An Oyster Bed, a Wildlife Refuge, and a Border Wall : New Worlder

Over the course of multiple parts, our latest series will look at the daily intricacies and deep contradictions of life in a South Texas border town. Sharing tradition, culture, and family with our Mexican neighbors, writer Melissa Guerra takes us on a narrative journey of her homeland, sticking strictly to description and narrative and veering away from politics in a powerful collection of personal stories. Click here read the first entry in this series, Stories from a Texas Border Ranch or the second, The Nameless, Faceless Migrant.

As a young artist, my husband used to spend time painting en plein aire, or on location, along the banks of the Rio Grande. One of his favorite places to paint, there was a boulder that jutted out to form a bluff where he would set up his easel and paint box to capture the placid water of the river below. From his vantage point above the international border, he could paint the landscapes of Mexico and the USA at the same time. Around him were the historical buildings of Roma, Texas, which was settled by the Spanish in 1765. More than a few of these buildings had belonged to his family.

We hadn’t visited Roma in several years and our neighbor, Victoria, who lives on the next ranch over told us of her summer field trip to the ancient oyster beds along the Rio Grande. While the beds have been on the shores of the Rio Grande for about 35 million years, I was only just now getting the memo. “They are going to crunch right though the oyster beds to build the Border Wall, you know,” said Victoria, as we chatted about the river. No, I didn’t know. So of course, being a regional food historian, I made plans for my own field trip.

I had often wondered what the environmental impact of the Border Wall would be on our area. The Rio Grande Valley is a major migration portal for birds flying from South and Central America to the United States and Canada, and our brush land is teeming with whitetail deer, javalina (wild boar) and several endangered cat species such as the ocelot and jaguarundi. Even though our area is dotted with the occasional artesian well and dry creek bed, we have no natural lakes, and no other running rivers. A fortified, guarded border wall along our area’s only fresh water river would certainly affect our wildlife population.

A fortified, guarded border wall along our area’s only fresh water river would certainly affect our wildlife population.

Because we have such plentiful wildlife, we also have a regional history of poaching. Our cattle ranch has always been a target for poachers during hunting season. Through the years, game wardens kept vigil on our farm to market road, while slow-driving pickups scanned our fence line for errant emerging game, or trespassing hunters they had dropped off earlier. But it has been a couple of years since I have seen a game warden. Nowadays, the law enforcement dressed in green is Border Patrol, instead watching for the human traffickers and drug smugglers that slowly cruise our same farm to market road, looking to pick up slyly hidden bundles of narcotics, or attempting to drop off stealthy northern bound migrant trekkers that have elected a cross country route. Born and raised here, I have personally witnessed the transformation of our ranching community from a notably abundant wildlife corridor to a notably vigorous human trafficking and smuggling corridor.

The international border between Mexico and the Unites States is located in the middle of the river, not on dry land. This proves problematic when apprehending those that cross the border without proper documentation. How do you safely apprehend a swimmer? Border Patrol elects to allow the swimmers to reach the river banks before apprehension, to prevent drowning. So technically, that means the U.S. authorities are allowing our border to be breached. Some people feel that we are giving up U.S. territory by allowing this breach, but it would be impossible to build a wall down the middle of the Rio Grande — from its source in Colorado to the point it empties into the Gulf of Mexico near Brownsville, Texas. Construction of the wall on the banks of the Rio Grande is what our politicians have decided is in our nation’s best interest. Hence, my concern about the toll it would take on the local environment.

As an amateur naturalist, this question plagued me as my trip to the oyster beds approached. I wondered if oysters could exist in the middle of desert-like Starr County. I couldn’t find any information on freshwater oysters in Texas. Perhaps Victoria was referring to the fresh water mussels that can be found in the Rio Grande, such as the Tampico Pearly Mussel, Three Ridges, Maple Leafs, or Washboard mussels.

Were these oyster beds considered shell middens? A midden is a nicer word for “historical garbage dump,” but middens provide fascinating time capsules of early human culture. One of my local history books lists the names of over 300 indigenous tribes that thrived along the Rio Grande between Laredo and Brownsville. Tribes that ate fresh water mollusks would many times dispose of the shells, and other bits of garbage such as broken pottery or textiles remnants in one central pile. If excavated, a riverside oyster bed could provide an incredibly complete story of our local history, our predecessors, and ourselves.

