January 4, 2012KR OnlineNonfiction

The Beautiful Line

Tell me about the beginning of desire.

We hear a story, or a question, or a challenge, someone else’s adventure—someone we know or someone so deep in a history even Marco Polo would find ancient—and that story lingers.  It settles in and finds a home.  It abides in us. In the deepest and most gut-true sense it simply won’t go away.  We want that story.  Someone has crossed a line on the earth or in the heart.  Me too, we think.  Somehow different and somehow better. But always me too.

If not me too, then me first.

I wish I could tell you when this story begins.  Perhaps the honest beginning would be the moment some hominoid from the Olduvai Gorge first reached a hilltop and thought, however dimly, I wonder what would happen if I just kept going—and then kept going.  He or she crossed a line.  Not a line in rock or forest or dirt.  A line in courage.  A line in experience and imagination.

In my own life, an article in National Geographic would be a safe bet.  Or some adventure printed on laminated SRA cards in my third grade schoolroom.  To cross a border.  To be someplace else.  Someplace with deep history.  Someplace where the rocks were nearly luminous with the evidence of story.  To find the size and shape of the earth and feel the limits of it all in my boots.  In a personal way, to own.  But so much more.  To find all the old boundaries broken or exceeded.  To face a world more exotic than fanciful, more real than simply imagined.  To see the idea of a planet made specific and detailed and to make the examples intimate.

Not to see everything, but to know how big that everything is.

To the east—
            Black Bear.  Timber Wolf.  Moose.
To the west—
            Bison.  Prairie Dog.  Elk.

I could tell you the story began when the ideas of place and history and story first joined in some early human brain.  I could tell you the story begins when a child first places a finger against a globe and gives the thing a spin.  I could tell you the story begins when a teacher first speaks the name Magellan.  Each claim would be true.  Each claim would be limited, though, and false.  This story is everywhere and in everything.  Where is the edge of the universe, the physicists ask?  What is its size?  And if we cannot measure it in light-years, can we measure it in dimensions beyond the three we touch?

All we want is a border, an edge.  Something to see and then to cross.

To the east—
            Voyageurs and Vikings.
To the west—
            Lewis & Clark.

“Cessna One Zero Eight Nine Seven, cleared for takeoff.”

“Cleared for takeoff, eight nine seven,” I reply.

The throttle goes in again.  The airplane rolls, then rushes, then lifts itself into the sky.

Such a beautiful day for flying!  Every field is green.  Lush green.  Ireland green.  Corn and sugar beets and soybeans.  A few fields of yellow just to make the landscape pop.  Harvested wheat, I think.  High contrast color on the flatland prairie.

Three thousand feet above sea level and heading northeast toward the town of Twin Valley, I am looking for a border.  Subtle, yes.   But real and demanding.   No gates or crossing guards.  No pole dropped across a roadway.  Just a shift in the ground where everything changes.

I am looking for the beginning of the American prairie.

Underneath the wings, though, now the squares of sectioned land.  Roads run ruler straight either north and south or east and west.  Intersections every mile.  At farmsteads, shelterbelts line the roadways and run just as straight, every tree imported from some other place.  Cropland, every quarter section tilled and planted.  Only a railway has the bravado to angle its way from one horizon to the other.  Only a stream has the turns and curves of something less and more than planned.  It’s a stunning sight, if only for the size of the work.

Near Twin Valley, however, this all should change.

Change perspective and the borders change with you.

2:00 p.m. and I am sitting at Taiwhanga o paneke, The Wellington Foyer of the Te Papa Museum in Wellington, New Zealand, after the long overnight flight into Auckland and then the pre-dawn jump down the island.  Jet lagged and coffee buzzed, I am already facing The Void.  That’s what the sign says.  The Void.

Just outside The Void, I am watching groups of uniformed school children, senior citizens, couples hand in hand.  Everyone rushes.  Everyone is happy.  Te Papa is a national museum and a good one.  Five floors of geography, culture, history, everything from immigration stories to refuge stories to the geology of the place and its physical history from Gondwanaland to today.  Changing ideas about agriculture.  Interactive rooms for children.  A marae.  Pictures of the homes and villages hammered by the Mt. Terawera volcanic explosion in 1886.   A thousand artifacts behind glass.  Movies that present the creation myths.  The Treaty of Waitangi on large display boards in both English and Maori.  A giant squid, in the flesh and under glass.  A 3-D movie showing what life must be like in the deep ocean for the squid.

