Climate Conversations

The climate and landscapes are shifting in Arizona and around the globe. When does the environment begin to intersect with the human experience? Why are the humanities important to environmental issues? Join us for a series of conversations with scholars and community leaders exploring our environment through the lens of literature, history, art, climate justice, and much more.

Climate Conversations is made possible by funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities through the A More Perfect Union Initiative. 

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Science Dance: Can Dance Move Us Toward Sustainability?

Talking about the climate crisis and its impact on the planet and our communities is challenging. Is there a way to bring joy into the conversation? Can art and movement inspire hope and action? One innovative approach is science dance, a program that uses dance to express science concepts. Join marine sustainability scientist and dance choreographer Dr. Lekelia Jenkins for a talk about how dance can help people process and understand difficult topics.  

Dr. Lekelia “Kiki” Jenkins is a marine sustainability scientist, science dance choreographer, and Associate Professor at Arizona State University.  Her commitment to nature was nurtured by her childhood in Baltimore, Maryland, where she fished and crabbed recreationally on the Chesapeake Bay. She received her PhD from Duke University by pioneering a new field of study into the invention and adoption of marine conservation technology.  Her research centers on the human dimensions of marine sustainability solutions, including fisheries conservation technologies and marine renewable energy. Her work has led to regulatory changes that allow more sustainable fishing practices, has advised international fisheries diplomacy, and has informed renewable energy policy. Dr. Jenkins also studies and practices science dance as a means of science engagement, science communication, and social change.

Food Sovereignty in the Desert: Reclaiming Traditional O’odham Foodways

Traditional foodways of the Tohono O’odham are inextricably linked to their ancestral lands in the Sonoran Desert. O’odham knowledge of hunting, farming, and harvesting wild foods has evolved over generations and continues to adapt to the land. How are communities sharing contemporary cultivation methods? How is climate change affecting traditional foodways? What can we learn from O’odham practices for sustainability? Join us for a conversation with Dr. Jacelle Ramon-Sauberan about the cultural food systems of the Tohono O’odham and their connection to the land, plants, and animals.

Dr. Jacelle Ramon-Sauberan is Tohono O’odham and from the San Xavier District. She serves as faculty in the Tohono O’odham Studies Program at Tohono O’odham Community College. Dr. Ramon-Sauberan also serves as the Tohono O’odham Nation Education Development Liaison for Kitt Peak National Observatory.  She earned her PhD in American Indian Studies with a minor in Journalism at the University of Arizona in May 2023. Her research focused on the history of land and water in the San Xavier District and she has written for news publications across the US including Indian Country Today. 

Aldo Leopold Listens to the Southwest 

Forester Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) is considered one of the founding voices of environmental ethics. In 1909, as a new ranger in the recently established Apache National Forest, Leopold shot a wolf in northeastern Arizona. At the time, he sensed something was wrong, but it would take 35 years for him to express his unease in “Thinking Like a Mountain,” one of the most famous essays in environmental literature. What spurred him toward that monumental statement? Join environmental historian Dr. Dan Shilling for a talk about how the seeds of Leopold’s revolutionary thought can be found in his years in Arizona and New Mexico (1909-1924). In particular, Dr. Shilling explores how Indigenous attitudes toward nature helped shape Leopold’s nearly 40-year intellectual journey.

Dan Shilling moved to Arizona in 1980 and earned his PhD from Arizona State University. He joined Arizona Humanities as a program officer in 1984, and was named executive director in 1989. At AH he developed several award-winning projects on environmental history and community building. After leaving AH, he directed a three-year project on place-based tourism. That research earned Dan the Arizona Office of Tourism “Person of the Year Award” and resulted in the book, Civic Tourism: The Poetry and Politics of Place. Since 2009 he has co-directed three NEH Summer Institutes on environmental ethics for university professors. Dan’s most recent publication, co-edited with Melissa Nelson, is Traditional Ecological Knowledge: Learning from Indigenous Practices for Environmental Sustainability (Cambridge 2018). Dan has served on more than 50 boards and commissions; to acknowledge his service ASU presented him one of its most prestigious honors, the Distinguished Alumnus Award.

