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Where the Meadow Meets the Woods

My yoga instructor would often speak of “edge play”—taking an asana just to the point of resistance, backing off slightly, and then holding it until there is a release. It is a practice which is useful in much more than a yoga practice, however. In permaculture we focus quite a lot on ‘edges’ as well—in fact, we also learn to play them, increase them, encourage them. Because, you see, the edge is where the greatest potential for growth is—the most diversity—it’s where the action is.

Growers of wine grapes will tell you that the best wine will come from the vines which have sustained the greatest stress—the more deprived, gnarled, and abused—the better the grape, and the better the wine. They do this, on purpose in fact, to the vines in order to create better product. This characteristic is seen throughout nature—when any plant ‘feels’ threatened, by drought, by cold or heat—the plant will react by attempting to propagate—thus the most stunning roses appear on the dying bush, as they make their final attempt to throw out their seed into the world, and attract the pollinators which will perpetuate the species. Bonsai is another example, of art created to mimic the beauty of trees which gained a precarious foothold on wind-swept rocky mountain faces.

People do this too—population surveys reveal that there is the greatest population growth in areas of deprivation—the “starving children in India” mantra many of us heard at the dinner table as children is one example of a culture with unchecked population growth when the lands’ ability to sustain it was depleted. The formula is the same whether it is people, animal or plants—if a species appears doomed, the only logical answer is to attempt to create as many as possible as quickly as possible in order to survive. Perhaps one of the more interesting observations in over-populated areas would be whether or not there is more competition for resources, or whether, in fact, a more cooperative atmosphere would develop over time.  From chaos comes order…so they say.

These are all examples of ‘edge play’, because these are the situations which, whether developed over time on their own, or sought after to achieve a specific goal, are opportunities for growth, for expansion, for learning and observation. As Starhawk points out in a talk she gave earlier this year at Harvard Divinity School, deer don’t hang out in the middle of the forest—they lurk around the edges, “where the meadow meets the woods”—where there is the biggest mix of ‘stuff’ going on. The meadow is the light, the forest the dark in terms of ‘yin’ and yang’—the lines between them is not a straight one, either—it curves in a natural pattern. The ‘dark side’, often feared as the great unknown, like the yin/yang, always contains an element of light as well—even the thickest of canopies will have some openings to let the light in. Many cultures have more than just a deep respect for the woods, as a place of not just mystery, but also a place of deep knowledge. The druids revered the deer, or hind, as a creature which traveled between the worlds, like the hare which burrows underground, they saw these animals as being somewhat ‘otherworldly’ because of their willingness to cross these lines.

In psychology, this area would be considered the subconscious—the place which most of us only venture into in sleep states. One of the quickest ways to induce a psychosis is to deny a person access to those states for a given period of time, thus it is not only important it be there for balance, but also that we retain access to it. There is an interaction that happens in this space, whether we choose it or not.

In permaculture we refer to this area—’the dark side’ in our designs as “zone five”—the area where we may not often go to interact with whatever is there—it’s the woods, the wilderness—unbridled nature. Yet, it is an essential part of any design, whether that design be a landscape, a business, or an educational environment. In a landscape design, this area need not be a part of the property being designed, but it needs to be identified anyway. Perhaps one of the more difficult issues in urban planning incorporating permaculture principles is in how to re-incorporate greenspace and woods into the environment. It can be done, though—little by little, if people choose to be involved in local governmental policies, the development of densely populated areas can be done in a far more ‘friendly’ way—both environmentally as well as socially. Planned communities developed a generation ago are still thriving today, mainly because of the design features which were created from the start.

When I was growing up, my family lived in Reston, Virginia, and it wasn’t until recently I re-connected with the place and did a little research on its background. When we lived there in the mid-to-late 70’s, it was still relatively new and areas were in the process of being built. There was no middle or high school in the community yet, so we were bussed to nearby Herndon, VA—a typical small town. At the time I knew that our home was ‘nice’—I was allowed the freedom to roam at will, because there were bike paths which went from one end of the 7000+ acre property to the other. I now know that this was all by design:

The careful planning and zoning within Reston allows for common grounds, several parks, large swaths of wooded areas with picturesque runs (streams), wildflower meadows, two golf courses, nearly 20 public swimming pools, bridle paths, a bike path, four lakes, tennis courts, and extensive foot pathways. These pathways, combined with bridges and tunnels, help to separate pedestrians from vehicular traffic and increase safety at certain street crossings. Reston was built in wooded areas of oak, maple, sycamore, and Virginia pine.” (Wikipedia)

At the time I took these things for granted, and was not until my introduction to permaculture that I truly have an idea of the scope and scale of this community, which was ranked in 2012 as the 7th best place to live by CNN Money magazine. I have serious doubts that I would have the same mindset today that I began to develop out of this early experience, not only because of the beautiful place we lived—the woods and stream I had to play in, but also because it was not an insulated experience—at school, we interacted daily with kids from ‘town’ as well as our own community, and this was during a period rife with societal changes. Thus, there were many areas and levels of ‘edge’ to play with, at home and at school.

As our society has become more and more bent on consumerism, and mass-market of even our most precious commodity: food–I feel that we have stepped away from the woods—our cultural zone five has often moved so far away for many that they are fortunate to visit once or twice a year. Is it any wonder the anxiety and depression are so commonplace? My wish for the world is that every child have the opportunity to experience a community like the nearly-Utopian Reston—that we restore our balance on a countrywide and eventually on a global level with one simple step: a step back to nature—where the meadow meets the woods. ©2013 Loretta J. Buckner THANK YOU to Kris Haering Butler for the lovely deer photo! WeGrowFromHere.com To learn more about permaculture–join one of our upcoming classes with the New School!