Forty years ago, an ingenious reporter for The Washington Post undertook a map-making project that has stuck with me ever since. Joel Garreau in a book carved the Unites States and its near neighbors into what he called The Nine Nations of North America (Houghton Mifflin, 1981) and gave them each a capital. For copyright reasons, I cannot reproduce Garreau’s maps here, but I can describe them briefly, and you can glimpse them on the cover of his book, or get a copy from the library, or even buy one and then give it to some up-and-comer as a gift.
Even today, the author’s garrulous account of the differences among regions of the continent is an entertaining way to travel around on summer evenings, without ever leaving the porch. Some things have changed since 1981, but not the geography, and it is the maps that matter. Never mind the classic boundary lines of states and nations, Garreau wrote, the old East-West- North-South categories. You will recognize, I think, the genius of the geographic, economic and cultural distinctions that he makes. More or less chronologically, as the regions were re-settled, beginning in the sixteenth century, this time by Europeans, his sub-sets of the whole are these:
New England: Not just the six classic states of Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Connecticut (all but its three southern counties, now, like Long Island, in the orbit of New York), but Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, New Foundland, and Labrador as well. Its second largest city is now Providence, R.I. having overtaken Worcester, Mass. New England’s capital is still Boston.
Quebec: The less valuable portion of its North American empire France was able to keep at the end of the Seven Years War ((forty years later, Napoleon sold the vast Louisiana Territory to the US); the north bank of the Saint Lawrence River from Ottawa and Montreal to the Gaspe Peninsula, and stretching northward past Sept-Îles all the way to Fort Chimo (today once again Kuujjuaq); more integrated with the rest than you might think, via trade and higher education. Its capital city is Quebec.
Dixie: The old Confederacy and its borderlands, stretching from Norfolk and Richmond in the east, to Cincinnati, Louisville, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Little Rock, Dallas, and Houston in the west, and south to Jacksonville, Tampa, Saint Petersburgh. Mobile, and New Orleans; with the southern Appalachian mountains in between, the region is as various as a patchwork quilt. Atlanta is its capital in the present day.
The Islands: The Bahamas, Cuba, Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Puerto Rico, the Leeward and the Windward islands, and the Caribbean coast of South America: Caracas, Barranquilla, and Cartagena; vital components of North America from the beginning; including Panama City, more thoroughly integrated with North America today than ever. The capital of the Islands is Miami.
The Foundry: New York state, Pennsylvania, and the Old Northwest territory, bounded by the Great Lakes and the Ohio River; Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, southern Ontario, and the watershed city of Chicago, were, for well over a century, the manufacturing center of the United States; don’t call it “the Midwest;” the western frontier of the Foundry runs from Cincinnati and Indianapolis to Peoria, Janesville, and Green Bay. It hasn’t lost its Attitude; its capital is still Chicago.
The Breadbasket: From Winnipeg, Manitoba, and Regina, Saskatchewan; through Bismarck, Rapid City, Sioux Falls, Minneapolis. Duluth, Des Moines, St. Louis (and most of Illinois), Kansas City, Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Amarillo, Fort Worth, and Bryan, the grain belt of North America runs down to Houston and its port of Galveston; for many years characterized as “the land of too much,” or “flyover country,” the Plains states today find their prosperity depends on weather and wars in other especially fertile regions around the world. Capital of the Breadbasket is Kansas City, or perhaps Minneapolis. Both cities host Federal Reserve Banks, signifying equal importance.
MexAmerica: The three hundred miles from Sacrament through the Central Valley to Lost Angeles is just the beginning of it; then on through San Diego and Tijuana, the length of Baja California to La Paz and finally Cabo San Lucas; it includes Phoenix, Tucson, Nogales and Hermosillo; follows the Rio Grande river from Santa Fe past Albuquerque, El Paso, Laredo, and Brownsville; extends east to Austin and Houston; and south at least as far as Chihuahua and Monterrey. Its capital is Los Angeles.
The Empty Quarter: It includes Denver, Salt Lake City, and Las Vegas, but after that population thins out; Boise, Spokane, while most of Montana simply disappears on Garreau’s map; Calgary, Edmonton, and then not much between Fort McMuray and Great Slave Lake; to the west are Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Tuntutuliak; to the north is Barrow. That’s empty! The capital is Denver.
Ecotopia: The Pacific Northwest consists if a thin strip of coastline stretching from the peninsula south of San Francisco through northern California, Oregon, Washington state, British Columbia, to Valdez, Alaska, just south of Anchorage. The name came from a 1975 utopian novel by Ernest Callenbach, who imagined a future no more distant than 1999, in which residents of Oakland, Philomath, Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver would have achieved a harmonious steady state of peace among themselves and nature, with no worries about the Seattle Fault. Its capital is San Francisco.
The Aberrations: Garreau devoted a chapter, too, to what are basically city-states: greater New York City, the Beltway surrounding Washington D.C.; the Hawaiian Islands, the capacious state-of-mind that is Alaska.
In simple, sheltered, 1981, reporter Garreau stated his conviction early in the book. He wrote, “I do not think that Americas is flying apart, or that it should.” But today you will surely recognize the opinion of the University of Texas professor, for whom the reporter made adjacent room. The Texian, a folklore and regionalist, told Garreau that he wouldn’t worry if the Constitution of 1787 collapsed, as it almost had once before.
He thinks [The Nine Nations] shows that if Washington D.C. were to slide into the Potomac tomorrow, under the weight of its many burdens and crises, the result would be ok. The future would not be chaos; it would be a shift. North America would not look around to discover a strange and alien world. It would see a collection of healthy, powerful, constituent parts that we’ve known all our lives – like Dixie. He sees Nine Nations as a resilient response of a tough people reaffirming their self-reliance. It’s not that social contracts are dissolving; it’s that new ones are being born,
What he’s saying, essentially, is that our values are separable from our regimes. We can preserve what is most important to us no matter what violence is done to the federal system, and the sooner we recognize that the more confident of our future we’ll be. This confidence, he adds, ironically, may serve to bolster that federal system.
I, on the other hand, think the folklorist was profoundly mistaken. A great deal of evidence has accumulated over the past fifty years to suggests that the reverse is true: that that personal preferences and social norms – our values – are quite inseparable from the regimes of governance that have been devised by North Americans, indigenous as well as recent arrivals, over several hundred years, democratically for more than two hundred of them.
I hope that some young future Garreau-like journalist will devise a book of clever maps – call it Governing North America – describing institutions that have the greatest influence over how we live, and which bind the Nine Nations together. The topics might include the means of language acquisition; the system of national defense (it used to be called the War Department”), and, related, the system of national debt; the immigration system; the retirement security system; the health care system; the system of higher education, and, related, the system of research and development; the monetary system; the political system; the legal system, and, related to all and sundry, the Constitution of the United States of America and its Bill of Rights.
What is Garreau up to today? Having written a second prescient book, Edge City: Life on the New Frontier (Anchor, 1992), he led groups as a faculty member at George Mason University and Arizona State University. Since publishing Radical Evolution: the Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies — and What It Means to Be Human (Crown, 2006), though, he has disappeared into the technological presbyopian mists of transhumanism.
Meanwhile, before leaving the topic of maps, take a look at those by Erwin Raisz at Raisz Landform Maps. His hand-drawn topological maps, including those of the United States, are among the most beautiful I have ever seen.