Who Has Access? Water and Life along the Colorado River

Access to water is essential for communities across Arizona. Climate change and drought are worsening water issues in the Southwest, especially for many living on the Navajo Nation. How are past water laws, current policies, and recent Supreme Court decisions shaping water rights today? Who has water, and who does not? Join us for a Q&A conversation about tribal water rights and environmental justice with Cora Tso, attorney with Western Resource Advocates. We will talk about the importance of water to life and health for communities on the Navajo Nation, and potential solutions to water inequity.

Cora Tso is the outdoor equity attorney for the Western lands team at Western Resource Advocates. As an environmental law and policy expert, she works to preserve natural landscapes, promote outdoor equity, and ensure sustainable access to public lands and waters in the West. Previously, she served as an attorney candidate in the Water Rights Unit at the Navajo Nation Department of Justice, where she helped to secure and protect the Nation’s water rights claims across Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. Tso is an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation. She is of the Reed People clan and born for the Black Streaked Wood clan. Her maternal grandparents are of the Bitterwater clan and her paternal grandparents are of the Red House clan. She was born and raised on the Navajo reservation and is originally from Shonto, Arizona.

A Tale of Two Forests: Histories of Ecology and Management in Mexico and Arizona

Why does Arizona hold prescribed burns of over-dense forest, when most of Mexico has no need to, even in similar ecosystems? Who lives in Arizona forestlands, and Mexican ones, and why does it matter? Why do some large mammals (the Mexican wolf and mule deer, among others) thrive in one country more than the other? Join us for a talk with Dr. Chris Boyer as we unravel these questions through the lens of environmental history in a bid to learn from each nation’s experience.

Chris Boyer is Dean of Arts and Letters and Professor of History at Northern Arizona University. A specialist on the social and environmental history of Modern Mexico and Latin America, he has published and taught widely in English, Spanish and Portuguese. His most recent book, Political Landscapes, investigates social history of forest management in Mexico between 1880 and 2000, with special emphasis on the experiences of Chihuahua and Michoacán. He has published a volume of environmental histories of modern Mexico titled A Land Between Waters that represents the first binational reflection on Mexican environmental history. He co-edits a University of Arizona Press book series on Latin American environmental history. He was a visiting scholar at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in 2017, where he taught and continued work on his current research project that traces the how green revolution technologies pioneered in Mexico such as the improvement of cultivars and the application of agrochemicals, are linked with the industrialization of foodways in Mexico and beyond.


Hot House: The Converging Crises of Housing Shortage and Climate Change

Arizona is on the frontlines of two simultaneous modern crises: a housing shortage crisis and a climate change crisis. These two problems are generally addressed separately, but how we solve one will impact our options for solving the other. Join environmental journalist Joan Meiners for a talk about a project to be published in The Arizona Republic that explores the intersection of these two crises and how we can build better to prepare for a warmer, drier future.

Joan Meiners is the Climate News and Storytelling Reporter at The Arizona Republic and azcentral. She previously worked as an environment reporter in St. George, Utah for The Spectrum News and in New Orleans at The Times-Picayune The New Orleans Advocate as part of ProPublica’s 2019 Local Reporting Network. Her work has received multiple national awards, including the 2020 Nina Mason Pulliam award for Outstanding Environmental Reporting and the 2020 Kevin Carmody award for Outstanding Investigative Reporting, as well as the National Association of Science Writer’s 2020 Science in Society award and a 2021 Feature Story award from The Society of Environmental Journalists. Before becoming a journalist, she completed a Ph.D. in Ecology, studying the ecology of native bees.

Story of Water: Heroes of the Water Monster with Author Brian Young

The recording is no longer available.

