We sat in a circle, about a dozen people from northern Maine and southern Arizona, discussing what it is like to live and work on an international border. Our hosts in Stockholm are collaborating with two poets from Arizona to explore and compare two very different borders — Maine-Canada and Arizona-Mexico — in a time of cultural and environmental change.
Erica and Kate Quin-Easter spent a week in Arizona last winter engaged in a series of cultural conversations and environmental excursions to learn about the history, culture and current context of the Arizona-Mexico border. In June, their Arizona collaborators, Wendy Burk and Eric Magrane, came to Maine to experience the culture and environment along the Maine-Canada border.
They call their project “(F)light: an exploration of borders and migration through poetry and song.” The result will be an a cappella choral song cycle to be premiered by the Portland women’s chorus, Women in Harmony, in May 2011, and perhaps by similar groups in Arizona and northern Maine at later dates. The poems and songs will be inspired by conversations like this one in June.
Residents of Fort Fairfield, Caribou, Madawaska, New Sweden and Presque Isle recalled times when crossing into Canada was as simple as going to the grocery store and they tried to interpret the new tension often associated with crossing today. What does it mean that people on both sides of the border think twice before making a dining or shopping trip that once was routine?
My encounters at the border have been typically friendly, even jovial, despite the need to present a passport, but others expressed various levels of anxiety.
A Fort Fairfield native, who recalled frequent trips to visit relatives in Canada as a child, said, “I hardly ever go across now. It feels like a big production.” She tried to define the feelings generated by the need to document her identity and verify that her children are her own when she crosses today. Dismissing the word “fear,” she said, “It’s more the anticipation of what might happen, wondering when it might be more than answering a few questions.”
Sheila Jans of Madawaska crosses the St. John River into Canada frequently and uses Canadian services regularly in her work as a cultural development consultant. She compares her feelings upon approaching the border to those of a student “going to the principal.”
“You are 100 percent vulnerable,” she said, describing the border as a zone where officials have broad authority over citizens and are bound by rules with little room for individual discretion. She is interested in the psychological effects of the tighter border, especially among residents of adjacent communities.
Jans recalled a French-speaking historian from Edmundston, New Brunswick, who used the wrong English word to describe the purpose of her trip upon entering the U.S. She should have said she was giving a free presentation, but used the word “conference” instead and was detained until she could convince the border patrol she was not being paid.
“It’s the policies of politics, not the individuals,” Jans said. “The majority of people are harmless.”
But the visitors from Arizona found the Canadian border almost invisible compared to the Mexican border with their state, where new legislation requires law enforcement to check citizenship.
Recalling her visit to Arizona last year, Erica Quin-Easter said, “The presence of the big border fence and frequent enforcement stops miles inland from actual crossing stations made us feel the border much more directly in Arizona than our collaborators felt in Maine. The long lines of people crossing from Mexico to the U.S. were quite different from the trickle at our Maine border. It was especially striking to stroll over into Mexico without presenting any identification and stand in long lines upon our return to the U.S.”
Last May I took a trip on the Rhine River, which forms the border between France and Germany for part of its course through Europe.
“Please note,” said a cruise lecturer on the European Union, “that you did not have to show your passport or clear customs when you disembarked in Germany and crossed the bridge into France.”
I entered four different countries during this trip, but the only stamps in my passport show my arrival to and departure from the continent. “Don’t you want to see my passport?” I asked upon entering Amsterdam. “Oh, we don’t do that anymore,” was the response.
To learn more about the May Women in Harmony concert as the time approaches, visit www.wihmaine.org. The (F)light project is funded in part by a grant from the Maine Arts Commission, an independent state agency supported by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Kathryn Olmstead is a retired University of Maine associate dean and associate professor living in Aroostook County. She was the founding director of the Maine Center for Student Journalism at UMaine. Her columns appear in this space twice monthly. She may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.