Like all wonderful museums, it’s also a bit self-defeating in that it’s overwhelming.  Any one hall is the result of countless years of countless people’s study and passion.  We stroll through the halls, the displays, and examine each artifact casually at a tourist’s pace, and with luck the most we understand is that there is this whole huge thing called history.  Somehow we are part of this, but then there are also those wonderful birds hovering on the wind outside the window and the peculiarly beautiful way the light reflects off the harbor water.

People walk straight into The Void, pause, look down and then up, gasp or smile or reach for some balance.

“This is so cool!” a young boy says to a friend.

It’s called Te Kore.  The Void.  Two black disks, one on the floor and one in the ceiling five floors above, the space between them open and empty.  Cool white neon circles the disk on the floor and intersects the disk in the ceiling.  On a sign I read that this represents the space before creation.  An endlessly and infinitely creative space.  Ihonui or core.  Sitting just outside the circles, I am amazed at the way empty space can stop a body in motion.  People walk into the void, on their way to some other exhibit or wing, not paying any attention at all to where they are, and then suddenly they stop—the openness above them calling to something else in their body.  They look up, at one black circle, then down at their feet and the other circle.  What in the world is this, they wonder.  And then they smile.  The space before anything else.  Ohhhh, they seem to say.  Always wondered about that.

To the East—
            26.36 inches of rain each year.  25 tornadoes.
To the West—
            15.36 inches of rain each year.  22 tornadoes.

Beyond The Void, behind a wall, in an exhibit called Our Space, a fourteen meter long image of New Zealand is set into the floor, a mosaic of fused satellite color images and an interactive display.  The room is dark and the image is lit from below.  The whole floor glows.

People stand on the map and monitors in the walls come to light to show scenes and stories about the place where they stand.  But no one pays any attention at all to the scenes of children or farming or history.  No one pays any attention to the wall at all.  Everyone points at the map, squats down, traces their fingers down roads or valleys or along waterways and bays and rivers.  Children get down on hands and knees, lower their faces nearly to the glass, trying to find a home or school or whatever they want to see.  This is where, they say.  This is where I live.  This is where I work.  This is where I go to school.  This is where we got married.  This is where we went hiking.  All the borders of time and money and geography and history are gone.  This is where.

Sometimes the children stomp about like mile-high monsters, laughing, smashing their towns and roaring like Godzilla.  Sometimes they get protective and won’t let anyone stand on their house.

On the far side of The Void, I wonder about the perspective.  We are walking over the landscape like God.  Not one person looks to the walls or listens to the soft recorded voices explaining where we are.  Everyone is mindful where they step.  Some people seem to take up a position and stand still, surveying the world before them, joining this place and that place in their mind’s eye from this altitude.  Others nearly run from one spot to another.  Eventually, every single person points at something, at some place. Here and here and here and here, they say.

I will find out later that the photography is from the Landsat 5 satellite, 705 kilometers above the surface of the earth, and the scale of the map is 1:113,000.  We are giants in this room!  We are 438 miles tall.  And there isn’t a cloud in the sky.

What I see most clearly, though, is that this perspective, this freedom, brings joy.  Everyone has their own stories.  Where they live, where they are going, what they have seen, what they have heard.  “Where is. . . .” is the question I hear over and over.  Friends and family members confer and walk around to find it out.  Finally, it all fits together, the way this river comes from this mountain and flows past this town and enters into the ocean.  I have been to parts of this story, people say.  And now I see the whole thing.  This is the place where I have been, where I will be, where I am from—all of it.

This is the place where I will be.  You have to cross The Void to get here.  You have to cross The Void to get back.

To the east—
            Ojibwe.  Chippewa.
To the west—
            Mandan.  Hidatsa.  Arikara. Assiniboine.  Lakota.  Dakota.

A line is way to divide.  A line is also a way to see.

