A shapeless state

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Like many Minnesotans, I’ve taken inordinate pride in the shape of my state. It’s a strange bird with an enormous beak that extends over Lake Superior and a club foot down by Mankato. The jaunty little Northwest Angle sticks out like a feather on its head, a symbol of our quirky personality and incompetent cartographers.

The outline of Minnesota appears on our license plates, hats, t-shirts, car decals, political advertising, and a wide variety of custom woodworks. Sometimes you see it used to replace a vowel in lettering, like grandma sweatshirts that say H-ME with the missing letter replaced by Minnesota. Get it? Minnesota is HOME. Or HAME. Or maybe HEME. But probably HOME. 

As state shapes go, Minnesota’s is pretty functional. You can use the St. Croix and Mississippi rivers to peel potatoes or scratch your back with Cook or Houston counties. Of all 50 states, Minnesota is top five among those that could be used as a prison shiv. (We tip our caps to you, Tennessee).

Yes, Minnesota is a great state with a great shape. But then a few years ago I went on vacation to Winnipeg with my family. At the gift shop, I saw all the same stuff in the shape of Manitoba. Have you ever seen the province Manitoba on a map? It’s a big, boxy thing that looks like a child’s drawing of Minnesota. The people there didn’t seem to mind. 

It was then and there that I realized the folly of identifying with the political boundaries of modern states. 

For the past couple years I’ve been playing this game on my phone called “Worldle.” This was one of the knockoffs to the popular “Wordle” game that annoyed everyone on social media last year. Each day, “Worldle” posts a silhouette of a country. Could be any country, anywhere. You get six guesses to name the country. If you get it wrong, the game tells you how many kilometers off you were.

Sometimes you get the United States, Italy or Australia and it’s really easy. But the game quickly demonstrates how many countries or nation-states exist in the world and how obliquely shaped most of them are. You notice how history and politics shape geography.

For instance, I know that if the country appears to shaped by rivers, there’s a good chance I’m looking at Europe. Those boundaries were shaped and reshaped over many years of hand-to-hand combat. Vikings snaked up rivers to raid monasteries and bed the local chieftain’s daughter, only to join the family and fight wars against neighboring kingdoms. Those old boundaries stood after the nations industrialized and began to colonize other places.

Lots of straight lines? Original peoples didn’t draw straight lines on maps. Rivers, oceans, lakes and mountains provided their borders. So if the country looks like a jumble of pixels, there’s a good chance we’re looking at Africa or the Middle East, two places where colonization created the shapes of modern countries. In reality, certain cultures live on both sides of those straight lines.

Every place is shaped by power and politics, but its people live by other rules. Minnesota is a place, but its official borders were drawn less than 200 years ago by people who were mostly guessing. 

Lake Superior is real. The Mesabi iron formation is real. The three-way watershed near Hibbing sends water to the Mississippi and St. Lawrence rivers and Hudson’s Bay. It is certainly real, but just try to draw its shape. Few of the geographic boundaries that we take such pride in are anything more than a hypothesis. 

Rulers deal in nations. Most of us live and work in oblong spaces along squiggly lines walking trails worn bare by generations.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Saturday, June 24, 2023 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.

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