor-wire fences and forbidding walls, and it continues to be threatened by border construction. But people still move across the landscape, sharing their stories and lives, engaging in commerce along International Avenue in the border-straddling city of Nogales, which hugs the Highlands’ southeastern edge.
This part of the Borderlands has been widely examined through the lens of politics and human migration but scarcely considered on its own terms. Yet it is an ecological utopia, a place of rich biodiversity and myriad communities of wrens, warblers and trogons, oak groves and acacia, javelina and mountain lions, prickly pear and piñon.
The images presented here are part of an ongoing project by ecologist Jack Dash and photographer Luke Swenson, who are creating the first — and so far, only — comprehensive botanical survey of the Atascosa Highlands. As Dash and Swenson started to document the highlands’ natural environment, they realized they couldn’t address the landscape without acknowledging the impact humans have had on it — and continue to have, through large-scale projects and the impacts of climate change. They discovered that there is no dividing line between history and natural history. With the Atascosa Highlands hosting roughly half of Arizona’s bird species and one-quarter of its flora, including several species that are not known to exist anywhere else in the United States, the project has become both an elegy and a baseline, a chronicle of the region at this particular moment in time, and a way to acknowledge what is there before it is gone. — Paige Blankenbuehler