This past March, Kate Harris set off on a six-week-long, all-women ski traverse through Central Asia’s Pamir Mountains—a region sometimes referred to as the “Roof of the World.” Along with two scientists and a filmmaker, Harris was following the Marco Polo sheep species that once roamed freely across a land now divided by borders; the result was the documentary film Borderski. Harris is somewhat of a migratory creature herself, having spent much of the last decade “wandering the planet’s rough peripheries,” as she writes, on various self-supported expeditions. What fascinates Harris most, however, are the borders of our own making and the people and places fragmented by them.
When she’s not out exploring borderlands, Harris is writing about them. Her essays, poetry, and articles have appeared in a number of publications, and several of her works were named “Notable Essays” in The Best American Essays (2013) and The Best American Travel Writing (2015) anthologies. In 2012, she received the Ellen Meloy Desert Writers Award. Currently, Harris is immersed in writing Lands of Lost Borders, a book about her Silk Road trip, which will be published in 2018 by Knopf Canada.
Recently, Harris spoke with me via Skype from her one-room-cabin home in northern British Columbia— far from many things, including a reliable Internet connection. Despite a few technology-related interruptions, we patched together a conversation about the beauty of a long bicycle trip, the allure of harsh environments, and borders, both visible and invisible.
—Sarah Tory for Guernica
Guernica: Have you always been drawn to extremely isolated places?
Kate Harris: I grew up in a small town in Ontario surrounded by lots of farm fields. My family had a farm, and I loved the rustic aspect of where it was. But I was always reading travel narratives, and all of my heroes were explorers. I just felt like Ontario was so delimited and quaint; I wanted to shoot out of there like a rocket.
Guernica: And you ended up south of the border, in the US.
KateHarris: I was pretty determined to go as far away from home as I could for university, and I ended up applying to a bunch of places in the States. I got this scholarship to UNC–Chapel Hill, and I accepted it without seeing the campus or knowing anything about the American South. I accepted it because it came with travel grants every summer. I’d never been outside of Ontario and Quebec, and by age nineteen I was desperate to see the wider world.
Guernica: What did you study?
Kate Harris: I studied biology and geology as an undergrad. I think the fact that, traditionally at least, so many explorers studied science planted in my head that science was a way to catapult yourself into the world. If you have a really good scientific excuse for visiting a place, people will help pay for you to go there. I stretched every dime the scholarship offered for travel and binged on the world.
Guernica: Despite loving travel and adventure, you still wanted to become a scientist?
Kate Harris: Yeah, I ended up winning a scholarship to go to Oxford for grad school. I said I was going to study geology and then I switched at the last minute to a history-of-science master’s program, partly because it felt like a get-out-of-the-lab-free card. I loved reading about explorers and what they learn about the world through intense intimate exposure to it. That was a real turning point for me, and I think there was no going back to the lab after that.
I still went on to science grad school, partly out of loyalty to the ideas my younger self had about how I needed to be in the world and partly because I wanted to become an astronaut. Space exploration seemed like the last true frontier. So I went to MIT and spent two years staring down a microscope at microbes and feeling like I was walling myself into this very specialized world when my mind is more magpie-like. I’m very curious about a lot of things and don’t want to linger too long in one place.
I was supposed to do a PhD but quit after the master’s phase and hit the Silk Road on a bicycle… as one does [laughs].
Guernica: What drew you to that part of the world in particular?
Kate Harris: In university, I had proposed with one of my scholarship travel grants to follow in the footsteps of Marco Polo. There was no higher agenda–I just wanted to bike around China. What latched me onto this fascination with borders was [the idea] of sneaking illegally into Tibet and seeing how borders exist for some people and not for others.
Guernica: It’s curious that borders and borderlands appealed to you when most people tend to avoid those places. Maybe that avoidance was part of the appeal?
Kate Harris: I read a lot of Paul Theroux, and I think he said that one of the most compelling reasons for going to a place is the fact that few people go there. That really stuck with me and maybe explains my draw to really desolate landscapes. But I think it applies to borders too. It’s where nothing and everything is happening—where our usual definitions of places and ecosystems and landscapes hit up against each other.
Guernica: Yeah, it does seem like borders embody all sorts of interesting paradoxes about how we see ourselves and the world.
Kate Harris: Borders try to cut across so many differences that don’t really exist upon deeper examination. They go against the natural [boundaries] of the world, and that’s where they fail us. And maybe that’s why borders are especially interesting, because they’re where those distinctions between us and the Other are born and die.
Guernica: So much of what’s going on in the world right now, whether it’s Europe’s migrant crisis or the influx of Central Americans fleeing to the US border, seems predicated on those failures.
Kate Harris: I think what we’re seeing around the world is how the defining limits of nation-states fail people and the planet. With the US–Mexican border wall, for instance, there is the absurd idea of a fence that can keep people out. If that kind of economic disparity exists across that divide, people will find a way around it. You can’t build walls strong enough to divide the haves and the have-nots.
Guernica: So by enforcing one kind of border, we’re reinforcing the failures that necessitate them in the first place.
