(March 18-27, 2011)

The World Wide Panorama

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Theme Essay: Limits

The essay conveys the team’s idea of the event. It is usually published together with the Theme announcement and offers a starting point for the contributing photographers.


By G. Donald Bain

We live in a world of limits, they are everywhere. The challenge of this theme is to see where limits become visible and meaningful. Some will be obvious, even dramatic, many will be subtle or personal and require explanation.

This is a purely personal discourse on my ideas about limits, yours may be totally different. You can interpret the theme any way you like, literally or imaginatively.

There is a highway warning sign near Sechelt, BC (Canada) that says simply LIMITED VISION. It is warning motorists about a series of dips in the road ahead, but it always makes me chuckle. A photograph of the sign and the road would be a literal interpretation of the theme, or it could be the starting point for a philosophical essay about wisdom.

Use your imagination, surprise us, make us think!

We all have personal limits - limits to our knowledge, our strength, endurance, experience, finances, tolerance and much more. These limits often define who we are, what we do, and how we see the world. In one of the Dirty Harry movies the catch line is "A man has got to know his limitations", intoned solemly as each of Harry's adversaries self-destructs.

Each of us has a personal geography of places we don't care to go, or can't afford to go, behavior and people we avoid, things we can't do no matter how badly we may want to - our limits. When we are young we tend to push and extend those limits, as we age we come to accept them, sometimes wisely, sometimes sadly.

Society sets limits, often extensions of our collective personal limits, for safety, morality, even convenience. We impose speed limits on our roads, weight limits on bridges, height limits on buildings. Zoning and planning limits what can be built and what types of business may be conducted in various parts of the city. Urban growth limits stop sprawl and may sharply divide city from countryside.

Limits on behavior may be irksome to some and welcome to others. Limits on smoking in California, for example, now include outdoor areas, anywhere within 25 feet of a door or window. Drinking, gambling and similar pursuits are always limited, by age, location, day and time.

Back when I was a student, California did not allow sale of alcoholic beverages within one mile of a college campus. So, at that one-mile limit in Berkeley, there were clusters of liquor stores. Stanford University had a similar situation, resulting in "whiskey row" where the main street crossed a county line. The laws are long gone, but some of the retailers remain, marking the old limit.

Limits to legal jurisdiction sometimes become important. The famous "Sunset Strip" in Los Angeles was a short stretch of Sunset Boulevard that crossed out of the city into unincorporated county jurisdiction. As a result it became famous for businesses and behaviors not tolerated within the city itself.

One of the striking features of the American West is the mirage-like appearance of huge casinos in the middle of nowhere when a highway crosses the state line into Nevada. Similarly delimited enterprises now mark the limits of sovereign Indian land - not just casinos but tax-free cigarettes, liquor, and illegal fireworks.

In the past some ethnic and racial groups were limited in where they could live. The limits of these reservations, ghettos, and Chinatowns are still clearly seen. In Berkeley, California, there was a tacit agreement not to sell houses to non-whites uphill from Grove Street. Discrimination in housing has been illegal for fifty years now and Grove Street has pointedly been renamed Martin Luther King Junior Boulevard. In the South you can still see fading signs of racial segregation - redundant restrooms, drinking fountains, entryways, now serving no purpose.

Religion imposes limits on behavior. You can't buy cameras from B&H in New York between sundown Friday and Sunday morning, even over the internet. Cemeteries are often limited also - to veterans, Masons, members of religious or ethnic groups. The tiny mining town of Roslyn, Washington, has a dozen cemeteries to accommodate the Serbs, Slovenes, Irish, Welsh, Polish, Italians and other fragments of the community.

In San Francisco Chinese merchants have agreed to limit Chinese signs and businesses to south of Broadway, to protect the traditional Italian character of North Beach. In many areas historic districts have been demarcated to limit change to the appearance of streets and buildings. Washington DC (and state capitals such as Sacramento) limit the height of new buildings to that of the capitol dome. Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Santa Barbara, California, limit architecture in their downtown areas to the traditional adobe and red tile Spanish and Pueblo styles.

Limits can be on a very small scale. Think of parks and gardens, composed of walkways, lawns, flowerbeds, ponds, each with its distinct purpose, appearance and uses - limits.

