[Edmund Leach] suggested that we look at the precolonial Burmese state not as a physically contiguous territory, as we would in the contest of modern states, but as a complex patchwork that followed an entirely different logic. We should picture the kingdom, he insisted, in terms of horizontal slices through the topography. Following this logic, Burma was, in practice, a collection of all the sedentary, wet-rice producers settled in valleys within the ambit of the court center. These would be...the state spaces. The next horizontal stratum of the landscape from, say, five hundred feet to fifteen hundred feet would, given its different ecology, contain inhabitants who practice shifting cultivation, were more widely scattered and were therefore less promising subjects of appropriation. They were not an integral part of the kingdom, although they might regularly send tribute to the central court. Still higher elevations would constitute yet other ecological, political and cultural zones. What Leach proposed, in effect, is that we consider all relatively dense, wet-rice settlements within range of the capital as "the kingdom" and the rest, even if relatively close to the capital, as "nonstate spaces".
The role of statecraft in this context becomes that of maximising the productive, settled population in such state spaces while at the same time drawing tribute from, or at least neutralizing, the nonstate spaces. These stateless zones have always played a potentially subversive role, both symbolically and practically. From the vantage point of the court, such spaces and their inhabitants were the exemplars of rudeness, disorder and barbarity against which the civility, order and sophistication of the centre could be gauged. Such spaces, it goes without saying, have served as refuges for fleeing peasants, rebels, bandits, and the pretenders who have often threatened kingdoms.
Two thoughts emerge from this.
1) I dimly perceive a map which is not birds-eye, but horizontal. A bit like what Christian Kessler has been posting about lately. It is subdivided into strata, each of which has a distinct character based on its elevation and ecology - getting more dangerous and strange as the elevation increases. This is in effect a way of (let's coin a phrase, shall we?) dungeonizing the wilderness. Think of a city state in a valley. All the way up and down the valley it exerts control and authority. But on either side are very tall steep hills and then mountains, which ascend ruggedly and rapidly. You wouldn't have to travel far from the city to be in a radically different, alien environment which civilization simply cannot touch. And moreover, it is stratified into levels - of, say, 500 feet of elevation. What this is is, in effect, a dungeon that is upside down: the higher you go, the more dangerous things are and the more potential there is for discovering things that are amazingly weird and/or valuable. Here the wilderness is not just a hex-map in which the PCs might equally be confronted by a dragon as by some kobolds; it takes on the same function of a dungeon in providing a somewhat predictable range of risk-taking.
2) To the city state discussed above, the wilderness is a threat which it wants to neutralize, and ideally draw tribute from. For some reason I have never really thought about this properly before, but why not conceptualise PCs in a D&D game as being representatives of the "State" rather than simply rogue-like murderhobos - competent independent frontiersman types with letters of marque, or even diplomats, sent to the dungeon or the wilderness to neutralize it? Not in the sense of clearing it, but in the sense of reducing its capacity to pose a threat - by creating tributary relationships (one way or the other), trade links or even ultimately civilizing it? In a strange way this seems to have been what my Three/Four Mysterious Weirdos campaign ended up resembling without me quite realising it. I find the concept interesting partly because it subverts so many typical D&D assumptions, but also because it puts the PCs in a role which is (at least in my view) fundamentally wrong-headed, in an intriguing way.