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Originally published September 19, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 23, 2008 at 12:09 PM

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Book review

"Vanishing Borderlands": Beauty, danger of U.S.-Mexico border captured

In his new book "Vanishing Borderlands," author/photographer John Annerino documents the imperiled beauty of the harsh and dangerous land along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Special to The Seattle Times

"Vanishing Borderlands: The Fragile Landscape of the U.S.-Mexico Border"

by John Annerino

The Countryman Press, 128 pp., $29.95

During the past two decades, author/photographer John Annerino has published 11 books and 21 single-artist calendars featuring his beloved country, the Texas-Mexico borderlands. The former wilderness guide and river boatman has seen this "extraordinary and dangerous paradise," home to many UNESCO World Biosphere Preserves, as well as national parks, monuments and wildlife refuges, become a battleground in the drug wars and a killing field for thousands of would-be immigrants. In brief travel essays and with skilled photographic imagery, "Vanishing Borderlands" artfully captures the beauty and fragility of this setting, its people, flora and fauna.

Bottom line: These borderlands are "not a safe place." They were always primal Wild West territory, but now Border Patrol and DEA agents — even tourists and National Park Service rangers — have been killed here. Deserts, once protected by remote locations, deadly cold or waterless, searing heat, are routinely torn up by smuggling activities and off-road pursuits. They are littered with abandoned vehicles, test-range targets and downed aircraft, ripped-up airstrips, trash and urban pollution. The $2.4 billion Secure Fence Act of 2006, which provided a 698-mile barrier meant to curb immigration, has created an ecological nightmare, a detriment to delicate habitats and easily reduced to pointlessness by ladders, ramps, steel bracing, demolition, tree limbs, ropes and human determination.

What Annerino accomplishes quickly and gracefully with this coffee-table book, which balances the region's grandeurs with its truths, is an eye opener. On one page, two rare mountain-lion cubs in Mexico's Sonoran Desert Ecological Reserve face his camera, while on another page, a pair of suspected drug "mules" sit handcuffed. Elsewhere, a serene adobe church glows in amber evening light, while further on, a Blackhawk helicopter patrols Arizona's Organ Pipe National Monument, a gunner leaning out the doorway. The sinuous sand dunes of Anza Borrego Desert State Park in California and the perfectly balanced red rocks of Big Bend National Park in Texas are juxtaposed by a striking portrait of retired Interpol/undercover agent Joe Parra Berumi, or a peaceful landscape marred by abandoned marijuana bales.

Recently, confrontations have escalated, with smugglers "standing their ground, guarding their loads, and shooting back in deadly firefights." Sadly, coyotes — human traffickers — are far more willing to abandon their charges. A Mexican family portrait shows two parents and their young daughters, "blissfully unaware of the deadly hazards" they could face in crossing the border.

With a light touch, Annerino quotes a few historians to help provide a context for this "forgotten country," then cites some authors such as Ambrose Bierce (who died here somewhere) and Ed Abbey (who was buried here somewhere), as well as anonymous people currently making their perilous living here.

Annerino calls the borderlands a "ravaged landscape" under siege. As an introduction to a highly troubled place of devastating beauty, his book does readers a service. The borderlands need not become a series of wastelands, he shows. Americans should demand a more intelligent approach to the area's problems. A big wall, as China and Germany learned, is a doomed, childish answer to pressures that require caring and complicated resolutions.

Annerino proposes no solutions, but shows why this great natural treasure deserves to be conserved, why we should move on from yet another "war that America still hasn't won."

Irene Wanner is a writer living in New Mexico.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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