It’s quite fashionable to talk about the edge. If you’re in an academic world, you probably refer to it as ‘the liminal’. I seem to remember the word from my long ago degree – or was that ‘littoral’? I’d be rather self-conscious writing about ‘the littoral and the liminal’ as American Bonnie McCay has done, though both ideas are enthralling and well worth exploring. Sometimes I think I might drop my sensitivity around apparently pretentious language and just use it. The threshold-ness of the idea also brings the word ‘portal’ to mind, another one I much overused in the recent past, and now feel is due for a revival, just because it can be so apt.
Edges are rich in life and meaning. Elements meet and mix – warm and cold water, darkness and light, rock and air, sea and land. Around the margins of medieval manuscripts mythical beasts roam; between the known and the unknown, mysteries drift and half-form. On the edge of sleep, we dream. Twilight forms and hides the limit of conventional belief. In the penumbra are an infinitude of degrees of greyness. Where do the boundaries of the seven named colours of the rainbow lie? Why seven?
You might think that a person who claims to have a low threshold of risk would shun marginal experience, but this one is rather drawn to it. My awareness of the beauty of the edge has fostered a fascination with beaches, ponds and rivers, horizons, clouds, hedges (two edges there!). Maybe the most significant edge of all, where rock and air meet in the erosive band of the soil has been of prime importance to me as I delve in my garden, and pull vegetables seemingly out of nowhere. My garden is a small world of soil compared with the stripped rainforest where it has taken millenia for a film of life to accumulate, only to be washed away to the sea in a few short years of exploitative logging and soybean cultivation or beef grazing. My garden is of small importance compared with the rice terraces of Ifugao or the parched farms of the Eastern Nile watershed in Sudan and Ethiopia, but it makes the message. It takes so little for this fragile and essential resource to be poisoned or swept away. In short, earth, air and water meet differently in every place and time, and in every different kind of weather.
Maybe my comfortable feeling at the edge comes from my suburban childhood, between city and countryside. A child believes that nothing will ever change in their miniature landscape. But not only does the point of perspective rise as the child grows, and understanding of the processes of change develop with both education and observation, but the focus on detail weakens and now admits how small and grubby a scene could be which had once encompassed such adventures. Certainly the suburbs have seen changes in time, an ebb and flow of people and substance as rapid as in the countryside proper. They are at risk as places to raise children, encounter nature, notice the spaces in between, become oneself. The walls which medieval city dwellers built to keep out the wild and the incursions of the Other are now needed to prevent the reverse encroachment of the urban on the rural. Dismay at the failure by nibbling attrition of green belt planning policy is my generation’s equivalent to the sad regret of John Clare or Richard Jefferies for Enclosure and the intensification of agriculture. There is a thinning of life, and not just a narrowing of the edge between us and the Wasteland.
The mind has edges too, imposing limits on the narrow-minded, encouraging curiosity in the broad-minded, and demanding acceptance, tolerance, patience and compassion towards both children and those whose minds are otherwise to our own, through culture and belief or even mental aberrations. How many times have I almost not seen something important at the edge of vision? Catching such a glimpse, cannot humankind turn aside from its headlong rush over the edge to the Fall?
They say that change is inevitable, and one cannot avoid edges either. There is a frontier to life and experience as one ages. Most of us have an edge to our acceptance. Even the largest desert or ocean has a place where sand accumulates or dwindles as erosion or deposition takes place. it may be an infinitely sharp line or an imperceptible merging, but the Edge will always be somewhere, and on the other side, things will be different.