After asking several Border Patrol agents, knocking on the door of a very nice home-owner with five raucous teacup chihuahuas, and a long phone conversation and texting session with Victoria, we finally found the walking trail to the oyster beds. “Just follow the footpath through the tall grass, and you will get there,” said Victoria. “Not too many tourists go there, but, well…people walk up from the river all the time, so the grass has been matted down into a path.” Hmm, ok.

…you could tell by the deep layers of gargantuan shells that the oyster bed was ancient, perhaps millions of years old.

Sure enough, walking down to the bed on the matted grass, we could see that they were indeed oysters. And, you could tell by the deep layers of gargantuan shells that the oyster bed was ancient, perhaps millions of years old. The oyster bed stretched for about 150 yards away from the river’s edge, but gave the impression that more was buried under the river silt that had been washed into drifts during past river risings. Some of the shells were bigger than my foot. I laid down in the damp grass and watched the river swiftly roll by.

In addition to the oyster shells, we found a stone ax head, and chipped flint left by indigenous tribes that crafted arrowheads along the river banks. We also found soda bottles, rusted pocketknife handles, bicycle wheels, and broken shards of crockery – evidence of both ancient and recent human activity.

Though this bed never produced oysters commercially for the modern market, tribes along the river probably harvested these oysters, which may have led to the eventual settlement of Roma by the Spanish in 1765. In my historical understanding of colonies, towns didn’t just pop up at random. The Spanish colonists would simply take control of locations already vetted, developed and populated by native tribes. Not only did this particular point in the river provide food that didn’t require serious effort for humans to gather, but the oysters would have enticed and attracted scavenging varmints, which the tribes, and eventually colonists, could easily hunt. There is a reason humans and wildlife thrived at this point, and I believe it was the anomaly of the oysters.

Half of the butterfly species in North America can be found at the Santa Ana Refuge. Local and national naturalists are outraged by the prospect of this refuge being destroyed.

Just down the river from the oyster beds is the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, a 2,088 acre park that was set aside in 1943 to protect migratory birds. Referred to many times as the “jewel of the National Wildlife Refuge System,” the border wall will decimate this refuge, which is famous for its endangered jaguarundi and ocelot population. Half of the butterfly species in North America can be found at the Santa Ana Refuge. Local and national naturalists are outraged by the prospect of this refuge being destroyed. I am deeply saddened by its forthcoming demolition, and perhaps a tad nostalgic; I visited this refuge on school field trips when I was a kid.

Constructing a wall that cuts off access to our only source of water contradicts the simple, natural function of a river: life. Since prehistory, the Rio Grande is where wildlife and humans have thrived and the flowing water a gathering point for all living creatures. And while the ancient oyster bed I visited is an aggregate of shells that no longer supports living creatures, and saving it could be considered sentimental, it begs the question of whether preserving a wildlife refuge would be an act of nostalgia, as well.

As we trekked back to the truck, and stowed our gear, I suggested that we go back to the historical area in Roma where my husband used to paint, for old times sake. We headed to the bluff, and were surprised to find a new observation deck built over the boulder where he used to paint. Standing overlooking the river, we could see the families on the Mexican side enjoying fresh air along the banks. Fancy sports cars with dark tinted windows, and chrome trimmed pick-up trucks slowly cruised the banks as well, scanning the U.S. side for activity, watching those that were watching them.

As might be expected, a couple of Border Patrol agents were casually standing on the far side of the deck. Seemingly mumbling to each other, we didn’t think much of them until a Border Patrol vehicle pulled into sight below the bluff. Some young voices followed and we realized that the agents were speaking not to each other, but some very muddy young people that had been hiding in the thorny, riverside shrubs. Helping them onto the bluff, the agents commenced with their patrol process. Since our last visit to Roma, the vantage point from the boulder had definitely changed.

As we drove home, I thought about the oyster beds, the refuge and their potential obliteration as the Border Wall is built, steadying the flow of migrants like the ones we had just witnessed emerging from the riverbank. A day with such clear implications on all sides, it seemed such a shame that having weathered 35 million years, the oyster beds would be gone in less than a day’s time once bulldozers arrived. An archaeological dig could have given us more knowledge about those 300 tribes that lived in my area along the river. If excavating an ancient oyster bed could tell us more about our local history, our predecessors, and ourselves, what will its destruction say about us?