Lake Agassiz had a beach.  In the days of Mammoths and Mastodons, sandy and rolling dunes fronted the glacier-melt water.  When the water receded, dragging icebergs through the lake-bottom silt, the beach ridges remained.  Find a map of the American prairie, and you will see the beach line east of the North Dakota border with Minnesota.  To the east: a deciduous biome.  Further east, a coniferous biome.  To the west, the tallgrass prairie.  Further west, mixed grass, then shortgrass.  The American steppe.

I have seen this change a thousand times on the ground, my jeep speeding through heat-wave or blizzard, but only so far as a groundling can see.  What I want to see today is more of this line.  I want to see the behavior of the earth change from one thing to another.  I want to follow this line and take its measure.  On the ground, I want to know what I see and touch is a part of something large and historic.

The airplane is easy in the sky today.  The wind, 20 knots from the west at this altitude, is steady and invisible.  It’s too early for thermals and the air is smooth.

I am looking for the difference.  I am looking for the change in the landscape, the change in the trees.

“Cessna eight nine seven,” Fargo Departure calls.  “Leaving the Fargo TRSA, radar service terminated.  Squawk VFR. Frequency change approved.   Good Morning.”

On a radar screen inside the Fargo control tower, there is a ring that shows a distance thirty miles from the airfield.  Inside this line, air traffic control keeps track of the airplanes and keeps us apart.  Outside the line we’re a good bit more on our own.  Inside the line, I am required to listen to the assigned radio frequencies.  Outside the line, I don’t have to listen at all.  I am about to cross the border of their responsibility.  In truth, I crossed this line nearly 15 miles back.  Because of my altitude, I am technically underneath the area of their concern.  In practice, however, once inside the outer line you’re inside the TRSA.  But I am not leaving.

“Fargo approach, I’m going to be turning south and staying inside the TRSA for another ten or fifteen minutes,” I say.

“Cessna eight nine seven, roger.  You’re going to be turning southbound at this time?”

“In about two minutes, yes sir.  Eight nine seven,” I say.

“Cessna eight nine seven, roger.  I’ll keep you for TRSA service then.”

Outside the airplane, I can see a tree line approaching.  Not a shelterbelt.  Not riparian trees along some stream.  This is forestland.  On the airplane’s moving map I can see the same TRSA line they see inside the control tower.  The trees come right up to the edge.  I put the airplane on the inside of the curved line and begin to fly that arc, like a child trailing a stick along a chain link fence, ready to light out for the territory at any moment.

To the east—
            Garrison Keillor
To the west—
            Theodore Roosevelt.

A map is a collection of borders.  A hiker will show you a topographical map, contour lines showing the borders of elevation.  A social scientist will show you a map that divides a town into sections where people have more or fewer college degrees, more or fewer magazine subscriptions, more or fewer pieces of NASCAR clothing.  Politicians redraw the boundaries of their districts to better represent their people, or get reelected.  At the Centers for Disease Control, there are maps that show who a future pandemic will kill first then who will die on day two.

When the borders move, we cannot help but watch. A blue line moves across our television as a cold front drops out of Montana and freezes Nebraska.  A thick black line on the newsreel map expands as the Allied forces move inland from Normandy.  A bandana, tied to a rope and suspended over a puddle of mud, moves toward the winners in tug-of-war.  Every border implies a question: where are you?  Which side are you on?  Imagine you are there.  Every border, then, is a moment of self-evaluation and self-discovery.  I am here.

There is a GPS moving map in the airplane’s panel.  It shows me the world underneath the wings.  It shows me radio towers I need to avoid.  It shows me the names of lakes and streams and highways and towns.  It shows me the weather, too.  I can move a small pointer and the screen will tell me the radio frequencies of distant airports.  It tells me what I need to be safe.

I can change the range of this map, from very close, just the airplane sitting on a taxiway, to all of North America.  But it will not show me history.  We’ve all seen Pangaea and Gondwanaland break up and move apart, to form the continents we know.  But those movies show the continents in their current form.  I want to see Lake Agassiz.  I want to see the Central Interior Seaway.  I want to see the Laurentide ice sheet advance and get split by the Cotes de Prarie.  I want to see the waters of Lake Agassiz rolling onto the beach ridge that passes underneath this airplane.  I want to see a Mars size something hit the still-forming earth and form the moon.  I want to see the asteroid that made the Manson crater, and the one that fell on the Yucatan.  I know the land can rise and fall, the inhalations and exhalations of a planet, and I want to see this planet take that breath.

