Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Let's Do A Line

I have a college degree in geography, with an emphasis on human geography. Did you know that, Company? I bet that you are surprised. And I am sure you don't care, but you needed to know if you plan on continuing to read this post. I can hear you all clicking frantically to YouTube right now. Anyway, human geography is the study of the features that people place on the land: cities, roads, borders, etc. The reason this is important is because it means that as I go through my life I tend to see things in a slightly different light than the average Tom, Dick, or Harry. Or Harry Dick. I look up when in downtown areas to see the real story behind the buildings. I tend to notice more acutely the changes in neighborhoods. And the one thing that really stands out to me are borders.

I have occasion in my daily like to cross the border between two states on a fairly regular basis. I don't do it daily or anything like that, but maybe once or twice a month I get to, and it blows my mind how much different things can be on one side vs. the other. If you were commuting every day from, say, Slab City, NY to Erie, PA I am sure that you would get used to the whole situation and not even notice all the small but important changes that happen when you cross the border at Findley Lake. But I don't cross that often, and I have a geography background, so for me, it usually blows my mind.

The reason we are talking about this today is because over the weekend I had the opportunity to cross the border between two US states on foot, far from the usual signage and warnings of a road crossing. Actually, I was on a frozen lake in the middle of nowhere on snowshoes. It was sort of neat, and the average person probably wouldn't have thought about it blinked twice as they wandered around, but as I approached the stick planted in the ground with the bits of orange plastic ribbon tied to it, and I knew I was approaching where the border crossed the lake, I sort of got all giddy and couldn't contain myself.

Arbitrarily drawn borders - straight lines across the ground - amaze me, because in essence there is nothing substantially different physically between the two sides of the line. For instance, at this lake I was standing on there was swampy lowland on both sides of the border area. If you didn't know there was a border there you wouldn't be able to tell. To me, borders on physical features makes sense. Maybe you can only control up to the edge of a major river. Maybe your territory only extends to this giant mountain range. In that case, borders drawn there make sense to me. Complete sense. But straight lines drawn across the ground, regardless of terrain or circumstance blow my mind.

It blows my mind that I could have stood in the middle of that lake, right on the line, and everything that happened on my right would be subject to totally different rules and regulations than the things on my left. Let's take a house for example. On my left it would have to be built 75 ft from the lake. On my left, more like 20 ft. On my that house would have to be inspected by the state, on my right, by the county if they are into that. Once the house is built, and it's time for the kids get older and it is time for them to go to high school, on the left it's a 30 mile drive south over mostly county roads to a large unified high school, to my right it's 25 miles on straight-as-an-arrow state roads to a much smaller high school. When your high school kid has a heart attack, if you live on the left side of the lake the rescue squad is a mile or so away, on the right: ten miles. That's a lot of difference in towns when it comes right down to it. When you die of your heart attack, the coroner on the left side comes from a county seat 70 miles from the southeast, on the right from thirty miles from the northwest. You're in a different postal district, federal reserve district, appellate court district, region of the US, television market, tax bracket, everything! Major differences all. All because someone shot a straight line across the ground to divide the world.

Now, in practice, it's not the clearly defined. The rescue squads will be able to help one another and the people doing business in the local area are usually licensed in both states. You can drive easily across the border from one side to the other, and people do, for shopping and dining and services and all that stuff. For example, regardless of which ambulance service picks you up you are going to end up at the same hospital. But there are little things, too. The highway signs are going to be different on the left vs. the right. The police on either side will have different names and different designs on their cars. You have to go to a different place to get your drivers license renewed. Just the turnings of everyday life will all be minutely but significantly different, often in ways that you don't understand or realize until you have to deal with it.

It gets even worse with you get into other areas. Arbitrarily drawn lines on a map have caused decades of warfare, poverty and strife. Particularly in Africa. When the European colonial powers sat down in Berlin in 1884 to portion out the African continent among themselves, they just drew lines. They just picked rivers as borders, and more often than not they drew those lines right through the middle of tribal territories, and lumped one ethnic group together with another ethnic group that they can't stand. As a result, 120 years later much of Africa is still trying to deal with the consequences of those straight lines, and is probably worse of for it.

It is most impressive when you see these lines laid out for the eye to see. Along the US-Canadian border in the High Plains, when seen from space, the border is easily discernible because they grow different crops on either side which show up different colors. Same on the island of Hispaniola, where the side controlled by the Dominican Republic is lush and green, while the Haitian side is barren and devoid of trees. Look at the border once between North and South Korea and try to tell me that a straight line drawn across the land doesn't have a startling impact.

That, my friends, is the power of a line. One foot on either side can make worlds of difference as to how things go and how things are done. Between wheat and alfalfa. Between communist and capitalist. Between rich and poor. Between yes and very much no. Just keep your eyes peeled and you will notice the next time you are on your way home to Slab City. It's like a whole different world from when you left Erie.

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