Straight borders and jagged ones

Doing the abecedary about maps for issue 12 was a lot of fun for me, because maps were a huge part of my childhood, from collecting all the National Geographic insert maps, to creating my own worlds and rendering them on grid paper using various types of projection systems.  One of my favorite aspects of maps is that the simple lines often have so much hidden information. For example, the unmistakable lines of a fjord-filled coastline tell not only where, exactly, water meets land, but also the mountainous geography of the surrounding land. This extends to political boundaries as well.  When I wrote my first novel, I set it on the Alberta / Saskatchewan border... an unremarkable, straight border that runs down the 110th meridian. Saskatchewan is a near perfect rectangle of a province, and Alberta would be as well, were it not for its southwest corner that follows the continental divide. The juxtaposition of straight lines and jagged in political boundaries has always been curious to me, and two of my characters discuss this in the following passage:

“So what, you in Saskatchewan don’t care about the border?” Hugh says when Tina moves on to a customer at the till.
“Not this border, it’s meaningless. Not everyone knows it’s meaningless, but nobody ever treats it seriously.”
“It’s not meaningless.”
“Of course it is,” Fish says, adding cream to his coffee again. “No straight line border means anything, except in raw politics. How many straight line borders are there in Europe? How many straight edges does Switzerland have, or France or Russia?”
“Well, Canada has a lot.” Hugh tries to visualize maps of the world in his mind. “Countries in Africa have them, and in the Middle East, right?”
“Exactly. But back to Europe for a moment: the reason there are no straight lines is because the borders mean something. They follow rivers or mountain ranges, and in some cases they’ve existed since before there were any real maps. You cross from one country to the next, and it’s there, it’s in the land, it’s been in the land forever. Or in some cases, it’s because of the people on either side of the border, they fought and they pushed and pulled at the border, and over the years it’s come to perfectly differentiate between one group of people and the other. The people define the border, not the other way around.”
“Yeah,” Hugh nods. What Fish is saying is starting to make sense. “You know, I was up on the water tower the other night—”
“Oh, tell me you didn’t take Joan up there.” He doesn’t wait for Hugh’s response; he knows. “That’s so high school. So sixteen. Man, I haven’t been up there in a decade. What were you thinking? You got head, right?”
“Forget it.”
“No, I’m sorry. Seriously, go ahead.”
“Well I was up there, and I was just looking at how the border is so invisible, other than when it’s in town and there’s Main Street. But I spend so much time working with my map, I forget that, sometimes. But out there’s it’s just like any section line.”
Fish nods. “Look at the American border. They did a good job with the eastern part, that’s a real border. But then they got past the Great Lakes, and they got lazy. It doesn’t matter whether it’s at the forty-ninth or at 54-40, any time the map-maker gets out a straight edge, you have a big problem. Real borders follow the land. Now, we’ve got a new, false geography. At some point, all the cartographers got replaced by politicians. Look at your southwest border, with BC.”
“Right, it follows the continental divide.”
“It means something. It means everything to the water—two drops can fall side-by-side, and end up thousands of miles apart depending on which side of the mountain peak they fall on. It means something to the wind, it means something to the animals. It probably meant something to the Indians too, when they were still nomadic.”
Fish stops long enough to take a sip of coffee.
“Did you write an essay on this in school?”
“No, but I’ve thought about it a lot. And you mentioned Africa and the Middle East. All the borders were made up thousands of miles away by people who had never been there. The borders, though, they mean as much to me as they do to the animals. You Albertans and your separatism, I’ll never get it.”