Often things occur to me and I turn to my partner and say, ‘isn’t it weird that….?’
He usually looks at me and shrugs.
So I’ll say it here instead.
Isn’t it weird that….all the land on Earth is divided up into countries? (Except Antarctica)
Every single piece of land is owned by a nation. You cannot just go anywhere on this planet, despite the fact that the planet is not owned by anyone, it’s just a planet, orbiting a sun.
And yet, every area of land belongs to a country.
I’ve never found this strange before because I’ve always thought of the countries, rather than the land they sit on. For instance, I wanted to go to Vancouver island, so I went to Canada. I wanted to go to the Fontainebleau forest, so I went to France. I wanted to visit the Andes so I went to Peru. But each time I had to fulfil some bureaucracy.
In Canada I had to prove I had enough money, in Peru I had to prove I would leave and in France I needed my EU passport. Without proof of varying kinds, I wouldn’t be allowed to see a particular landscape, a particular natural environment. If you don’t have a documented identity, you cannot go anywhere.
The more I travel the less I consider myself as living in England. After all, I don’t live in England. I don’t have a house, my belongings are stored in someone else’s. I don’t even have a town or county that is mine. When other people ask me where I’m from the conversation goes like this:
‘Where are you from?’
‘Whereabouts in England?’
‘Where in the south?’
I just don’t have a Home Point. Which is fine, but sometimes I start feeling a little disorientated, like I don’t belong.
Right now I’m living in Austria, a place I feel legally comfortable. To me, any other EU country is as home as England is to a certain extent, especially the northern European countries. And I never thought that would change.
But now the UK has voted to leave the European Union, what status can I rely on here? Will my only unconditional home be within the boundaries of the UK? And what if Scotland decided to leave? Suddenly my home turf, the piece of geography that I was born into, would shrink from the size of the EU to the tiny size of England and Wales.
And that’s just my story. What of those born on tiny island nations? What of those born on pieces of land without powerful passports? Or without passports at all?
But it’s only humans who’ve set this limit on themselves. Birds and animals can move freely, or as freely as physically possible. I should know, I’ve had birds hitchhike on my boat between countries and they’ve never bothered with customs.
And it wasn’t always like this. The historian Toby Wilkinson ascribes it to Ancient Egypt, the first civilisation to create unified nation. But just imagine, for one moment, if you could walk between countries. If there was land which had no nationality, like a corridor between nations that didn’t belong to anyone and that anyone could walk or live in.
And I know it doesn’t make sense, I know that society doesn’t work like that, I know that it’s not possible.
But the musing remains.
Isn’t it weird that all* the land on Earth is divided up into countries?
Perhaps that’s why I found sailing so extraordinary. When I reached the Caribbean after 28 days at sea – it was as though I’d snuck in. I hadn’t gone country to country, I hadn’t gone air carrier to air carrier. Airport to airport, bureaucracy to bureaucracy.
No one owns the ocean. I spend a month in international waters and there I found my corridor; my corridor between countries. A vast, moving, shifting, organic nomansland. I felt like I belonged their even though I didn’t have permission, I didn’t have a document saying I was a national of the Atlantic. I was there as an equal to every other creature that was there.
There’s a reason people feel the draw of the ocean – it is true freedom. It is walking under a sun with no flag.