When I was a kid on Long Island I routinely cycled down to the end of Margaret Boulevard, past all the square lawns and grey, symmetrical curbs to the cul de sac. Alongside the edge of the street ran a shallow, narrow stream that grazed a string of backyards. It sported a softly bubbling margin of foam. I liked to stand on the edge and look down into the water, thinking about its largely ignored journey past many homes.
Once I saw a big, toothy rat walking through the stream with impressive aplomb. It reminded me of the oversized white possum that had slid just barely under a parked car when it saw me making my way to the bus stop. Where did these creatures go on their daily adventures? Where did they make their homes? Sometimes I walked up the block to our “woods” — one square, undeveloped lot full of scrub oak and the illusion of the wild, when you were in the thick of it. And during our walk home from Camp Avenue Elementary, my friend Adrienne and I sneaked down an alley to the rear of the squat, concrete Merrick Life newspaper building and checked out the mismatched patio furniture sitting amidst a modest thicket of suburban greenery. We relished our discovered gem and imagined the workers coming out on their breaks to enjoy a few gulps of knoll-filtered air.
Now that I am one of those adult workers I imagined on the patio, I fervently hope that someone made it outside to that little green space from time to time. My own workplace has a largely unused and weather-beaten picnic table in view of my boss’ office, just a short walk across a verdant, and quite rarely disrupted, lawn. But time away from the desk is precious. I usually ignore the table and instead follow the edges of several parking lots to the grassy strips behind the buildings, looking for signs of life.
The first time I tried to circumnavigate the business park perimeter, I made a wide detour when I happened upon some zealous hornets favoring one building’s foundation. Then I watched from a little distance, wondering about their intents and purposes as they plunged industriously in and out of holes in the concrete. Another time I spotted a deer hightailing it out of the lot, a cousin of the three I had seen down the hill. After lunch one Friday, a large raptor of grey-brown, etched magnificence impressed me with its swooping flight onto a high branch overlooking the parking lot. Its incongruity with blander surroundings had me perceiving it as a brief and bewitching hallucination. The day I created a birch-limb ramp so a stranded raccoon could climb back out of the dumpster amounted to a banner lunch break adventure. I watched from afar as the scrawny captive ascended, peered cautiously at me, and returned to freedom in the roadside woods.
It’s the contrasts that have me treasuring these moments — human and other, tame and wild, confining office walls and expanse of fresh air, squared off and rambling spaces — the side-by-side existences pepper any given day with a welcome, and heightened, sense of awareness. Something inside me becomes alert, riveted when I witness these juxtapositions. We humans notice what is different, the thing out of place.
We humans are also prone to longing. Charles Siebert, in Wickerby, describes our race as, “the only ones who long to be a part again of that to which we already belong.” Our consciousness and our words are gifts, but they also set us apart from the rest of nature. We look past our boundaries for “the other” because it is not wholly other. We crave reconnection.
But aren’t we, despite our distinguishing high rises, our tangles of wires, our myriad and complex neuroses, nature, too? Like the lions and gazelles on the African plain, our eyes, too, seek the horizon — that line between where gravity drops us and the untethered elements of the galaxy — when we look out across any expanse. When my son Gavin was a very young infant, I confessed to the doctor that I worried about his mental status — he didn’t look me in the eyes nearly as much as I’d anticipated. It was explained that my dark hairline against my pale, Irish skin was probably much more compelling to him visually. He was drawn to the “fence” on my forehead, where the sky of my hair met the lower reaches of my landscape. He sought out my edge and, for the moment, until his eyes and brain developed more fully, I was his horizon.
In Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv talks about that inborn gravitation toward the edge: “… Research suggests that children, when left to their own devices, are drawn to the rough edges … the ravines and rocky inclines, the natural vegetation. A park may be neatly trimmed and landscaped, but the natural corners and edges where children once played can be lost in translation.” This intuitive attention may actually have an important role in sustainability and survival. In nature, edges are places of transition that encourage diversity among the species. Bill Mollison, in Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual, explains that there is more variety found in the boundaries between ecosystems than in the middle. In a column for the Nature Conservancy magazine, a budding birder is surprised when her mentor takes her to a power line clearing — the meeting of large zones of grass and scrub with the adjacent tall hardwood forest translates into a prime spot for spotting a wide array of birds.
The concept of permaculture is one of coming together across the edges — individuals with the community, and with land and space. There is more coming together overall in day-to-day American life lately, with an approach that includes shared cars, shared houses, shared work spaces, and a wealth of shared information and technology. This development, born in part of economic limitations, can have the fortunate side effect of being good for the natural world as well as human relationships — more sensible, modest, and collaborative choices can conserve resources while at the same time uniting us. Maybe there is more hope for a wiser brand of shared living now, because things are such that our edges are more likely to intersect and overlap on a day-to-day basis, like so many colliding Venn diagrams. Maybe we can become more connected and sympathetic overall, if only in small and imperfect increments. In her autobiographical Reason for Hope, Jane Goodall writes about contemplating the work of doctor-turned-philosopher LeCompte DeNuoy. He suggested that we are evolving slowly to acquire moral attributes that are more caring and compassionate, less aggressive and warlike. It seems this would require more exchange across boundaries, fewer hard lines in the sand (or at least, more walks across them).
As with the land, each one of us has our hard edges, our own defined boundaries, and we need to visit them with respectful regularity, honor them as special places of reverence and reflection. When we come together in the middle, we are better for them.
Visit Katherine Hauswirth’s blog, First-Person Naturalist.
Click here for Kathrine’s book, Getting Started with Nature Writing.
Her latest book, The Book of Noticing, is available here.