A former colleague of mine once publically reflected on “edge habitat,” a place where two distinct natural ecosystems meet to create a richly biodiverse new environment. Examples include where a sun-drenched meadow merges into a thicket of shrubs and finally disappears into a shadowy forest, or a creek bank where bulrushes, sedges and pickerelweed mingle and then surrender to the lazy flow of a meandering stream.
Life can be abundant in edge habitat. More species of plants, animals and insects tend to live and flourish there than in either of the adjacent ecosystems. Life in edge habitat can also be precarious. What dwells there often lives in a fragile balance of interdependence. The loss of one species can have a lasting impact on the viability of others.
What intrigued me most about my colleague’s presentation, though, was her use of edge habitat not only as a biological concept, but as an imaginative device, a metaphor, to kindle reflection on the transitions we humans experience throughout our lives: the first day of school; graduation; love; marriage; birth of a child; loss of a relationship; death of a loved one; illness; an accident; retirement; aging; dying.
All are moments in which we might experience edge habitat, times and places of change and transformation. They are occasions when we choose or are thrust into unfamiliar spaces that can hold opportunity or threat, new life or death.
I recently retired, and I find myself dwelling in edge habitat. I am wrestling with the transition from a life where much of my identity was framed or defined by formal, employed work carrying its own set of expectations, to a sometimes unsettling place where new challenges and options are emerging. In this space, grief over what I’ve lost comingles with excitement and sometimes anxiety at what might lie ahead. “Edgy habitat” might be a more apt name for what I’m experiencing.
The spiritual writer and Franciscan friar Richard Rohr writes, all transformation takes place on the threshold (in Latin, limen) of major change where we are betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown. In this “liminal space”, our old world can fall apart or be left behind while we are not yet sure of our new existence. We experience uncertainty and restlessness and struggle for calm and patience.
Liminal space can also be likened to a kind of shadowland, Rohr writes, a brooding, sometimes gloomy place where light, while not totally absent, is scarce and fleeting. For many, passage through shadowlands is hardly inviting or encouraging. Some, not relishing such a journey, may turn back.
In “The Inferno: Canto 1,” The Divine Comedy, Dante describes the human experience this way: “In the middle of life, I found myself in a dark wood.” If you’re letting life happen to you, Rohr writes, you will be led to the dark wood where you have to ask: “What does it all mean? Why am I doing this? Why don’t I feel fully alive or that my life has meaning? What am I doing wrong?” Many of us experience self-doubt, even self-loathing during these times.
Rohr continues: If we don't encounter and embrace liminal space in our lives; if we don’t willingly enter the shadowlands and push our way through them; if we aren’t honest and open with ourselves – we start idealizing normalcy. And we can get stuck. The emergence of our essential selves can be stifled causing inner calamity.
Some Indigenous peoples call liminal space “crazy time.” Rohr believes the unique and necessary function of religion is to lead us into this crazy, liminal time; that religion should guide and accompany us through the shadows and into the full light of day; into sacred spaces where the deconstruction of the old “normal” can occur and a larger world is revealed. I wonder how many people think of religion that way.
There are many ways to navigate one’s way through the shadowlands. Religious faith can be one. Some self-help books offer practical exercises that can be effective. Among my practices are reading, sharing my experience of crazy time in a small couples group, and, because I draw much of my spiritual nurture through communion with Nature, sitting reflectively on the bank of a pond here on our farm.
The pond, nestled among white cedar, black willow, basswood and sugar maple trees is for me a naturally meditative place. Mindfulness comes easy there. I become aware of the incredible litany of life around me: whips of young black willow waving ever so slightly in the gentlest of breezes; an eastern painted turtle laboriously pulling itself onto a raft of old cedar rails to bask in the sun’s warmth; concentric rings forming on the pond’s surface where a floating insect meets the kiss of death from a brown trout; the raucous chatter of a belted kingfisher as it lurches from perch to perch; and so much more.
For me the pond’s edge is, both literally and figuratively, a sacred place where, in a cumulative way, genuine newness takes place. I try to go there often. In those quiet, hallowed moments old worlds and ways of being and seeing begin to fall away and a larger, richer reality is revealed.
However we choose to move through edge habitat, liminal space, the shadowlands, crazy time – call it what we might – they are the thresholds of the personal and relational growth that help to make us whole. ◊