Join Brian Young for a reading and conversation about his new book, Heroes of the Water Monster, companion to Healer of the Water Monster, which won the American Indian Youth Literature Award. Young will discuss water in the Southwest, how water consumption affects Native communities, and how stories can help us understand environmental issues.

Author and filmmaker, Brian Young is a graduate of both Yale University with a Bachelor’s in Film Studies and Columbia University with a Master’s in Creative Writing Fiction. An enrolled member of the Navajo Nation, he grew up on the Navajo Reservation but now currently lives in Brooklyn, New York. As an undergraduate, Brian won a fellowship with the prestigious Sundance Ford Foundation with one of his feature length scripts. He has worked on several short films including Tsídii Nááts’íílid – Rainbow Bird and A Conversation on Race with Native Americans for the short documentary series produced by the New York Times. Brian is currently working on another book with Heartdrum, an imprint of HarperCollins.

Connections to Natural Material: Native Culture Today and Tomorrow

From birth to death, the mesquite tree is an integral part of life for many who call the desert home. The mesquite tree is just one of many holistic materials, elements of our natural environment, that are vital to sustaining Native culture and practices. But climate change and environmental degradation are changing the landscapes of Arizona. From the lack of water resources to the loss of mesquite trees, the future is uncertain. Join us for a program about water, land, and the environmental challenges impacting Native communities with artist and community activist, Yolanda Hart Stevens.

Yolanda Hart Stevens is Pee-Posh/Kwatsan from the Yuman Peoples of the Colorado River. She is a successful artist and community activist. An artist in residence at the Heard Museum, her art (presentation) has been featured in exhibitions as far away as New Zealand. Yolanda is passionately involved in spreading knowledge of, and appreciation for, Native American art and culture. She shares her knowledge of bead working and traditional dance with youth and elders through various community events. She volunteers at the Boys & Girls Club Komatke Branch Gila River and Indigenous Tribal Museums in the southwest. She also works with a contemporary artist group called “Indigenous Artists Continuum” to effectively communicate with other Native American Artists in surrounding urban areas in Arizona to acknowledge, identify and incorporate design.

Legacy of Extraction: Abandoned Mines on the Navajo Nation

Mining companies extracted millions of tons of uranium from the Navajo Nation between 1944 and 1986. Today hundreds of abandoned uranium mines litter the Navajo Nation. How have the Navajo people, land, and water suffered from exposure to these mines? Are people still at risk of radiation exposure? What is being done by the federal government to clean up contaminated sites? While they wait for cleanup, communities continue to bring awareness to and educate others about the physical and environmental hazards of the mines. How much has been lost and damaged? How do the Navajo people feel?  Join investigative journalist, Arlyssa Becenti, as she reports on the abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation, and its ramifications.

Arlyssa Becenti is a multi-award winning Diné journalist from Fort Defiance, Arizona, with over ten years experience reporting on Navajo Nation. In 2020, she placed first for Arizona Press Club’s community investigative reporting for her series on the illegal hemp and marijuana farms in Shiprock, New Mexico. She was also awarded Arizona Press Club’s 2020 Nina Mason Pulliam Environmental Journalism Award for community reporting. She currently is the Indigenous Affairs reporter for The Arizona Republic, and has reported for the daily Gallup Independent, and weekly Navajo Times. She was a Roy W. Howard fellow at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, where she recently obtained her masters in investigative journalism. 



De-Colonizing the Colorado River: Can We Re-Think Our Relationship with Water?

Climate change is seen as the main culprit behind a drier, hotter Arizona. But what are the other factors contributing toward our water crisis? For 100 years, the Colorado River Compact established the law of the river. It codified water rights and spurred the modernization of water infrastructure. It fundamentally reshaped the natural environment and the way of life for Indigenous nations. What is the cultural legacy and impact of Arizona’s dams, reservoirs, and water systems? Can Indigenous ways of thinking about our relationship to water and land help us tackle the challenges of our changing environment? Join us for a lively program with Dr. Andrew Curley as we reexamine the past to help us think about the future of water in the Southwest.

