9. The Muddy Edge of Sky

When I was seven years old, during a summer in Madison, Wisconsin, I spent an afternoon following a trickle of water running down a shady, wooded slope on the campus of the University. Finding this miniature stream and following it downhill was like a voyage of discovery. It would disappear beneath leaves and twigs, then re-emerge a few feet lower. It fascinated me; every time the stream emerged it remained thrilling. Later, I found out to my disappointment that it originated out of some building; if I remember correctly, it was the outflow of a lab. Even then, I seem to have stumbled upon an ambiguous transitional zone between the works of humans and the natural world, the same boundary condition I spent time searching for after I started this project, within a bike ride of where I live in Cambridge.

In 1997 I wrote a non-fiction piece called “Fox on the Shore,” about the death of my half-brother and also about nature on our land in Prince Edward Island, Canada, which was later published in a journal called Ecotone. An ecotone is “a transitional zone between two communities, containing the characteristic species of each; a place of danger or opportunity; a testing ground.” There could hardly have been a more appropriate place for the piece to appear, because “Fox on the Shore” ends this way:

Next summer I will continue to cut trees and brush, to maintain the difference between open land and encroaching woods. To hold off sameness, to make sure there are two presences out there, so that out of the two that are visible there can come into being an invisible third. That is the real action, for me. It goes on at the edge, where unlike things meet, where a person on foot passes from this to that. Beauty lurks on the boundary line.

After a number of local expeditions looking for that boundary, I came to believe that every journey is rewarded. Apparently if I looked, I would find, because such places exist and I brought with me a mindset ready to perceive them. On one such day I set out intending to see what was upstream from the marsh that has formed below the dam of the Res, in Arlington. I knew how Mill Brook flows downstream from there, through the town and eventually into Lower Mystic Lake, but I didn’t know what happened upstream, on what is known as Sickle Brook. I started at an expanse of wetland called Great Meadow, which is the source of Sickle Brook, and followed it downstream. But I didn’t come upon the wabi-sabi moment until I was almost back to the Res, at a point where I could see in the distance the high-rise buildings of Drake Village, the elderly housing complex. The marsh I first noticed lies between the dam of the Res and the parking lot of Drake Village. Just as Sickle Brook stops being a stream and turns into a wetland, it flows past the parking lot of a towing company, full of tow trucks, presumably towed cars, and a number of scary-looking wrecks.

Again the moment of juxtaposition, like that at Blair Pond or the Alewife parking garage. The wetland itself was unambiguously beautiful; the tow lot unequivocally was not.

Most curiously, in the brief transition zone between them, someone had built a substantial arbor which was festooned with dead vines (it was November at the time); it appeared that in this unlikely spot someone had taken up vegetable gardening.

That arbor sat in the ecotone, the boundary zone between the tow lot, which is humanly determined to the nth degree, and the wetland growing in its own self-organizing way. What I am trying to call attention to, which is all around us, is that liminal space that is neither “nature” nor “not nature.” It is neither a marsh nor a parking lot but the invisible threshhold between the two. It is the point at which we come upon evidence that the life around us is finding its own way, not under our control. The crucial point about this boundary is that it is permeable, it is open; it is the gap in the fence, the barrier low enough to step over, a border that is not mapped or patrolled. This ecotone is relationship, between the utter constructedness of human experience, peculiar to our physiology and anatomy, and the irreducible otherness of the world-out-there that we can never directly apprehend.

For example: the plastic fox, or whatever it is, at Hill Estates. The plastic creature is a representation, totally in human terms (even to the extent that it is not exactly either a fox or a dog or a coyote), but putting it there is not representation. It’s an act of relationship, a statement, an instigation. The plastic fox’s presence on the lawn next to Little Pond is open to interactions we don’t control. By putting the fox there we create a narrative that is ongoing and undetermined; we don’t know how our co-authors, the geese, are going to play their part. They have just as much freedom to choose how to react as we have freedom to put it there. This event is a true collaboration.

