The Lively Edge

I have a friend who has been running the boundaries of farms in Maine and creating art from that experience. I love the idea.

bald-faced hornet on Angelica
bald-faced hornet on Angelica

She says in her statement about the project, “[N]avigating the boundaries of farmland has been a process of experiencing the land and noting, in a bodily way, how farming is contained and what encroaches on its borders.” Farming in the U.S. — agribusiness, small farmers and ranchers, backyard growers, the whole gamut —  is a topic unto itself. What particularly attracts and appeals to me are the metaphorical ideas of boundaries and borders, tamed land and wild land, the margins, the edges, the liminal (threshold) spaces that are part of her experience.  In her several blog postings about this project (and you can see some of her art here), she mentions planning and mapping each run, getting lost, being unable to retrace her steps, negotiating with each piece of land how and where she will adhere to its boundaries,  the dangers of stinging nettles and bees, uneven terrain, the difficulty in distinguishing between farmland and the land outside it,  using fences to navigate, feeling safety within boundaries. This is, excuse the pun, fertile ground for musing on gardening, not to mention thinking about life.

Zoey looking out the fence
Zoey looking out the fence

Boundaries, fences, borders, edges are key in nature and so in most gardens. Not only do they offer the eye a spot to rest that is both exciting and soothing, like an ocean’s horizon, but they help define purpose, create an aesthetic, set aside a place that has some kind of meaning and structure. There are very crisp and formal borders (many shown here); there are hidden edges (like a ha-ha, whose name “derives from the unexpected (i.e., amusing) moment of discovery when, on approach, the recessed wall suddenly becomes visible”); there are all kinds of borders created by inorganic materials like fences, paving stones, and brick walls, and by organic materials like trees, shrubbery, grasses, creeks and streams. Most assign purpose, keep in what’s meant to be in and out what’s meant to be out (for example, dogs and livestock in and wind and weeds out), and perhaps give the gardener a navigational tool, a way to orient herself in the space around her.

chipmunk enjoys the rock wall's crevices
chipmunk enjoys the rock wall’s crevices

In permaculture, the edge — which is “the interface between two biological communities (e.g. forest and grassland) or between different landscape elements (e.g. land and water)” — is the overlap “where there is greater diversity of life …. At the edge of two overlapping ecosystems, you can find species from both of these ecosystems, as well as unique species that aren’t found in either ecosystem but are specially adapted to the conditions of the transition zone between the two edges.” The Deep Green Permaculture blog describes designed boundary patterns that follow nature’s lead — such as curving, crenellated, and spiraling lines and shapes. In a large garden, you may get lost inside a spiral or a series of crenellated paths, but you may also be found, tracing the curve of nature’s neck.

I haven’t read it but Paul Cooper’s Gardens Without Boundaries looks like an excellent source for hidden edges. The table of contents alone is inspiring: The Borrowed Landscape,  Deception,  Dissolving the Edge,  The Garden Trouve,  Mimicry,  Garden as Event.

back strip of my yard, behind the
back strip of my yard, behind the “garden”

A garden can be a tame space, set aside from the wildness and dangers that surround it, a peaceful, restful place to inhabit, full of beauty and sensuality. It can also contain dangers — stinging nettles and bees, for instance — and even beckon them in (a nearby permaculture group planted a tea garden this year that includes stinging nettles). Like farmland, a garden may seem quite managed and ordered, set aside, but give it a year or two without a farmer or a gardener and that illusion will quickly be dispelled. The edges — so useful, sturdy and solid — will dissolve into each other; the boundaries will merge and intermingle; the borders will vaporise into one — even as new edges are created.

grass and weeds
grass and weeds

Is there a metaphor in here for us, as we draw  our own borders, define the edges, and tend to our own plots of psychic land? Boundaries are natural and inevitable, in nature as anywhere else. In nature, an edge forms, then it reforms in a different place, and on and on and on. We humans, on the other hand (as gardeners and not), sometimes hold so tightly to the border that we create an artificial edge, one that instead of allowing for “greater diversity of life” is a barren spot. I’m looking for ways to practice dissolving the edge,  allowing the edge to form and reform, like the ocean’s tide on the shore, in my yard and in my life. No doubt I will (and do) get lost, confused, fall into holes, find it hard to backtrack, and face dangers and pests both within and without. So then I will return to the fence or the hedge to find comfort, to find my way, to find what feels familiar and cultivated, and then strike out again, like my artist friend.

We could delve deeper into the metaphor of boundaries and taboos, temptations, the in-group and the excluded ones (with strong non-metaphorical application to the garden!), even identity itself, that is, how we design and border our image and presentation of ourselves, but those can wait for another day.


  1. Molly, I finally found the time to read your email. I too have always been interested in’ edges’ and did an small watercolor exhibit at the Forest Society years ago on the subject. My garden is another example of how the edges of the wild intersect with the cultivated. I have tried to integrate the two, in places. Having visited many gardens around the world (including our little university ‘The Fells’,) there are many ways to navigate through gardens.. the obvious ways are not always the best. We have lived here over 30years and it is interesting to me to see the effects of time on our public and private lands.

  2. The concept of boundaries (in the wild, in our agriculture, our identities, etc.) continues to unfold for me. Looking back at my work, I can see that this issue has been a concern for a long time, and it continues to deepen and call me into future work. It was a great pleasure (heart and head) to read about the issue of boundaries through your experience and to feel so many points of resonance. I know I’ll be back to read it again. Thanks!

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