Over these last months, I've been thinking a lot about edge-lands, borders, and liminal spaces, about myths of thresholds, transitions, and transformations. It's a reverie inspired by a number of different things: reading Kith by Jay Griffiths, Common Ground by Rob Cowen, Common as Air by Lewis Hyde, Meadowland by John Lewis-Stempel, and John Hupton's novel The Ballad of John Clare; re-visiting essays by Barry Lopez, Scott Sanders, Sergio Troncoso, Alan Garner and others; and working on a new story for the "Borderland" series -- all while moving through the amiguous edge-world of illness and disability.
This week's posts will focus on edge-lands and borders: physical, spiritual, and metaphorical. I'm not entirely sure where this journey is going to take us; we won't known until we've arrived. But first we must find our way through the borderlands: passing from highways to holloways and street lamps to starlight...wading through "rivers as red as blood" into Faerie...stepping through wardrobes to Narnia and crossing the hilltops to Shangri-La...although we might find the twilight lands on the borders themselves are the most interesting of all.
In his book Common Ground (which I highly recommend), Rob Cowen turns a naturalist's eye to a small patch of woodlands and fields usually dismissed as unremarkable: the neglected scrublands on the border of his Yorkshire town, where the regimented streets of housing peter out and the countryside begins.
"For many years," he tells us, "I had sought out and written about the wilderness encountered in more expected places: the rarefied national park, the desolate moor, the distant mountaintop, the sweeping coast, but I'd forgotten there is something deeper about the blurry space surrounding us where humans and nature meet. One word stayed with me: layers. Even before I'd started the process of investigating it in any depth I was aware that this edge-land was a crossing point where countless histories lay buried. There were its human narratives, the records of our long tangling with the land -- colonisation, hunting, farming, war, industry and urbanisation -- but these were only part of the story. Emeshed in every urban edge is also the continuous narrative of the subsistence of nature, pragmatic and prosaic, the million things that survive and even thrive in the fringes. This little patch of common ground was precisely that: common. And all the richer for it."
In his provocative essay "The Trouble With Wilderness," William Cronan, too, speaks up for the value of landscapes that are not remote and dramatic, nor pristine and untouched by the human hand.
"When we visit a wilderness area, " he argues, "we find ourselves surrounded by plants and animals and physical landscapes whose otherness compels our attention. In forcing us to acknowledge that they are not of our making, that they have little need or no need of our continued existence, they recall for us a creation far greater than our own. In the wilderness, we need no reminder that a tree has its own reasons for being, quite apart from us. The same is less true in the gardens we plant and tend ourselves: there it is far easier to forget the otherness of the tree. Indeed, one could almost measure wilderness by the extent to which our recognition of its otherness requires a conscious, willed act on our part. The romantic legacy means that wilderness is more a state of mind than a fact of nature, and the state of mind that today most defines wilderness is wonder. The striking power of the wild is that wonder in the face of it requires no act of will, but forces itself upon us -- as an expression of the nonhuman world experienced through the lens of our cultural history -- as proof that ours is not the only presence in the universe.
"Wilderness gets us into trouble only if we imagine that this experience of wonder and otherness is limited to the remote corners of the planet, or that it somehow depends on pristine landscapes we ourselves do not inhabit. Nothing could be more misleading. The tree in the garden is in reality no less other, no less worthy of our wonder and respect, than the tree in an ancient forest that has never known an ax or saw -- even though the tree in the forest reflects a more intricate web of ecological relationships....Our challenge is to stop thinking of such things according to a set of bipolar moral scales in which the human and nonhuman, the unnatural and the natural, the fallen and unfallen, serve as our conceptual map for understanding and valuing the world. Instead, we need to embrace the full continuum of a natural landscape that is also cultural, in which the city, the suburb, the pastoral and the wild each has its proper place, which we permit ourselves to celebrate without needlessly denigrating the others. We need to honor the Other within and the Other next door as much as we do the exotic Other that lives far away -- a lesson that applies as much to people as it does to (other) natural things."
To return to Rob Cowen's insightful and beautiful book:
"Once upon a time the edges were the place we knew best," he writes. "Times were hard and spare but the margins around homesteads, villages and towns sustained us. People grazed livestock and collected deadfall for fuel. Access and usage became enshrined as rights and recognised in law. Pigs trotted through trees during 'pannage' -- the acorn season from Michaelmas to Martinmas -- certain types of game were hunted for the table and heather and fern were cut for bedding. Mushrooms, fruits, and berries. Mushrooms, fruits and berries would be foraged and gathered for winter; honey taken from wild beehives; chestnuts hoarded, ground and stored as flour. The fringes provided playgrounds for kids and illicit bedrooms for lovers. Whether consciously or not, these spaces kept us in time and rooted to the rhythms of land and nature. Feet cloyed with clay, we oriented ourselves by rain and sun, day and night, seasons, the slow spinning of stars.
"Humans are creatures of habit," Cowen continues; "we all still go to the edges to get perspective, to be sustained and reborn. Recreation is still re-creation after a fashion, only now it occurs in largely virtual worlds. Clouds, hyper-real TV shows, 3D films, multiplayer games, online stores and social media networks -- these are today's areas of common ground, the terrains where people meet, work, hunt, play, learn, fall in love even. Ours is a world growing yet shrinking, connected yet isolated, all-knowing but without knowledge. It is one of breadth, shallowness and endless swimming through cyberspace. All is speed and surface. Digging down deeper into an overlooked patch of ground, one that (in a global sense at least) few people will ever know about and even fewer visit, felt like the antithesis to all of this. And it felt vitally important. You see, I still believe in the importance of edges. Lying just beyond our doors and fences, the emeshed borders where human and nature collide are microcosms of our world at large, an extraordinary, exquisite world that is growing closer to nature every day. These spaces reassert a vital truth: nature isn't just some remote mountain or protected park. It is all around us. It is us."
Words: The passage by Rob Cowen is from the introduction to Common Ground (Hutchinson/Random House, 2015). The passage by William Cronan is from "The Trouble With Wilderness" (Environmental History, 1995). The passage in the picture captions is from Common as Air: Revolution, Art & Ownership by Lewis Hyde (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2010) -- run your cursor over the photographs to read it. All rights to these texts are reserved by their authors. Pictures: Our own village, Chagford, still has its public commons, which is widely used and cherished. Meldon Hill, pictured here, and the land just below it are on common ground, with the village beyond nestled in a mix of private and public fields.