Sometimes, all it takes is a one-word prompt to get us writing. Today’s Daily Post writing prompt: BORDER

Border. Plural: borders. A barrier natural or human-made. An edge. A separation from what lies beyond. Borders are many things.

In my younger days borders between states were both barrier and gateway to the ‘other’. Arriving at the Gold Coast after the drive down from Brisbane, we would be near the NSW border. To a young mind, that was something intriguing. What lay beyond? We must remember that in those days people were far less mobile than they are today.

At the time none of my young friends had ventured beyond that border. Queensland was safe territory. What lied south was the unknown. Decades later, when living in Sydney and later in Byron Bay, crossing the border would become a more frequent event unworthy of comment. Yet, it would sometimes trigger a tingle down my back as my memory reached into its distant recesses to resurrect a feeling from those long-gone days.

Permeabile borders

The border between Queensland and NSW was a completely permeable border. An imaginary line inscribed on the landscape. A remnant of colonial times when the vast continent of Australia was unified as a single federal entity. There were no passports, no border guards, no barriers. The road continued the same on both sides of the border.

Borders and their arbitrariness figured in later life when working on a food security and farmer training program in the Solomon Islands. There, the permeability of borders was amply illustrated when fighters from the Bougainville Revolutionary Army would come down to Ghizo, supposedly another country though ethnically identical to Bougainville, for some R&R leave and resupply. The border was also permeable in the other direction, as when a certain crew took a fast motor canoe from the northern Solomons across the sea dividing the Solomons from Bougainville. The purpose of their surreptitious entry was to make a video.

Again, that border between the Solomon Islands and Bougainville, a PNG territory, was only an imaginary line drawn across the map by government.

Imaginary borders

But what about mental borders? We all have these. What I mean is that in the city we draw these mental borders unintentionally through our daily movement across the urban landscape to and from work, friends and events. These travel routes define our own, our personal urban geographies.

An example. I live in Sydney’s coastal Eastern Suburbs. Were I to trace my movements on a map they would reveal a personal geography extending to the city, to Bondi Junction, down to Coogee Beach, southwards to South Coogee and occasionally inland a little to the region south of the CBD. I do venture further of course, as most of us do, but those are my most frequently-used movement patterns. They define my urban geography and they also form a kind of mental geography with its own mental borders. I know the rest of the city is out there and I do venture into parts of it at times, but some parts I very rarely if even visit. They are more or less terra incognita.

Nature’s borders

Borders are other things too. They can be real, physical, natural occurrences because nature, too, has borders. A river transiting bushland is a real border especially when it is in flood. So too is the border between two ecosystems such as drier, open forest like eucalypt bushland and the moist, closed rainforest along a stream. Ecologists call these ecotones. Some landscape designers call them edges because they form the edge between ecosystems.

Edges vary in width with ecosystem, climate and terrain. They can be wide borders and when they take this form they have the potential to live up being the productive zones they are sometimes reputed to be. Productive? Yes. Productive because they are home to plant species found in both adjoining ecosystems rather than the plant suite of only a single adjoining ecosystem. I’m unsure whether this makes them more productive in terms of biomass. It does make them more productive in terms of plant diversity.

I have seen people educated in permaculture design — a system of ecological design for human settlements — try to replicate these edge systems. They interpret them somewhat narrowly as the edges between garden and path, a rather thin strip. They know that edges are productive places in theory but I wonder if this particular interpretation is viable? If the edge is productive then more of it must be more productive, the thinking sometimes goes. So rather than the simple and easily-maintained straight line of rectangular garden beds forming the border separating herb and vegetable garden from path, they make curving and wavy edges on the understanding that more edge equals greater productivity. While I appreciate their drive to increase productivity I do wonder if the idea of the edge at this scale is effective at all.

I’ve seen — helped build — vegetable gardens with curving edges. Curving borders, that is. One was a circular garden I helped community food gardeners build. Lots of edge in the circumference of a circle. Lots of productive space, so the idea goes. Yes, it was a productive edge but less productive of crops than the kikuyu grass that invaded along that border that became a maintenance headache for the gardeners. They attempted to shade it out by planting a staggered, dense, double row of comfrey. That worked to some extent, slowing the weedy kikuyu invasion though not stopping it completely.

I think that idea of the edge, the border between ecosystems, became more an imaginary border in the mind of those gardeners. The theory said it should work. The reality said otherwise. Its permeability made it less a real border than an imaginary border.

So, borders. Borders in the city, borders in the garden, borders in the world, borders in the mind. Real or imaginary, natural or artificial, they are there to cross, to transcend to infiltrate.