Andrew Curley is an Assistant Professor in the School of Geography, Development & Environment at the University of Arizona. Dr. Curley’s research focuses on the on the everyday incorporation of Indigenous nations into colonial economies. Building on ethnographic research, his publications speak to how Indigenous communities understand coal, energy, land, water, infrastructure, and development in an era of energy transition and climate change.

Atascosa Borderlands: Visual Storytelling along the Arizona-Sonora Border

Along the US-Mexico border lies a remote expanse of the Coronado National Forest in Southern Arizona known as the Atascosa Highlands. An important biological and cultural corridor between Mexico and the United States, the Atascosas take up less than 1% of Arizona’s overall landmass, but host one-quarter of the state’s flora, including species which are found nowhere else in the United States. While conducting an ecological flora and photographic survey, documentary photographer Luke Swenson and naturalist and writer Jack Dash, observed firsthand the complex cultural, historical, and ecological significance of this notoriously rugged landscape. They examined the region’s use as a migratory and smuggling route, and witnessed recent border wall construction and ongoing environmental and social disruptions in the area.  The ecological survey and their observations inspired them to create Atascosa Borderlands, a community-based visual storytelling project combining original film photography, recorded oral history interviews, a botanical collection, and digital archive of historical photographs from community members, State and National archives.  This interactive session will explore the nuanced realities of the Arizona-Sonora Borderlands, the voices of cattle ranchers, ecologists, humanitarian aid workers, migrants, militia members, coues deer hunters, ex-border patrol agents, and indigenous community members.

Jack Dash is a naturalist and writer based in Tucson, Arizona. He works as a horticulturist with the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and is Vice President of the Tucson Native Plant Society.

Luke Swenson is a documentary photographer based in Portland, Oregon. He is a graduate of Pratt Institute’s BFA Photography program in Brooklyn, New York.

How Will Arizona’s Future Be Shaped by Water? with Sarah Porter

Water is key to Arizona’s future. Conditions on the Colorado River are worsening at an alarming rate. Water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead are plunging to record lows. Arizona is experiencing unprecedented drought compounded by climate change. How will water shortages change the landscape and environment across the state—today and in the future? Will the lack of water affect rural and urban communities and industries in the same way? How should water equity and access be determined? What can we do to save water? Join us for a timely conversation about water and what comes next.

Sarah Porter is Director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy. The Kyl Center promotes research, analysis, collaboration, and open dialogue to build consensus in support of sound water stewardship solutions for Arizona and the West. Before leading the Kyl Center, Porter served as the Arizona state director of the National Audubon Society and led the Western Rivers project, a multi-state initiative to protect and restore important river habitats in the Intermountain West. As deputy directory of Audubon Arizona, Porter was a key team member in the effort to launch the Nina Mason Pulliam Rio Salado Audubon Center, a nature education center located in a restored riparian habitat in South Phoenix. She is a member of the Governor’s Water Augmentation, Innovation and Conservation Council and Phoenix’s Environmental Quality and Sustainability Commission.

Science & Storytelling: Talking with Author and Scientist Darcie Little Badger

From extreme weather disasters to shrinking wildlife habitats, climate change is impacting us now…and shaping a new future. These environmental themes appear throughout the work of Lipan Apache writer and earth scientist, Darcie Little Badger. Drawing upon her background in climate science and Lipan storytelling, Dr. Little Badger imagines alternate futures and parallel worlds with magic and monsters in her short stories and books for young adults. In her most recent, award-winning novel, A Snake Falls to Earth, the story is told through the perspective of a Lipan girl living in a futuristic Texas threatened by natural disasters and invasive monster species. How does the natural world inspire new genres in literature? How can literature influence a young generation of readers inheriting the challenges of the climate crisis? Join us for a lively conversation with Darcie Little Badger about writing fiction in a time of climate change.

