Ecological and Social Edges

My father was a fisherman.  He taught all of his children and grandchildren to fish.  These fishing lessons mostly occurred at dusk, between day and night, in the small boat he kept in a strip mine lake near his home.  And we all learned that the best place to cast our lines was along the edges of the lake where the brush and trees had fallen into the water.  It was my father who first taught me to pay attention to the edges.

So as a scholar I have been drawn to the regions at the intellectual edges of disciplines.  But my curiosity extends to many types of edges like the urban edge as the landscape becomes rural.  When my daughters and I moved from a small town in Iowa to a moderate-sized city in Michigan, my daughters struggled with the concepts of rural and urban.  The first few weeks, as we drove from our house to various places they would constantly ask:  Are we in the city now?  And now are we in the city?

Cognitive psychologists will tell you that we have an inherent need to categorize just as my daughters were trying to do.  But emphasizing the distinctions and building concrete boundaries between entities keep us from discovering the richness that we find at the edges.  Recent scholarly discussions have moved toward describing reality as hybrid—part social/part natural–in order to be able to try to grapple with the meaning of these edges. Key to understanding this hybridity is the role of boundary organizations: organizations that operate ‘between’ the human and natural components of a natural resource. These organizations, such as irrigation districts or regional planning agencies, usually mediate multidirectional information flows among various governmental units that operate at different scales.

The richness of edge regions are dependent on allowing the boundary between “types” to be fuzzy, allowing the mixing of everything from ideas to nutrients, creating very rich ecosystems for plants, animals, and intellectual thought. This fall, for instance, I visited the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge on Puget Sound. At one time the estuary was diked and drained for farmland, destroying the edge region that allowed for the mixing of fresh and salt water. Today the dikes have been breached, allowing the fuzzy boundary to return, along with its birds and wildlife.  And where you find fuzzy boundaries you find avid birders!

Tree Fall–mixing soil and surface


Mountain sediment and water coming down into the estuary


Remnants of the farm

Land/Water Edges

Edge between two streams as they join and their waters mix in the estuary

We have something to learn from nature, especially as we observe what it means to restore fuzzy edges that leave space for nature to thrive.  These fuzzy edges allow for the mixing of nutrients and the movement of creatures like the snow geese to come and go across seasons and ecosystems.

Snow Geese in Puget Sound, having arrived
from the Arctic with the change in season

 As we try to create boundaries that are inflexible we leave no room for risk, for change, and for safety.  We make it difficult to change our minds or to live with our past decisions.  Hurricane Sandy surely reminded us of this lesson most recently.

Narragansett Bay damage from Hurricane Sandy

Can we learn to leave space at the edges so that we might become wise?  Can we leave the edges for fishing?