South of Twin Valley, there is a swirl in the land.  I can see a long arc, a little bit of rising, a little bit of change in elevation.  It looks exactly like someone placed a very large paintbrush on the earth and gave it a twist.  Brushlines in the dirt.  But this is no farmer’s art.  It’s big, and I have no idea what it is or how it got here.  The fields are still very green.  There are more trees now.  In front of me I see forest and then lakes.  The map gives them names.  Union Lake, Maple Lake, White Earth Lake, South Twin Lake, Bass Lake.  Perhaps it’s just the angle of sunlight this morning, but heading east I could not see the shift in the land.  Now that I’m turning south, I can see the hills and bluffs.  I can begin to see the shore.

I have been in the forests and I have been on the prairie.  What I have never done is follow the space where they meet.  I want to trace the beautiful line.  At altitude, where all the patterns shift, I want to be between the things I know.

A new controller comes on the radio.  “Cessna eight nine seven,” she says, “you left the Fargo TRSA.  Radar service terminated.  Squawk VFR.  Frequency change approved.  You can give me a call when you’re back in.”

I’ve been flying the edge of their yard, I think.  I’ve been tight-roping their border. I’ve been causing them to pay more attention to where I am than I should.  In or out, they say.  In or out.  Either cross this border or don’t, but don’t just sit on the line.

“Going VFR, eight nine seven.  Thank you,” I say.

To the east—
            Paul Bunyan.
To the west—
            Sitting Bull.

When similarity-biased regionalizations are mapped, however, the map reader sees not only the area-shading or alphameric symbols used to distinguish the regions; he also is confronted by the boundaries between these regions.  How a person interprets a map is far from being clearly understood, but it is believed that a map reader attaches some significance to these boundary lines themselves.  (Note: Jenks and Caspall suggest that map readers attempt to extract from a map one or a combination of three facets of the distribution: the overview of general trends, the data values for specific places, and the boundary lines between patterns.  These authors hold that these boundaries are compared with mental images of other aspects of the area mapped.)

            —Mark Monmonier.  “Maximum-Difference Barriers: An Alternative Numerical Regionalization Method”

The town of Ulen off to my right.  The town of Waubun coming up on my left.  Ogema and Hitterdal also in view.  Farm ponds reflect the sky.  High clouds and haze.  You can see why birds fly into windows—that clear reflection masking the hard and bone shattering border.  It’s a wonder they don’t fly into lakes.

In the eastern distance I can see a rise to the land.  I can even see a bump on the horizon that’s not a cloud.  No farmers are out working the fields today.  This is late July.  What’s done is done.  Harvest is next.

What I see approaching the airplane is a line of trees, a hard and clear edge to a forest.  On the ground here the folding of the earth, the rises and ravines, frame the eyesight.  A bit west, the frame is simply the horizon, endless distance to outer space.  I make a note that from the air, the subtle change to the topography is not quite as visible.  Instead, water and wood, isolated to the ground view, appear with the force of huge territory.  But no sooner than I make this note I am proven wrong.  I look straight down instead of toward the land in front of me, and I see hills and valleys.  I see where water has moved the soil.  I see hilltop crops bend in the wind.

If it is possible to be directly over the beach, I am over it now.  To my right there is nothing but farmland, sectioned and ordered.  The only trees are those built to protect a building or field.  To my left there is nothing but forest and lakes.  I take a picture first one way and then the other.  The change is as fast as the wings are wide.

To my left—

To my right—

Given the strengths of all boundaries between pairs of adjacent OTUs [Operational Taxonomic Units], a technique is needed for consistently selecting a string of boundaries to form a barrier between high-order regions.  Two considerations are important.  First, all boundaries forming the barrier must be linked together and must either form a closed loop or have both ends terminate at the edge of the study area or against another barrier.  Second, the most important barrier should contain the boundary with the steepest gradient.