Darcie Little Badger is a Lipan Apache writer with a PhD in oceanography. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, Elatsoe, was featured in Time Magazine as one of the best 100 fantasy books of all time. Elatsoe also won the Locus award for Best First Novel and is a Nebula, Ignyte, and Lodestar finalist. Her second fantasy novel, A Snake Falls to Earth, received a Newbery Honor and is on the National Book Awards longlist. Darcie is married to a veterinarian named Taran. 

“The Desertification Cookbook”: Revitalizing Desert Wasteland through Land Art

Development in desert cities has created new homes and opportunities in the Southwest, but has also stripped away parts of the natural environment and its rich history. Can urban pockets of degraded land be revitalized? Can the history and the ecological value of these places be reclaimed sustainably? The answers may lie in a 30-year land art project in Pueblo, Colorado. Matt Garcia and April Bojorquez, artists, educators, and founders of DesertArtLAB, transform “wasteland” into a productive and edible landscape in their public art initiative: “The Desertification Cookbook.”  They bring together art and place, ecology and community, in an ambitious multi-phase project set to span decades. Join us for a conversation with Garcia and Bojorquez as they discuss the development of their land art project, from its roots in Phoenix to its realization in Pueblo.

DesertArtLAB is an interdisciplinary environmental arts collaborative co-directed by April Bojorquez and Matt Garcia. Their work promotes Indigenous/Chicanx perspectives on ecological practice, food sovereignty, self-determination, and climate change. DesertArtLAB’s projects activate public space through participatory artworks and support the restoration of desert environments and their foodways through zero irrigation regrowth projects. DesertArtLAB have presented their work nationally and internationally at Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris, France; The Museum of Contemporary Native Art, Santa Fe, NM; the Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara, Galería de la Raza (San Francisco), among many others.April and Matt are recipients of the Creative Capital award and were 2021 Mellon Artists in Residence at the Colorado College Fine Arts Center Museum; they live and work in Pueblo, Colorado.

Caretakers of the Land: A Story of Farming and Community in San Xavier with Jacelle Ramon-Sauberan

Farming has always been the way of life for the Tohono O’odham community in San Xavier, located just south of Tucson. Their way of life depended on access to the land and to the water, namely the Santa Cruz River, which nourished agriculture in the area for generations. But a history of division sown through government land allotments and land development plans, coupled with the declining flow of the Santa Cruz, fractured community farming. How did the community come together to revitalize the land for future generations? What lessons can we learn from their story? Join Jacelle Ramon-Sauberan for a program about land, water, and community in San Xavier.

Jacelle Ramon-Sauberan is Tohono O’odham and from the San Xavier District. She currently teaches in the Tohono O’odham Studies Program at Tohono O’odham Community College. Ramon-Sauberan is a Doctoral Candidate in American Indian Studies with a minor in Journalism at the University of Arizona. Her research focuses on the history of land and water in the San Xavier District and she has written for news publications across the US including Indian Country Today Media Network. Ramon-Sauberan is also an information specialist for the National Science Foundation’s AURA/NOIR Lab.

Considering Climate Equity: Stories of Extreme Heat in Our Cities with Dr. Melissa Guardaro

Heat in Arizona has long impacted the way people across the state live, work, and build their communities. Perhaps one of the most noticeable effects of climate change that we feel today is the sharply rising temperature in our cities. Climate change affects everyone, but not always in equal measure. Some neighborhoods experience urban heat differently from others. What is the difference and why does it happen? Which communities are most at risk? What can we do to reduce the effects of urban heat? Join us for an interactive discussion about climate equity, urban heat, and potential solutions, told through the stories of our communities with Dr. Melissa Guardaro.