There must be that element of the other NOT being under our control for me to believe I’ve found what I’m looking for, and for there to be collaboration. So, when Mill Brook is made to run between perpendicular stone walls or under pavement, the boundary is closed, hardened, impenetrable. When Mill Brook has a muddy edge whose exact shape and location is not entirely up to us – because the water may rise or fall, because the bank may erode or silt up, because of unpredictable events that we don’t control – then a relationship is ongoing. When sumac grows in front of the graffiti of “Byzantium,” creating what I perceive as a juxtaposition, not because anyone put it there but because it put itself there, that is what I’m looking for.

When I find tufts of fur on a rock, suggesting that animals fought there, next to the culvert carrying Wellington Brook under the railroad tracks, that is what I’m looking for. When I am at Bangor Mall and those yellowish birds (“Wilson’s warbler” would be the name we frame them by) show up and hang around while I am down by the stream, when the cormorant lands on the neck of water below Wendy’s, that is what I’m looking for.

The marshy edge of a stream reflects the sky, and is like the sky: open, indeterminate, priceless. But unlike the sky, we can touch it, it is right here at our scale of being. The muddy edge of Sickle Brook has no obvious function; it is unmarked, it has no designated role. By not being labeled nature, it is nature. And it is already there. It is not something we preserve, exactly, just as we don’t “preserve” the people we love; they are, and we’re glad that they are, but they don’t exist because of us. We are just lucky enough to be on the earth at the same time they are.

Beauty lurks on a certain kind of boundary line, one that does not make too definite a distinction between the human and the natural. It’s too late for us to leave nature alone, but that’s okay. It already was too late when we evolved into the kind of creatures we are today. A “pure” or pristine nature is not an option. But this does not mean that we are authorized to run to the opposite extreme, of total domination and control. We overreach when we imagine we can harden the boundary and get nature to leave us alone, or pull it completely into the human sphere and make it operate solely for our convenience. The thing we have to defend and preserve is the permeable, indeterminate boundary between us and the autonomous life around us. If we do that and make good choices, then we can keep living in a hybrid world made up of nature and our human constructions in an equal and collaborative relationship. And such a world has plenty to offer.

The muddy edge of sky is at our feet. All we have to do is keep looking until we see.

*

Maintaining the permeable boundary is only possible on a basis of trust. But in saying that, I don’t want to adopt a deliberate naïveté. We have, as a species, put in many millennia living in well-justified fear of nature – fear of predators, diseases, storms, famines, parasites, venomous creatures, a world of threats to human existence which we have always had to live with and against which we had to somehow prevail. Nor has this situation changed today. It’s not surprising that we – or at least some of us – dedicated ourselves to seizing power over nature, to dominating it totally. In a fight for survival one tries to get the upper hand.

Understandable. But the more control we got, the more we seemed to need. The history of our relationship with water, for example, seems to be that we got the power to control it – or so we believed – and then in some places we carried that control too far or bet too much on the totality of our control. We created untenable situations and unsustainable consequences like those in the American West. A majority of its population is basically dependent on one river, the Colorado, which presents two major problems. As river water is used for irrigation and runs over or through the land, then back into the river, it picks up salts and other minerals from the earth which gradually become more and more concentrated as you go downstream, so that the water becomes less and less suitable for irrigation or drinking. Perhaps worse than that, the Colorado is no longer enough to meet our demands. We want more water out of it than there is in it, and there is no technical fix for that problem. States in the West are in a perpetual tug-of-war with each other over the size of their share of Colorado River water. The snowpack in the mountains is decreasing, the long-term predictions are for drier conditions than the ones we see today, drought has been officially declared in California, and meanwhile more people keep moving to Las Vegas, L.A. and Phoenix. This can’t work, at the level of per capita water consumption we’re accustomed to. Something will have to give, and when it does it probably won’t be convenient for the population of various metropolitan areas. Already, the farmers of the Central Valley are suffering an economic disaster because the water coming from the north has been turned off, in a belated attempt to help out the severely stressed ecosystem of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. After we succeed, for a while, in making ourselves safer from nature, the consequences of what we’ve done become new difficulties – which only amps up the intensity of the need to control. This dynamic sets up a positive feedback loop, a runaway system.