Continental-scale limits are also found. The Mason-Dixon Line was the northern limit of slavery before the Civil War and is still referred to as the border between the north and The South. The 100th meridian is often recognized as the limit of the green and settled east and the beginning of the arid west. The 49th parallel limited American expansion into British-claimed Canada, despite warlike talk of "Fifty-four forty or fight"in the election of 1844.

I love goofy geographic records and limits. Last fall I ate in the "northernmost Dennys in the world" (Fairbanks, Alaska) and just two days ago I had breakfast in the "Southernmost restaurant in the US" (Na'alehu, Hawaii). The US highway system attains its southern limit at Key West in Florida, its northern one at Deadhorse, Alaska. The northernmost American town is Nome, Alaska, and the southernmost (arguably) at MacMurdo Sound, Antarctica.

Recreation is rife with limits. Public parks may limit power boats, dogs, camping, swimming, fishing. Fishermen may be limited to artificial lures, barbless hooks, or even catch-and-release. I have even seen speed limits for mountain bikes on trails.

Business needs limits - corporations, Ltd., LLC, SA all denote a limit to personal liability, making the risks of doing business tolerable. But they may also limit personal responsibility for irresponsible damage to consumers and the environment. Nations and corporations are always pushing limits, building taller buildings, bigger ships and airplanes.

People challenge limits, in fact some defy them. Limits seen as unreasonable often result in widespread lawlessness, as in the bootlegging and speakeasies of the Prohibition era, the absurd 55 mph speed limit of the 1970's, and arguably the current restrictions on growing, selling and using marijuana.

Limitations to our knowledge of the world may have interesting results. Would Columbus have been so confident he could reach the east by sailing west if he knew it was in reality three times as far as he thought? How about the Polynesian discovery of Hawaii, the most remote island group in the world's oceans - they simply did not know how miniscule were their chances of finding land in that direction.

Cultural limits are subtle but pervasive. In the western US there is a discernable limit to how far north Spanish is widely spoken, and Canada has both east and west limits of the Francophone area. In Mexico there is an official border zone that issues its own car license plates (Frontera) and allows us gringos to wander around without documentation. But if you venture south of that limit your paperwork had better be in order.

Sports and competition are all about challenging limits - new records, personal bests. Popular entertainment seems always to be pushing the limits of what is acceptable.

Pushing limits is not only human nature, it may be a key to the survival of species. Rearguard Falls on the Fraser River in the Canadian Rockies marks the upstream limit of migrating salmon. Yet there are always a few indomitable fish doing their best to leap up the falls. They cannot be trying to return to their birthplace, as most salmon do, they are pushing the limits of the species' range. Without this innate drive anadromous fish never would have recolonized the vast areas of the northern hemisphere that were scraped clear of life by the Pleistocene ice shields.

The natural world is full of limits, mostly based on physical geography but also on history and human interaction. Last year I drove north past the limit of the California bioregion, and one by one I left familiar species behind, first madroño (arbutus), then oaks, then Douglas fir. Then I encountered the southern limits of boreal species such as spruce and birch. Eventually I passed the Arctic treeline - beyond this limit no trees grow because the frost-free season is too short to reproduce.

All species have limits on their ranges, as do crops. The northern limit of agriculture on this continent is the dairy farm at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, a few hours drive from the Arctic Circle.

Sometimes limits in the natural world seem puzzling. Absence of frost is more important for tropical plants than is warmth, so bananas grow in often-chilly San Francisco because it is frost free. Low precipitation limits most plants and produces deserts where specialized species thrive. Deserts need not be hot, the Great Basin Desert extends into Canada, with sagebrush and rattlesnakes.

Disease has limits, often of an obscure nature. Vectors such as ticks and mosquitoes limit the range of Rocky Mountain fever and malaria. The steady advance of West Nile virus is being carefully monitored as it moves across the US. California operates a series of inspection stations on all highways entering the state to prevent the introduction of agricultural pests.

Limits are often negative, they may be unfortunate, arbitrary, inexplicable, or unfair. But look around you, your world is shaped by various overlapping limits.

My examples are drawn primarily from my home area and experiences. I am eager to see the interpretations of this theme by creative people from different locations and cultures. Push the limits!

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