This program includes a brief video, “How America’s hottest city is trying to cool down,” by Vox. Watch the video here

Melissa Guardaro is Assistant Research Professor in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University. Her research focuses on adaptability, equity, vulnerability, and urban policy to mitigate and adapt to extreme heat and urban heat island effects. She has partnered with The Nature Conservancy, the Maricopa County Health Department, and community-based organizations to create neighborhood heat solutions that improve public health. In her work, Dr. Guardaro weaves together storytelling and human experiences with data-driven research. The people that live and work in urban heat zones are an important part of the conversation about community-based solutions and public health.

Hippie Modernism: Literature, Counterculture, and Transforming Our Natural World with Dr. Gioia Wood

A dramatic surge in human activity, known as the Great Acceleration, transformed our natural world beginning in the mid-twentieth century. People’s relationship with the planet fundamentally shifted. In the United States in the late 1960s and into the 1970s, literature, literary production, and literary consumption became keenly attuned to ecological consciousness. Two significant, intersecting concerns informed this trend: the social dissonance and environmental destruction created by consumer capitalism, and the changing ideas around individual consciousness. Join us as Dr. Gioia Woods explores the environmental and cultural shifts that informed this new ecological consciousness and look at the ways literature of the era came to embody these changing values.

Gioia Woods is professor of Humanities, president’s distinguished teaching fellow, and chair of the Department of Comparative Cultural Studies at Northern Arizona University. Dr. Woods’s teaching and research in the environmental humanities focuses on the ways in which humans understand and construct relationships with the non-human natural world. A recent Fulbright Teaching Fellow trained in American literature, Dr. Woods is the author of articles on environmental literature, American literature of dissent, and literature of the American West.

Cotton, Cattle, Citrus–and Climate: Will Arizona have water to grow food and fiber? with Sarah Porter

Arizona has a long history of thriving agriculture: For generations, agricultural production was the linchpin of the state’s economy, and cotton, cattle and citrus production had a significant influence on how Arizona communities grew. Today, while agriculture comprises only a small fraction of the state’s gross domestic product, it still accounts for over 70% of the consumptive use of water. As Arizona adjusts to a hotter, drier future, can farming survive? How can the state sustain agricultural production and do so more sustainably? Join us for an important conversation about farming, water and our future.

Sarah Porter is Director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy. The Kyl Center promotes research, analysis, collaboration, and open dialogue to build consensus in support of sound water stewardship solutions for Arizona and the West. Before leading the Kyl Center, Porter served as the Arizona state director of the National Audubon Society and led the Western Rivers project, a multi-state initiative to protect and restore important river habitats in the Intermountain West. As deputy directory of Audubon Arizona, Porter was a key team member in the effort to launch the Nina Mason Pulliam Rio Salado Audubon Center, a nature education center located in a restored riparian habitat in South Phoenix. She is a member of the Governor’s Water Augmentation, Innovation and Conservation Council and Phoenix’s Environmental Quality and Sustainability Commission.

State of Water: Looking Toward an Uncertain Future with Joanna Allhands

Does Arizona have enough water? How concerned should we be about the state’s dwindling water supply? In this 60-minute session, we’ll discuss where our water comes from, what’s threatening those supplies, and what you and the wider state can do to prepare for a hotter, drier future. Water policy is complex, but the goal is to break down the basics into understandable bites – and perhaps dispel a few myths along the way.

Joanna Allhands is digital opinions editor for The Arizona Republic, responsible for AZCentral’s online opinions content. She also writes opinions about water, education, and COVID-19 policy. Allhands has been with The Arizona Republic since 2004.

Bridging Law and Our Natural Resources, Yesterday and Today with Dr. Michael Brescia

Water is one of the most valuable and contested natural resources in the American West. Communities have been fighting for access to scarce water sources for quite some time. How are water rights determined in areas that were once part of Spain and Mexico? Why are these old laws, customs, and usages still in effect and still practiced throughout the Southwest? Disputes over natural resources require navigating both thorny historical and legal issues. Spanish colonialism and U.S. expansionism have played defining roles in shaping debates over access and control of natural resources, from water to land to minerals. Join us as historian Dr. Michael Brescia unpacks the complex historical and contemporary issues regarding water rights and policy with multiple historical threads.