As we finally got to the point of thinking we could run the show here on planet Earth, we likewise ended up with an ever more powerful need to do so. It’s as much a psychological problem as it is one of engineering. In our relationship with nature, we as a culture went too far down the way of power. We forgot what relationship was all about. When you have an “I and thou” with someone, you don’t set out to dominate and control them and turn them into whatever you think is to your advantage. We must have recognized this on some level, with a certain amount of guilty conscience, but we didn’t actually try to alter our relationship with nature on a day-to-day basis. Instead we set aside reservations for nature, where it presumably could go about its natural life free from our interference, and we could now and then visit it; but subtracting yourself is not relationship, and neither is the occasional vacation.

Fortunately, and usually without our encouraging it, nature stuck around while we built up a rationalized landscape redesigned for our purposes. There are always interstices; the structure we overlay on the world is never total. Relationship continues – ignored, under the table, conceived as a nuisance. Native plants become known as weeds, a stream becomes a problem when it flows through your basement, raccoons get into the garbage, coyotes kill the occasional pet, geese move into the city to stay. Nature continues to flourish inside and on our bodies, in the form of micro-organisms that we live with and in some cases, would have a hard time living without. We don’t necessarily try to put any limits on the order we impose, but it does have limits. What we may see as disorder, the “overhead” of our humanly designed system, is also the nature that won’t go away, the resilient hybridity of an imperfect world.

*

When I say we have to trust nature, I don’t mean to minimize its threatening aspect. Nature can wipe out New Orleans, an earthquake can devastate Sichuan Province, a cyclone can kill thousands in Myanmar. We know that. It’s not as though I can assume nature is always benevolent, and therefore it always will be. There is no particular reason that planet Earth should evolve in a way hospitable to us. The explosion of human population (we’re now on the steep part of an exponential curve) may be a glaring indicator of ecological imbalance. The self-correctingness of the system could involve the demise of a majority of the human beings on the planet.

How do we avoid hopelessness and fear? The threats are real. But trying to control something you don’t fully understand is not likely to work, and it’s certain that we don’t fully understand nature. If Rosen is right, ultimately one cannot control living things anyway – even if we understand them – because they cause themselves. This hasn’t stopped us from trying. We still think in terms of engineering for human purposes rather than collaboration.

What could change this?

Fearful people go to extremes. Only some level of trust can keep you from feeling driven to control what you don’t understand, or enable you to be somewhat cautious in your interventions. And we do need to be cautious because of how much power our technology gives us. It’s difficult to restrain ourselves, because we know the situation is urgent, but we could mess up in ways whose consequences would be almost unimaginable.

If that seems exaggerated, here is a cautionary true story. It comes from Dr. Elaine Ingham, soil biologist, author of over fifty peer-reviewed scientific papers, past president of the Soil Ecology Society and program chair of the Ecological Society of America. In the 1990’s she was a research professor at Oregon State University, testing the ecological impacts of genetically engineered organisms. After testing fourteen species of microorganisms that had negligible impact because they could not survive in a natural environment, her lab undertook to test an engineered version of Klebsiella planticola, a beneficial bacterium that lives everywhere in the world, in the root systems of plants and on decomposing plant matter. This particular strain was genetically modified so that it could produce alcohol; the idea behind it was that farmers could inoculate the plant matter left over after a harvest with this modified bacterium and the result in a couple of weeks would be about 17% alcohol. Instead of burning over the fields to get rid of plant litter, and polluting the air as a result, they would have a useful product that might be put into gasohol or used for cooking on an alcohol stove. Supposing the plant matter had been collected in a tank of some kind, after removing the alcohol the remainder would be a sludge that could be used as fertilizer.

All of this sounds terrific, except for the fact that the level of alcohol that is toxic to the roots of plants is one part per million, and the genetically modified bacterium produced seventeen parts per million.

