The Border

When they threaten, people stay away. I myself hold memories of such a place, where a stream, knee-deep, formed a border. The border itself was repulsive, in the literal sense of the word: people stayed away, guards observed each other across the valley, patrolled near the iron bridge, half drab green, half thickly-painted brown. It had established itself, the border, almost neglected and forgotten, something merely physical and present. Layer upon layer, a wall had been built here once, sometime, along the bank of the stream. Someone had actually laid brick on brick, filled in the little gaps with mortar, had put together each individual element that made the object we took for granted in its entirety now, in the present. It had been built, during a different age, when it had had a purpose. It had had a certain importance, a defiant, threatening importance, but now it was merely a wall and the balance of life between both sides had been re-established.
 
Over time it had become a vacation destination. It had a museum. You could walk over the bridge, lose yourself in the woods on the other side, marvel at the signs in another language and puzzle over the translation. You could climb the old lookout tower and observe where you had come from, look back over the de-fanged border and imagine what it was once like to peak through the Iron Curtain. A change in perspective had been brought about by the historical changes, much as walking past a wall is always a rather odd experience: the wall fades, compresses to nothing until the narrowest point is reached, a balancing act at which the eyes sweep over both sides of a divided ground, until the expanse representing the other side starts to expand and grow.
 
The border no longer existed, but it lived on, mutated, simply an attraction. The repulsive force of yesteryear had become an attraction, and people came from afar to examine in detail what previously they had only been able to observe from a distance. Now it had won a new ability to attract, nucleate. It had started acting as an exchange, a conduit for mixing: when there are differences across a border, a gradient arises, and flows, eddies, forces carry with them excitement, novelty, and change. Just as heat flows between two bodies, back and forth depending on that gradient, so the border had gone from a barrier to gateway.
 
Regardless of the magnetic orientation of the border, however, the place itself also had a certain power that could be more clearly seen when panning out of the scene and looking over a map. Borders, rivers, coastlines: all of these are edges, daisy-chains of positions, at the same time one-dimensional (a line), two-dimensional (a line moving through a plain), and three-dimensional (charting the inevitable decline/incline). They are edges that disappear around corners, over the horizon, into the haze of a sunny day, always calling to mind motion or discovery, a moving along. They sometimes turn normal notions of direction on their head (why is the upper Rhein to the south of the lower Rhein?), but present a tangible conveyor to which a connection can be made that will sweep you along.
 
Every point on the river serves as a fixed identifier of place and I have often wondered about how much more certainty of place natives of a particular place on the coast or a river have compared with the rest of us (borders don’t generally count, in my view, as they are subject to change on a much shorter timescale). It is straightforward to place a particular village, or hamlet, or city, in relation to a bend in the river or a particular spot on the bay. Mostly it was even established there in the first place for this very reason: a constant tension between the motion in and out and a certain constancy arising from being on an edge. This is true of port towns, river towns, and also those fabled stopping points along highways such as the silk route, where the locals are constantly faced with a stream of travellers passing through, while the travellers inevitably steer for and through the comforting points of stability along their journey.

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