Michael Brescia is Curator of Ethnohistory at the Arizona State Museum and affiliated Professor of History and Law at the University of Arizona. His research and numerous publications focus on the history of the transnational Southwest and the living legacies of Spanish and Mexican natural resource law and water rights. As a scholar working at the intersection of history, law, and the environment, he has served as an expert witness in water rights cases in Arizona and New Mexico. Dr. Brescia is an award-winning teacher, advocate for the public humanities, and the 2021 recipient of the Dan Shilling Humanities Public Scholar Award from Arizona Humanities.

The Humanities, the Arts, and the Climate Crisis with Sir Jonathan Bate

We think of science and public policy as the only ways to fight the climate crisis, but the humanities and the arts are vital too. They give us the narratives and the emotional engagement that we need to address the environmental challenges facing our planet and our way of life. Internationally acclaimed Shakespearean scholar and eco-critic Sir Jonathan Bate will offer a wide-ranging introduction to past and present “green thinking” in literature, film and art, history, philosophy, and religion. Join us for this keynote event followed by Q&A with the audience, as we launch our new program series, Climate Conversations.

Jonathan Bate is Foundation Professor of Environmental Humanities at Arizona State University and a Senior Research Fellow in English Literature at Oxford University, where he was formerly Provost of Worcester College. The author of twenty books, he is a world-renowned expert on Shakespeare, the Romantic movement and ecological approaches to the arts and humanities. He was knighted by the Queen for his services to literary scholarship.

Atascosa Borderlands Revisited (II): A Shifting Landscape Along the US-Mexico Border

Along a remote stretch of the US-Mexico border lies the mountainous terrain of the Atascosa Highlands in the Coronado National Forest. Abundant in biological diversity, the Atascosa Highlands are home to numerous species of flora and fauna. When documentary photographer Luke Swenson and ecologist and writer Jack Dash embarked on a botanical survey of the area in 2017, they found that the rugged landscape was defined not only by its rich ecology but also profoundly shaped by human activity. They developed a transdisciplinary storytelling project, Atascosa Borderlands, to document the complex natural and cultural history of the region. Their work is layered with original film photographs, oral history interviews, found artifacts, floral specimens, and more, creating a textured record of an environment undergoing dynamic transformation from human migration to border wall construction to climate change. Join Luke and Jack for a conversation about the evolution of their project, from its beginnings to future explorations as they prepare to return to the Atascosa Highlands.

Atascosa Borderlands (I): Social Ecology along the US-Mexico Border

The Atascosa Highlands are an area of unmatched biological and cultural diversity, located along a rugged stretch of the US-Mexico border. Over the last three years, ecologist Jack Dash and photographer Luke Swenson have been pursuing an intensive study of the area, designated by the Coronado National Forest Service as the Tumacacori Ecosystem Management Area. Their visual storytelling project, An Annotated Flora of the Atascosa Highlands documents the environmental, political, and cultural forces shaping this unique landscape. Combining social ecology, documentary photography and oral history interviews, their work confronts the diverse, and oftentimes competing perspectives of the region. 

Luke Swenson is a film-based documentary photographer and visual storyteller based in Portland, Oregon. He is a graduate of Pratt Institute’s BFA Photography program in Brooklyn, New York.

Jack Dash is an ecologist and writer based in Tucson, Arizona. He is vice president of the Arizona Native Plant Society in Tucson and works for the non-profit native plant nursery Desert Survivors.


Interested in learning more about the impact of water? Visit to explore Water/Ways, a 2018-20 Smithsonian traveling exhibit made possible by Arizona Humanities and Arizona State University. Find digital resources and educational material that explore the endless motion of the water cycle, its effect on landscape, settlement and migration, and its impact on culture and spirituality. 

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