Things Left Behind
A pair of white shoes continues to haunt me. When I found them, they lay upright and spare, neatly arranged along the edge of a dirt road, as if their occupant had disappeared somehow with other garments and forgotten them. But the shoes were not forgotten, a fact that I learned gradually and grudgingly during several years of fieldwork in the US–Mexico borderlands of southern Arizona. Those shoes had been placed deliberately and with an intention that I continue to try to comprehend from the field where I found them, among others who continuously engage in attempts at comprehension as part of their daily routines, and who regularly experience the effects of such rupturing events.
The paragraph above opens my cultural anthropology dissertation and provided the framework for a talk I gave in February at the Patagonia Library. I talked about things placed and found in the border- lands and how these objects affect people who find them. Thanks to all who helped and encouraged me, including the PRT staff, who asked me to write a few articles.
My work was not particularly risky or dangerous, but illegal activity informed both home and remote work sites, the place inhabited differently by day than by night. I quickly learned that the things went beyond simple associations of migrants with trash, or landscape degradation. There were stories here. When residents find things and then share their stories, they also find that they have a hand in forging the shared, cultural memory and the currents of a place where tragedy, beauty, danger, grace, and hope can fuse in unexpected ways.
Part of what I advocate is a way of paying attention, both to the land at one’s feet and to the experiences of those who inhabit the region from the rural and small town middle of it all. My daily work doing research, fieldwork, and restoration was grounded in Arivaca, Arizona, but soon reached into widespread kitchens, the cabs of trucks, diners, formal conference rooms, workshops, bars, and roadsides— everywhere and nowhere in particular that events resonated for and from border residents. The result might be called a political ecology of things: dynamic assemblages that could include a toothbrush, a human bone, a coin from Guatemala, or an unopened can of beans set defiantly on a rock, awaiting the next traveler. Here, supposedly inanimate things become vibrant, resonant, and surprisingly active in the finder’s life and imagination in unexpected ways.
They erupt into daily life through running commentary, too. I would hear, “You don’t know it’s there until it bursts through the surface.” “In the abstract, you get upset . . . but when you meet them.” “Sometimes you get sort of teary-eyed at what you see in your own backyard.” Such comments register the potential passing of what had been known and stable, and new challenges to life and land. I explored how we remember and how we forget, or try to, and how we handle the tension. This is an ethical question: How should we inhabit uncertainty, right from the middle of it all? That middle is sometimes a small table in a rancher’s kitchen, and explored by a mother who solemnly tells of finding a baby’s shoe on her property. Her husband makes deals with migrants that go down like this: “You guys put all this trash in a pile, and I’ll go get some water and some sandwiches.” And they do. And he does. And that’s the end of it—but also the beginning. Today in the quiet of their kitchen, his wife carefully holds up her thumb and forefinger to measure the length of that baby’s shoe, some baby’s shoe. But she measures the distance, too, I think, between her experience right here, right now, and that of others who also have children— and who cannot bring them, as she does in this charged moment of story and gesture, into the warmth of a kitchen where we share coffee, and where we share wonder, too.