February 18, 2020

What Are Borders For?

“In northern Vermont in the nineteen-eighties and nineties, where I grew up in a town whose name was French but where everyone spoke English, the nearby Canadian border was not imposing. Dirt roads crossed the line where New England’s maples become Quebec’s, with no signs to warn passing hikers when they were under foreign trees. On the main highway north to Montreal were a pair of what looked like tollbooths, adorned with flags stitched with a big red leaf or stars and stripes. And when bored customs officers asked you to halt your vehicle, the inquisition to which you were subjected—at least if your Saab or pickup truck bore Vermont plates—was perfunctory. Documents often weren’t required. You could expect to be asked two questions: where you were headed and if you had any liquor.

There were benefits, in high school, to living near a province more libertine than our wholesome state. On Monday mornings, louche upperclassmen sometimes turned up in the cafeteria with tales of having dashed north, over the weekend, to where the drinking age was eighteen, for a case of Molson Ice. But the pull of difference was matched with a sense, at least as strong, that the border didn’t so much divide two nations as amble over a contiguous region. Sure, people on our side of the line pronounced Gallic place names in mountain English. (Calais sounded like “callous.”) But our shared climate and past helped feed a sense, among humans who also shared the complexion of February snow (this no doubt helped), that we had more in common with one another than with citizens of our vast nations who lived in far-off Vancouver or Phoenix.

Such cross-border ties are extremely common, of course, among the many millions of people who live near one of the hundreds of boundaries on earth. Most of the oldest borders date from a couple of centuries ago; many count their age in decades. And the ease with which many people straddled them was until very recently exemplified along the now notorious gran linea to our south, which before the nineteen-nineties neither the United States nor Mexico saw fit to mark with anything more forbidding, along most of its length, than an occasional rock pile in the desert. In a part of the continent once thought too dry to cultivate, that porosity was no less vital for Hispanic ranchers and Native Americans than for the builders of what became an agricultural juggernaut, in California and across the U.S. West, which has long depended on willing workers from the south.”

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