Boundaries in North America

I had encountered the book “The nine nations of North America” by Joel Garreau several years ago on recommendations of a close friend.  The book mesmerized me as it described the cultural boundaries in North America . Boundaries in North America from a political perspective are simple ,  North America  is made up of the 3 behemoths ; Canada , US and Mexico and 20 or so islands in the Caribbean. (I am ignoring Greenland for this discussion because Greenland has never been a part of North America culturally or politically) .

When I got off the proverbial boat , I landed up in Ohio which is considered the Midwest . Ohio falls in the Eastern time zone and it made little sense to me that a state that was so far to the East could be considered mid or west . I heard a lot of convoluted explanations including the most common ;the term came over from the time when we had just 13 states !!! So essentially we are stuck with a term from 1790(or earlier) . The Louisiana purchase should have expanded our vocabulary and made Ohio the Mid east rather than the Midwest but habits apparently have stuck around for the sole purpose of bewildering legions of unwary immigrants .  Then I got married to a woman from Tennessee , she educated me that Tennessee is considered the south (though I would have liked to consider TN as the Mid south based on my Ohio experience) . We took a trip to see the Grand Canyon in Arizona which is geographically far more south than Tennessee can ever dream of but I would be corrected rather imperiously that Arizona was not the south , pointing on a map that Arizona was indeed south was useless . I also learnt that New Mexico is not south either , I concluded that south meant the south east but again I was in for a rude awakening , apparently Florida is not considered south . I imagined that the appellation “South” is more of a descriptor for the select number of states that were part of the confederacy during the Civil war(with apologies to Mississippi)  rather than the geographical indicator that it should have been (again habits , this time more recent , 1860)  . As I traveled around in Michigan , Pennsylvania and New York , there was rampant similarities.  I also got very familiar with the term “South of Mason Dixon” , though I was puzzled since the Mason Dixon line demarcates Pennsylvania and Maryland and has nothing running south. At one point, I went on a bike ride from Windsor , Ontario which is just across the river from Detroit all the way to Niagara Falls, Ontario and we stayed in small bed and breakfast inns in very small towns . Culturally I could not see any difference between the folks on the North shore of Lake Erie (in Canada) from the folks on the southern shore of Lake Erie in Ohio and Pennsylvania .However if I drove south for about 90 miles  , I was in a whole different country (figuratively speaking).  To put things in perspective, Pittsburgh is 110 miles, Philadelphia about 350 miles , Baltimore  400 miles and Chicago about 400 miles and these places feel the same to me but Ripley, WV about 100 miles south was an entirely different world.  It has always puzzled me until I finally read this book and it clicked together for me.

Ohio , Michigan , Indiana , Pennsylvania , New York , New Jersey , Maryland, Delaware , Connecticut  and the province of Ontario , the cities of Chicago and Milwaukee  are what he defines as the foundry and as he described the culture and values that are most important to this region . Similarly Arkansas, Kentucky , West Virginia, Virginia , Tennessee , North and South Carolina , Georgia , Alabama, Mississippi , Louisiana , Missouri and the part of Texas which is east of Houston is considered ‘Dixie’ and this fits in perfectly with what I have learned from folks down ‘south’ . Recently I am learning in California that there is a huge divide between the folks in SFO and the folks in LA so much so that there is a movement to split California into 6 different states  for administrative reasons (more red tape and legislators is the solution!!!! ). In the book the region called Ectopia that houses SFO also includes Vancouver (1000 miles away) and Anchorage (3000 miles) . I can personally vouch that people in SFO have little in common with their brethren in Los Angeles(350 miles away) .He does state that folks in Los Angeles have more in common with Mexico city(1800 miles away)  and Houston(1500 miles) than with San Francisco . Having lived in 2 of his nations and having visited 4 more , I have to admit that there is an intuitive appeal to argument that he is making .

Recently one of my colleagues watching me re read the 9 Nations , suggested American Nations by Colin Woodard. As I read it , some of Woodard’s regions match perfectly with what Garreau had suggested and unfortunately the three regions (Foundry/Midlands , Dixie/Appalachia and Ectopia /Left coast)  that I am well acquainted with , match the regions that they both seem to agree upon so I cannot say whose theory I endorse more . Woodard himself is frank about the influence of the earlier book . But I have to admit that while both the books are gripping in their own right, the 9 nations is history agnostic, Woodard’s work attempts to explain the difference using historical motives and at times , it reads like a gripping historical novel . Not knowing European and American history as well as I would have liked , I am unable to judge his conclusions for myself . Some of his conclusions directed at more contemporary times just seem downright Machiavellian , especially the era of George W Bush who has been accused of being the most divisive president in recent history . Woodard has an dark explanation for it that seems to have its roots in history to civil war times. His conclusions seem pretty dark to me as well which seems to indicate a further fragmentation of culture and possibly political boundaries. I would heartily recommend both books for interested folks who would like to puzzle out the cultural phenomena that is North America.

Reading this book inspired me to consider doing something similar in India until I realized that the cultural boundaries are not far removed from the political boundaries due to the demarcation of states based on the local languages. In that sense , India is closer in spirit to Europe , languages defining the political boundaries . Do I judge one way to be better than the other , the American way is obviously far more organic since it completely ignores man made state and country borders . Political borders based on culture seem to be more divisive . as time goes , I have watched India grow the number of states (and thereby increasing the number of bureaucrats and the amount of red tape) and though I love Yes Minister , I don’t believe that Red Tape holds the nation together.

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2 thoughts on “Boundaries in North America

  1. That sounds like an interesting book. I don’t know much about the states in India, I’m afraid. The main one I ever hear of is Uttar Pradesh. I don’t know why, but it seem that every time I read a news story about something unusual or noteworthy that happened in India, the state always seems to be Uttar Pradesh. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence.

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  2. There are almost 30 states and the majority of those states have their own language , culture and traditions . Going 200 miles in any direction would mean a change of language , culture and diet (though diet changes are more due to the difference in the spices that are used)

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