Kate Harris: This past fall, I was on assignment for a magazine in southern Arizona, where you can see all these visible, intimidating signs of the border—the infrared balloons, the checkpoints. I got in this big argument with a bunch of drunk men in the pool at a fancy golf resort over Donald Trump. A few days later, my friend who was also involved in the altercation showed me that his Facebook app was suggesting he become friends with one of those men (who had threatened us to the point that we actually called the police).
Facebook must have noticed that both he and this awful man posted photos that were tagged [at this resort] and encouraged them to become connected. That guy could easily have tracked us down. We are obsessed with building these walls, with border security, with keeping people out; meanwhile we invite invasions into our lives in the weirdest ways.
Guernica: It’s an interesting irony to think about—that the real danger occurs within our walls rather than outside them.
Kate Harris: What really fascinates me about borders is that there are so many different kinds out there in the world–in the natural world especially. Look at the transitions between, say, a treeless alpine ecosystem and the lower elevation forest, or the transition between a glacier and where it melts into a lake. There are these gradual shifts that are nonetheless distinct. Maybe it’s too much to say there are lessons there for how we can organize our world, but I do think there’s value in looking at how the planet is organized in non-human ways.
Guernica: Ways that defy the barriers we try to construct.
Kate Harris: Exactly. Going to places like the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea or the edge of Turkey and Armenia—again a sealed border—you can see how nature has moved back in. Nature has recolonized our marginal lands. We’re seeing that in a lot of the dam deconstructions that are happening throughout the West right now. I think there’s something so beautiful and hopeful about that.
Guernica: And maybe a nudge to rethink our relationship with the people and places we’re trying to control.
Kate Harris: On the Borderski expedition, we set off hoping to track Marco Polo sheep along the borders of Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, and China. We got there and there was hardly any snow–which was unusual for the Pamir Mountains in March. So we could ski for at most a week at a time and then we’d hit a valley and there would be nothing–it would be totally bare. We’d have to trudge along with our skis strapped to our packs; that was the main limit we hit up against. Nature really draws the final line.
The other really fascinating aspect of that trip, which we’re hoping to explore in the documentary we’re working on now, is how conservation happens in that part of the world. I think the role that hunting plays as a force for conservation is really fascinating. I was really resistant to that at first—to the notion of trophy hunting as a way to pay for a species’s survival. It just seemed deeply unfair that it should be so transactional.
Guernica: But you eventually came around to the idea?
Kate Harris: There’s a park in Tajikistan called Tajik National Park, and it occupies something like 17 percent of the country, so it’s one of the biggest parks in the world relative to the size of the country it’s in. There are no fences and the rangers are underpaid, and so they end up poaching because they can get hundreds of dollars on the black market for killing a sheep. Basically Tajikistan has imported this idea of a national park, but doesn’t have money to actually enforce the rules and regulations.
It was really apparent that in a country like Tajikistan, the fines-and-fences approach to conservation just doesn’t work. There’s neither the money nor the consciousness to back it up, so other strategies have to take its place. And what we saw was actually really encouraging. There are conservationists working with local communities, encouraging them to develop their own ranger patrols to protect herds of Marco Polo sheep in the vicinity of their villages. Every few years, when there’s an aging ram with large enough horns to attract wealthy westerners, they’ll sell a trophy hunting permit for something like $25,000, and because the entire community is invested in protecting these herds to get that one ram every few years, it puts these incentives in place that are far more effective at protecting wildlife than National Parks.
Guernica: I imagine that’s a pretty contentious idea for a lot of Western environmentalists.
Kate Harris: Mention trophy hunting to any Sierra Club member, and you’ll probably get the immediate reaction that killing animals to protect them is wrong. I think there’s a complete blindness to context there—a complete blindness to the harsh realities of other countries. You can’t just export our tree-hugging values to people who are on the edge of survival.
Guernica: How are you addressing that controversy in the film?
Kate Harris: Basically we want to shake up people’s ideas about how wilderness conservation works. We’re not saying it’s right or wrong—we’re just trying to show how complicated this issue is. I suppose no place does that better than a borderland.
Guernica: What’s next for you?
Kate Harris: There are a bunch of quirky burgeoning nation-states—places like Transnistria in eastern Europe and rogue parts of the South Caucasus that don’t really exist on a politically recognized level, but that are trying to be nations nonetheless. I’m really interested to go to these places and explore how people see themselves as belonging to a nation that doesn’t exist. I guess my fundamental question is: How do those national narratives start to grow and how much does formal recognition matter to them?
Guernica: That question is also unfolding right here in Canada and the US among indigenous groups in their push for sovereignty.
Kate Harris: Yeah, even in Atlin, where I live, the narrative is that the gold rush in the early 1900s kick-started the town into being. But people lived here for thousands of years before that and live here still. Yet they’re still fighting the BC government for a formally recognized territory. We’re superimposing Canada over this ancient—“nation” is probably the wrong word for it—but this entity. It’s a really exciting time because indigenous people are getting so much more power. And it’s a hopeful time, too, because they’ve had such different ways of being on this land that don’t involve the precincts and jurisdictions we’re used to thinking of as reality.