(Broadcast on WCMU-FM Morning Edition Fall 1982)
If traveling some six thousand miles in a single month taught me nothing else—other than the wisdom of getting to a place and staying put—it taught me the arbitrariness of the boundaries people project upon the land. After all, nature puts no boundary lines upon the earth; those that appear on maps are products solely of the lawyer's imagination and the surveyor's ingenuity.
I should have known all this before, of course—I've traveled enough to know that if you fall asleep in western Ohio and then wake up with only the landscape to tell you where you are, you really don't know if you're in southern Michigan, northern Indiana, or eastern Illinois. I've seen the flatlands of northwestern Minnesota become the flatlands of first North Dakota and then Manitoba with only highway markers and the colors of police cars to give warning that some people have divided this featureless landscape into two states of one country and a province of another.
But I only began to think about the ways the land contradicted subdivisions as I traveled west one August. Leaving Missouri and entering Kansas, I saw no difference in scenery. I watched the land change as we crossed Kansas, observing the lift of the land as we drove from the prairies of the Missouri River basin into the table-flat high plains section of western Kansas, on our way toward the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. But I never saw sharp distinctions—one topographic division led into another and, when we crossed the border into Colorado, I saw only more high plains before us. It would be another hour before the gradual incline led us to a place where the mountains would emerge on the horizon.
The remainder of the trip confirmed the suspicions about boundaries that Kansas and Colorado raised. At Mesa Verde, I looked out from Park Point at the one place in the nation where four states meet in a single location. The Park Point handbook could superimpose boundary lines on pictures of the vistas I beheld, but I couldn't see any natural borders between Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. In the days that followed, as we roamed the Four Corners area, I could see that changes in topography were always well within states, never between them. The canyonlands of Utah became the canyonlands of Arizona, following the Colorado River; the Guadalupe Mountains made no distinction between Texas and New Mexico; the Chihuahuan Desert extended from deep within Mexico to deep within the United States.
I could see as well that nature's indifference to boundaries extends to the zones of habitation it creates. Rivers are the centers of their environment, not the edges; nature works upward from them toward mountaintops, creating climate zones along the way, saying that here on the plains the pinyon may grow and here in the foothills belongs Ponderosa pine and here in the Montane Zone may grow Douglas fir. And yet a traveler up a mountainside will often see the zones overlap, pinyon growing with Ponderosa pine and, higher up, Ponderosa pine mingling with Douglas fir.
In McKittrick Canyon, in the Guadalupe Mountains, hikers can tramp through something like five biotic communities in a couple of hours, discovering the northernmost limits of the Texas Madrone tree, the westernmost limits of some deciduous trees more common to the Appalachians, the southernmost limits of some conifers. Such a mixture of habitats causes a mingling of unexpected forms of wildlife as well.
The blurring of zones of habitation isn't confined to flora and fauna—it happens with people as well. I'd often noticed how southern Iowans behaved like northern Missourians and northern Iowans behaved like southern Minnesotans. In the west, I found the New Mexicans of Las Cruces not much different from the Texans of El Paso. Santa Fe seemed virtually a McKittrick Canyon of human habitation, where the styles of Greenwich Village, San Francisco, and Tesque Pueblo, of Eastern Jew, Western Gay, Mexican, cowboy, and American Indian, all blend in an adobe melting pot. In parts of Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico, the Navajo Reservation occupies a space larger than New England, unnatural boundaries overlapping other unnatural boundaries.
Nowhere can I find evidence that boundaries between states and between groups of people are anything more than the fictions of mankind, unnatural pretenses that sharp distinctions are possible. Nature seems to work by gradation, oblivious to unnecessary delineations. In place of continued conflict over imagined borders and hair-splitting distinctions of race, religion, and ideology, mankind might do well to ponder nature's example.
Note: "Boundaries" was included in Limited Sight Distance: Essays for Airwaves. Glimmerglass Editions. 2013: 64-66.