Earlier this month I took an introductory permaculture course. One of the core habits of permaculture is observing and learning from nature, so our group spent time out of doors, in the enclosed garden of the course venue, enjoying the tentative spring sunshine and discovering what we could learn by observing the resident plane tree and the uneven expanse of lawn beneath its branches.
Our teacher picked up a handful of dead plane leaves and pieces of shed bark, to demonstrate resilient thriving in ecosystems, where each element has multiple functions, and each function is supported by multiple elements. Dead leaves and bark provide food for insects and bacteria, act as mulch, and eventually build new soil for the tree and other organisms to keep growing in.
He then crushed the leaves and bark into smaller pieces between his hands, and recalled another permaculture principle we’d been introduced to: maximising the edge. Edges – the borders where one ecosystem meets another ecosystem, say a shoreline, the outer reaches of a forest, or the right angle formed by a wall joining a pavement – are the most dynamic and creative places found in nature. They are where the greatest preponderance of species thrive, and the densest unfolding of life in new directions occurs.
The insight our teacher gave us as he crumbled that handful of leaves and bark was simple, and upending in its implications. When things break down, he said and showed us, more edges are created. I’ve encountered appreciation of social breakdown as an opportunity for new growth before, but not until that moment the organic depths to which this appreciation reaches.
My upturned thoughts drifted away from social upheaval and dead leaves, towards the edges that emerge when human relationships break down. Relationships with others, and with our own normative sense of who and what we are. The unexpected emotional edges – rage, grief, bitterness, lust, joy – we bang up against when our intimate connections to relatives, friends and lovers are broken up by separation or death. Changing and growing in spite of ourselves through the unwilled encounter with those feelings, even if this growth is only a grudging acceptance that the extent of our emotional range is more than we’d previously cared to admit. The further experience of mental breakdown; meeting the inner edges of pieces of ourselves – feelings, embodiment, self-image, psyche – upended and scattered in unlooked-for places. How this too illogically beckons as an arena for growth, even though it is still a cultural taboo to suggest as much.
(By one of those coincidences, the next guest post for this blog will come from a friend recently driven out to meet those edges of herself. I’ll leave it to her to tell whether and what growth has so far come to her from them.)
These thoughts, tellingly, wound up lodged at an edge that we mostly take for granted as normal, healthy, necessary and creative: the meeting of human beings with one another. So normal and necessary, indeed, that a good part of the second day of the permaculture course was given over to group exercises and discussions, explicitly to maximise the edges between us human participants.
This is an edge where I falter, since I find meeting new people difficult. I reach for my strong tendency towards introversion to explain this – feeling overwhelmed by stimuli, needing to cast about below the surface of social chitchat to find a depth and rhythm of conversation that is meaningful to me – but this explanation is too pat; it dodges something in the human texture of this difficulty.
At the edge where we encounter another human being, we discover for ourselves what it is to have to break down a little – to share, reveal and be vulnerable to adjustment – in order for growth to occur. To the extent that our egos possess us as bounded containers, though, we are afraid of dying – even a little. Between the absolutes of love and isolation, there is still an uncertain grappling with what we need and what we are prepared to cede at the edge of every exchange between ourselves and someone else.
I live on the edge of a city, but enough within the city to pass most days the outer edges of hundreds of strangers who will remain strangers to me. This truism is often seen as an affliction for which community is prescribed as a cure, but my instinctive reaction to any form of community, from family to neighbourhood to workplace to global village – much as I like the idea of communities in theory, appreciate why they matter, and see that they work for others – is to back away from it far enough to be in contact with its edges. I need to be able to see the joins, whatever is not being admitted in order for the community to identify itself as such. Underneath, I’m afraid of not being admitted myself; or of being charged a price for admission that I’m not prepared to pay.
My aloof attitude to communities sits awkwardly with a dawning recognition that to be alive at all is to be dependent on the biotic community in its entirety. But the pull to take a distance from immediate human communities persists. Recently I’ve been turning around and around the following insight from Laura Burns’ essay ‘Reimagining the space between’, in Despatches from the Invisible Revolution. Because community is perceived as something not with us but lost, she suggests, we project onto hopes for its restoration desires for an ideal unity. Yet what we invariably meet whenever we reach out beyond ourselves is difference, otherness.
Such is the creative condition of the edge, where the encounter between different living systems creates an intensity of thriving. Edges, moreover, are found at all scales. Even in the tightest community or the closest relationship, there is an edge between people – waiting to happen if it is allowed to. Blunted by familiarity, perhaps, but continually reforming as a shoreline; where what is worn away in the meeting is transformed, to begin a new direction.