Berries, Protestants, and Railways

My first sense of the US-Canadian border came one long-ago late summer. My father was convinced that the best low bush blueberries and wild raspberries grew just across the border, and my mother was sure that if we looked hard enough in the meadows there we could find cowberries too.

Borders have been with us longer than nation-states.

So we drove from Edmore, North Dakota on back roads to what seemed to me a wild forest, full of the shadows and mysteries we did not have in our prairie part of the borderlands. I recall we drove straight north and crossed into Manitoba's Pembina Valley. I don't know if the wild berries we picked were better than our local varieties because they were Canadian, but they were prized above all the other preserved desserts we had the following winter. I loved them because it was such a grand adventure to find them, and they came from "another country!"

Borders have been with us longer than nation-states. They mark the sharply defined division between peoples; sometimes they mark the partially healed scars of war, more often they coincide with rivers, deserts, and mountain ranges. Long before there were precise topographic borders, there were borderlands, which have historically been places that extend culturally, socially, economically, and even politically beyond one country and into another.

I grew up in a borderland, the Red River Valley of the North, with a geography and history shared by North Dakota and Manitoba. Before I came to see the world through maps, I knew that rivers could flow north. That is what the Red River of the North does, as it divides North Dakota and Minnesota and flows all the way up to Lake Winnipeg. That seemed a long way away from me, but I remember relatives at a family gathering talking about the 1950 Red River flood in Winnipeg as something that was happening to neighbors.

Religion was another shared aspect of the borderlands. Years later, living in one of the planned community mosaics of California, I looked back with fascination on the ease with which my family and others would attend the Methodist Church in one community, then after a move might join the Presbyterian Church or even become Congregationalists. Little did I know then that our inter-denominational comfort was an echo of an extraordinary theological dynamic in Canada.

While studying at Yale Divinity School, I learned that since 1925 the Methodists, Congregationalists, and most of the Presbyterians had joined together in the United Church of Canada. When I first learned this I thought it must be just another example of pragmatic institution building in sparsely-populated areas, but I came to realize that the heirs of John Wesley and John Calvin had much more in common than they had differences about whether we can be good by way of free will or grace.

There in the borderlands, I began to learn something of the importance of shaded differences and to recognize where and how these differences did not really have to divide us.

If wild Pembina Valley berries and religion defined part of my borderland childhood, it was the railroad that gave it scope. My childhood passions were given free rein in the railroad wars. We were a Great Northern Railroad community: barely 500 souls lived in Edmore and we were connected to everywhere by a small spur line. We hated the rival Northern Pacific; they disdained spur lines to small farming communities.

Great Northern's owner, James Jerome Hill, the Empire Builder (born in Ontario and based in St. Paul, Minnesota), was also a backer of the Canadian Pacific Railway, so by extension we liked that line too.

With this background, it is easy to understand why I was in the front row of our movie house in 1949 when 20th Century Fox's feature Canadian Pacific opened. Randolph Scott played Tom Andrews, a surveyor who found a way through the Canadian Rockies, fought cruel fur trappers and disgruntled Indians, but eventually replaced his loving Métis girlfriend with a somewhat bloodless lady doctor from back East.

I now know that the film had nothing to do with Canadian history, but I saw every showing. My maternal grandfather had been a surveyor's assistant for the Great Northern when the route through the Surrey Cut in eastern North Dakota was being mapped out. I was sure this was a story of my family, though I wasn't so sure about Tom Andrews leaving Cecille Gautier for Dr. Edith Cabot.

As I look back on that time and place, I recognize how I came to hold two of my fundamental conceptions about life itself: all human history is a story of migration and movement, and all countries are composed of a series of borderlands.

 

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