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Cracker Barrel: Boundaries

Late last month I watched a couple of surveyors at work and got to thinking about boundaries.

How strange, this compulsion to draw lines on the earth, marking off your land from mine. We accept it as normal because we’re used to it. But when you think about it, parceling up the planet is a rather peculiar act.

True, each creature deserves its place under the sun. The more developed and complex the creature, the greater the need for defined territory.

But nature’s territories are most often communal, shared by all members of a given family or tribe. And since some critters crawl and others walk while still others burrow or branch-hop or fly, most territories overlap in several layers, allowing different species access to different cover and nest sites and food.

So what makes us humans so eager to divide and subdivide the earth into little pieces? Eons ago we needed hunting ground, a way of insuring food and fuel and safety for the tribe. With the coming of agriculture, an allotment of assigned growing-and-grazing space made sense, and still does.

But today most of us eat food raised far from home and use our private property for little more than growing grass (which condemns us to the arguably bizarre business of planting, watering, fertilizing and cutting a crop that nobody ever eats).

So what impels us to draw the lines and build the fences and erect the Keep-Off signs?

The obvious answer is that land has monetary value and that in order to know where the bottom line is, we need to establish the front, back and side lines. And, too, we crave privacy and a sense of control over our individual king-and-queen-doms. We don’t want strangers camping in our back yards or wild dogs savaging our children.

But underneath it all, I think, we draw our boundaries out of fear. For many, if not most of us, a sense of tribal membership is nonexistent. We have neighbors and friends and nodding acquaintances, but mostly we live cut off from one another, victims of our own passion for private ownership.

We draw our lines and build our fences (defenses?) to protect our things, not ourselves. We ourselves would be much better off mixing and milling around and talking and laughing with one another, not sitting at home behind a wall of privacy.

It’s sobering to consider that so-called primitive people were better connected than we are. They had a multitude of relations that we have all but lost: a clear sense of interaction with the earth; a close communion with the seasons; the comfort of belonging to an extended tribe; a reflexive tendency to share.

Faced with catastrophe, we still instinctively join hands and forget about boundaries. But once things are back to normal, the lines are remembered and we withdraw behind them, again cut off from the nourishment of community.

There are no such lines in nature. The universe, seen clearly, is a seamless creation in which everything is joined and related to everything else. Even our skins, which we think of as the boundaries of our bodies, are as much a connecting surface as they are containers, interfacing us with sunlight and snowflakes and wind and rain and the touch of one another.

Boundaries bind us and keep us circumscribed, corralled, cut off. In the world as it currently exists, they serve a necessary function. But we lessen our lives by taking them too seriously.

They are, after all, imaginary lines.

(Columnist Craig Nagel recently published a collection of past Cracker Barrel articles in book form titled “A Sense of Wonder.” A CD of the author reading selections from the book is also available.)

Copyright 2012 by Craig Nagel