Ingham’s lab tested the GMO on wheat plants in several different soils, under controlled conditions inside the laboratory, isolated from the outside world. Three identical plots of earth, in incubators, were planted with wheat. One was treated with plain water, one with the parent organism unmodified, and one with the modified bacterium. The wheat plants given plain water grew; the plants given water and regular Klebsiella grew bigger because the bacterium made more nitrogen available; the plants treated with the modified organism died. Now consider that the parent organism of this modified bacterium lives in the root systems of plants all over the world, and consider further that viable organisms released into the environment quickly become irreversibly established. The likely outcome of the modified Klebsiella getting into the soil would have been the eventual destruction of terrestrial plant life. The end of animal life, including human life, would of course soon follow.

The environmental writer Dave Blume adds to this story that the original researchers, operating without the benefit of Dr. Ingham’s work which came later, threw out samples of the modified bacterium on the ground behind their lab. A while afterwards, they discovered dead plants, realized the modified Klebsiella was living in the ground, dug up the soil and incinerated it. To put it another way, they came uncomfortably close to eliminating plant life on earth.

This is the kind of thing that makes me doubt that total human control of the environment can be a viable option. Essentially the idea of total control implies that we can eliminate unintended consequences, and the reality of complex systems, with multiple autonomous agents (including humans) simultaneously influencing each other, rules that out. When one intervenes in such a system, there will always be some unforeseen results even if we think there “shouldn’t” be. One characteristic of complexity is that if you perturb a complex system in the same way multiple times, the outcome may be different on successive tries; past experience is not a guarantee of what will happen this time. A level of caution, modesty, or restraint in our actions is therefore necessary. We are going to have to continue, as in the past, to rely on the natural world to play a part in our survival that we cannot play unaided; but we’re going to have to do this much more consciously, with much greater awareness of working in a partnership. We’re required to think about the partner’s abilities and needs in ways that were never necessary before, simply because there weren’t so many of us on earth.

What I think is viable, and the only good option open to us, is some level of trusting the natural world, in this sense: even though we can’t necessarily explain, predict, or control natural systems, at some point we have to rely on their mysterious inner workings instead of trying to engineer them into a machine-like process. This is not to deny or reject the countless benefits we have derived from the mastery of mechanistic analysis, only to say that such analysis and such benefits have their limits, and we are starting to reach them.

A wonderful example of a trusting or collaborative approach in action – essentially the opposite of the Klebsiella story – comes from John Todd, the head of OceanArks International and a designer of natural wastewater purification systems. In 1988, he took on the seemingly impossible assignment of cleaning up lagoons of untreated waste (sewage, garbage, industrial chemicals) in the town dump of Harwich, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. These unlined pits, in sandy soil, were leaching into the drinking water what the EPA identified as high priority pollutants, including known carcinogens. John Todd and his team built a series of large tanks through which water flowed sequentially; then – and this is where trusting nature starts to show – they planted in the tanks thousands of species of organisms from nearby wet habitats, as diverse a population as they could collect. Once the organisms were established, he started introducing the severely polluted wastewater he wanted to purify. What happened was that each tank in the series evolved a different ecosystem, with the organisms in them interacting in ways that, according to another biologist, hadn’t been seen before. Once the system was in full operation, it removed not only the priority organic pollutants but the heavy metals which were among the most dangerous toxins present. Coliform bacteria were removed to the point where the water could be considered safe to swim in.

John Todd knew what the problem was that needed solving, and he had a plan in the sense that he knew, in a general way, what he wanted to try. He set a process in motion, relying on the organisms he collected; he didn’t know if it would work, or exactly how it would work if it did. I imagine that he also “knew” (felt, intuited, sensed) when to just let the process run and develop. He knew when to start trusting, relying on the system itself to take over and run in its own way.

What Todd did at Harwich reminds me of cooking, or anything you do at least partly by feel, by getting the hang of it, in short by a convergence of multiple perceptions which you can’t or don’t tease apart; you respond to the whole Gestalt, you “just know” when or how to act – and when to back off. What he did worked because of a crucial lightness of touch.

That is what I would call dialogue with the natural world. And using the word “dialogue” means believing that there is something you can be in dialogue with. We can’t even use the word until we trust, as John Todd did, that there is a larger agency at work, having its own capabilities, a greater system of which we are a part; and being a part of it means there’s more to it than we know.

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