The first in a series about inhabiting and acting in the edge-places of our civilization as crucial for humanity’s passage through these challenging times – and inviting you to share your personal edge-dwelling experiences.
I’m an Edge-dweller. It’s not something I signed up for, or studied. It’s simply what I am. Over the past several years, I’ve begun to understand this as a specific way of being – and that this way of being may be intertwined with these edge-times in which we live.
There must be other Edge-dwellers – lots and lots of us. Perhaps the times invite us or shape us into being. Perhaps we have something important to offer these times. Perhaps people can choose or learn to be Edge-dwellers.
This is the first of a series of articles on Edge-dwelling. I’m writing as an exploration, to invite a conversation, to seek connection with others.
We live in a time when our civilization (which some say began with the industrial age and others trace back to the dawn of agriculture some 10,000 years ago) is crumbling. We live in a time when our consumer culture is literally consuming our planet – a time that Bill McKibben (among others) says has already passed from the 11,000 year Holocene period of climate stability to what is being called the Anthropocene, a time of climate instability brought about by mankind’s own actions. That’s a huge edge to be living on. In one sense everyone alive today may be an Edge-dweller.
By Edge-dwelling, I am not talking about the often used phrase “living on the edge” as partaking in extreme sports or being one paycheck away from homelessness. I’m talking about a way of being with, experiencing, and moving in this world.
I use Edge-dwelling to mean those people drawn to the edges of places and things; people who inhabit and act in those edge spaces.
I’ve always felt drawn and called by the edges of things; the place where two things meet, connect, bump, collide, blend, interweave, join and create something new; places where land joins ocean (or lake or river or stream); where forest meets meadow, where hills become plains; those bridge places that stretch from one thing to another.
These are not comfortable places. Sometimes they are harsh or unpredictable. There are plants and animals that inhabit those environments, flourish in them, know them as home. There are people drawn to these kinds of places. Such people may have qualities that can be crucial for our times. For some, these qualities may come naturally. For others, they can be nurtured, cultivated, grown, learned. Either way, naming it, exploring it, being aware of its potential and importance, can clarify, magnify, make visible what is hidden.
And so I write to offer an invitation and begin a conversation.
Standing at the ocean’s edge, along the Northern California coast, I notice a small piece of burgundy-brown seaweed. At first it appears to be a living being, its shape so sculpted by the tides that it seems to dance and swim, leap and glide naturally and effortlessly, graceful and joyful in the turbulence, a being at peace with constant change, at home within the incessant motion of the tides.
There are people who seek the natural and social landscape where two (or more) distinct things join, for whom it is their natural home, who dance joyfully and gracefully among the constant change. There are others who dance less naturally, yet still recognize this place as home.
In part, this is an ability to be comfortable with this transition place between two things. The other aspect is knowing as home the potential and possibility that come from fluidity and motion, shifting and change, uncertainty and unpredictability – the understanding that this is exactly the best place to create something new.
Much has been written about resilience, about cultivating the qualities needed to survive, or even thrive, within the uncertainties of our times. This can perhaps be briefly summarized as the ability to cope with stress and tolerate anxiety, to be comfortable with rapid and unexpected change. These qualities are certainly part of Edge-dwelling.
Less discussed is the other aspect of Edge-dwelling – those qualities that will contribute to and shape the regeneration that can arise from the crumbling of our civilization; those qualities that can enable us as individuals and as a species, to not only survive this great dissolution, but participate fully in the rebirthing.
I believe this less-discussed aspect of Edge-dwelling may be key for humanity and our Earth in these edge times. This less-discussed aspect of Edge-dwelling, and the qualities connected with it, will be the focus of this article series. As a beginning, I offer an introduction to two of these qualities, with the intention of exploring these and other qualities more deeply in future articles.
Something new where two things meet
Who could imagine that hydrogen and oxygen combined in a ratio of two-to-one become water, something so very different, and fundamental to life on our planet. Who could imagine that blue and yellow combined become green, a color so different from the two colors of its origin.
In ecology there’s something called the edge effect. This means that where very different ecological systems meet there is an area of greater abundance. For example, birds are more plentiful in places where forests meet meadows than in completely forested areas. The coast, where land meets sea, is especially rich and offers a large percentage of animal and human needs.
Think about the many places in our culture where something new is created in the spaces where two distinct things meet.
There is the rich cross blending that happens along national borders, where different cultures meet. Tex-Mex, for example, is a culture, a style of art, a distinct cuisine, a form of music, and more. Jazz began among African-American communities in the Southern U.S. by blending African musical themes with certain European harmony and form elements. Rock and Roll is a combination of blues, jazz, gospel (African American musical forms) with Western swing and country music. In academia, Interdisciplinary Studies involves combining two or more academic disciplines or schools of thought to create something new – the field of Eco-psychology, for example.
Edge-dwellers seek those places where two distinct things meet, collide, connect, blend and interweave exactly because that is the best place to create something new.
Building the bridge between now and beyond
Imagine our long-ago ancestors as they first set sail toward the horizon, guided only by their understanding of the stars and their visions of what they might find on the far side of the horizon. Imagine Noah as he began building his ark (and what his neighbors must have said). Or Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, the moment they began to cross the desert, uncertain of what lay on the other side. (I’m not at all biblical, yet these ancient stories speak of themes universal to the experience of being human.)
Edge-dwelling encompasses the ability to peer beyond the horizon of what is known, to envision the possibilities of what might lie beyond, and to begin to create structures that could carry us there.
An example of this is the often quoted Great Law of the Iroquois Confederacy, “In every deliberation, we must consider the impact on the seventh generation… even if it requires having skin as thick as the bark of a pine.”
To be an Edge-dweller today means to consciously stand at the edge of our crumbling civilization, to hold the heart-break of our endangered planet, to embrace the magnitude of what the future may hold, and from that place, to envision the potential and set to work to make it possible, with no guarantee of success. It means to build pathways, dig tunnels, construct bridges across deserts, floodwaters, oceans, crumbling civilizations – so that others, perhaps not yet born, can add to what we have begun, and arrive on the far side.
One example of this kind of vision is the Transition movement, an international network of grassroots communities building “resilience in response to peak oil, climate destruction and economic instability”, and through this creating a more “vibrant and abundant future.”
Another example is Bioneers, an organization that “highlights breakthrough solutions for restoring people and planet” that “has served as a fertile hub of social and scientific innovators with nature-inspired approaches to the world’s most pressing environmental and social challenges”.
There are lots of other examples, both large and small. Do you know some you can share?
This great work has already begun. We have only to add our part.
Already there are scientists, psychologists, cosmologists, educators and more offering their voices and visions to this great crossing of our times. There are new fields, like permaculture and biomimicry – all more numerous than I can name. This time of climate change, melting ice caps and extinctions opens a flowering of new ways of thinking, being and doing.
The edge is a place where what is crumbling makes space for the new to arise. In this way, the edge becomes a seam, bringing two distinct things together – and a pathway to walk, a bridge to cross.
Perhaps the times are asking, inviting, calling on each of us to become Edge-dwellers – to offer the best of what lies within us toward visioning and shaping a future that lies just beyond imagination’s edge.
Perhaps the qualities of Edge-dwelling lie within our DNA, part of a constellation of adaptive skills that has helped our species survive and thrive through millennia of changing times. Perhaps it is something we can consciously reclaim within us.
Are you an Edge-dweller? In what ways? Be in touch and let me know (firstname.lastname@example.org). This article is an invitation to begin a conversation. This piece originally ran at Speaking Truth to Power.
– Dianne Monroe, Transition Voice