            —Mark Monmonier.  “Maximum-Difference Barriers: An Alternative Numerical Regionalization Method”

People have died because of borders.  Israel.  Africa.  India.  Europe.  The United States.  Which side of the line is your home?  The maximum difference is seldom geographic.  Homeland is history.

Seven miles north of the town of Lake Park, I can see Upper Cormorant Lake, Floyd Lake, and I wonder why we don’t name open land.  We name lakes. We name forests.  Can we name a place without a border?

I can see Detroit Lake in the distance.  The tree line dodges from there to here.  Below me, silver grain bins and silos.  Red barns.  Green fields.  Hilly land.  I cross Highway 10 between Lake Park and Hawley, and everything south and east of Hawley is different.  Suddenly the land is just lake after lake after lake.  Minnesota claims 10,000 lakes.  In fact, there are many more.  Forest between them all.  The land is not mountain-dramatic, but it is no longer flat or open either.  I have crossed the line again and the prairie is behind me.

Dear Scott,

Maximum distance refers to “distance” measured using a variety of criteria, not just the two or three we commonly use—think of a set of data with multiple measurements for socioeconomic conditions (various measures describing how the populations of census tracts or counties differ in age, sex, race, education, income, employment, etc.). The algorithm looks at the distance (or difference) between census tracts or counties that share a common boundary. Unless the two are identical, there is some distance (or difference). The idea is to draw a boundary that splits the region into two parts, and to do this so that there is a relatively high distance (or difference) along the entire boundary. After drawing one boundary that splits the region into two parts, the algorithm might (if asked) find a second high-contrast boundary that partitions one of these first two parts 


I like the idea of maximum difference.  My camera does not do it justice.  To my left, hills you can hide behind.  To my right, the exposure of the prairie.  In front and above me, the clouds are high and thin.  There is no front in the air today, at least not here, but there are borders of sunlight and shadow on the ground.

I cross the Ottertail River.  Lake Traverse is thirty miles in front of me and Big Stone Lake just beyond that.  Both of them narrow and long, they seem unremarkable.  But a continental divide separates them.  On one side of the line, water heads toward Hudson Bay.  On the other side, water heads for the Gulf of Mexico.  Their history is huge.

It’s called the Traverse Gap, a valley with a continental divide.  Pleistocene Lake Agassiz was dammed up on the south end by the Big Stone Moraine and stoppered on the north side by the Laurentide Ice.  For whatever reason, the water breached the moraine about 11,700 years ago and created a spillway, which became a torrent, which became enormous and hard.  Glacial River Warren carved the valleys of the Minnesota and Upper Mississippi Rivers.  Then the lake opened on the north and the river dried up.  The spillway gorge became the gap.  You cannot see the continental divide from the air.  But you can see Traverse Lake.  You can see Big Stone Lake to the south.  And you can see the cut in the earth between them.

Flying nearly down the line between sunlight and shadow, I am flying down the middle of the lakes as well.  When I cross the gap I turn for home.

We have all tried to do it—walk a straight line.  We’ve put our feet on a board, a line in a sidewalk, a rope in the air, and done our best to keep right above it.  The thrill is the potential fall one way or the other.  Every muscle in our body tenses and works toward balance.  It’s damn difficult.  Failure is expected.  Success brings joy.  If we get across the space it would be wrong to say we’ve gained both sides.  We have moved between them.  We have avoided either definition.  We know there is more space between atoms than there are atoms, but we haven’t figured out how to go there yet.  So perhaps our love of the beautiful line is a way to say both as well as neither at the same time.

An ecologist would tell you that the line of maximum difference is also the place of maximum diversity.  Timber wolf meets Bison, introduced by Coyote.  The border is a mixing place.  Think tide pools at the ocean shore.  Think atmosphere above a planet.  Think the Euphotic zone at sea.

So here is a truth about the beautiful line.  The border is the place where the world gets creative.  How do I get across?  What has changed?  To see both sides is to understand them both more deeply.  And let’s face it—every border invites transgression.

At the edge of the forest, every animal wonders.

W. Scott Olsen teaches at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, where he also edits the literary magazine Ascent. His most recent book is A Moment with Strangers (NDSU Press, 2016).