Third in a series about inhabiting and acting in the edge-places of our civilization as crucial for humanity’s passage through these challenging times – and inviting you to share your personal edge-dwelling experiences.
Last summer I camped on the magnificent coastline of Sonoma County, California. There, on a small cliff protruding out toward the ocean, I lay awake late into the night, staring up at the Milky Way that stretched itself like a vast leaping, dancing being across the night sky. It was not the first time I’ve been far enough from city light to marvel at this leaping, living Milky Way; to feel myself as part of an infinite cosmos, wild, mysterious and gorgeous beyond imagining; to know myself as made of star stuff.
The Milky Way is, of course, the galaxy that our solar system calls home. It appears to us as a glowing band reaching across the night sky because we are located at the edge of one of its spiral arms (the Orion Arm) about two-thirds (27,000 light years) out from the center. Our location toward the edge of our galaxy gives us the ability to see its vast center arched across the night sky, to discern its distinct shape, separate from other pinpoints of light, some of which are themselves galaxy clusters of many thousands of stars.
How would the Milky Way look to us if we were located closer to the center? How much harder would it have been for early astronomers to discover that we were in fact part of a galaxy amid a vast multitude of galaxies, rather than the earlier view that all the stars revolved around the Earth? Astronomers and stargazers can offer gratitude to our Sun for being located toward the outer edge of our galaxy.
I’ve wondered about this experience of seeing more clearly from the edge, both the shape of some thing (in this case our galaxy) and what lies beyond. How might this work when applied to a social grouping? Can people who inhabit a social or physical edge of a community, culture, or civilization see with more clarity both its internal dynamics and the possibilities of what lies beyond its outer boundary? How is this an important quality of Edge-dwelling (that ability to live and act in the places where two things meet)? And how is this crucial to these edge times in which we live (within the crumbling of our Industrial Growth Civilization, entering an epoch of human-created climate change)?
Misfits and Middle School
Oddly (or perhaps not so oddly) contemplating how we view and experience the Milky Way reminds me of Middle School – that tumultuous time perched in the uncomfortable in-between, that edge-space looking back at our left-behind childhoods and toward the mysterious would of our yet-to-be-encountered teens.
For me, Middle School was a time when the “popular” kids, the athletes and cheerleaders, occupied the center of our social universe, while the oddball kids were pushed to its outer edge. I was one of those oddball kids that no one wanted to hang out with. So I started studying what might be called “the cultural anthropology of Middle School”, although I didn’t call it that back then. I started noticing that there were things that seemed terribly wrong with Middle School culture that seemed to mirror society at large. I wrote critiques of Middle School in my diary. Had I been one of the “popular” kids, always in the center of social goings-on, I probably would have thought every thing was just fine. But I wasn’t. I had to be on the outer edges to see (and critique) the social motion within the center.
By high school, I had found and bonded with a bunch of other oddball kids. We prided ourselves on our oddballness. Some of us were too smart to be cool. Some were too spacey or just plain weird. Some were budding artists or activists. Some were the first minorities whose parents bravely sent them to school in an all white neighborhood in the South during the desegregation battles of the mid sixties. We were not all the same kind of oddball. And we learned a lot from each other and our different kinds of outsiderness.
After awhile, word of our scandalous adventures (hanging out with local college hippies and radicals) spread throughout the student population. For some students “outsider cool” began to rival “cheerleader/football player cool” in desirability.
I carried with me through life this lesson I learned in Middle School – the practice of viewing a culture, civilization or grouping of any kind from its edge. From that vantage point I could look within and view its dynamics and motion more clearly than from the center. I could also look outward, beyond the boundaries of the particular grouping I was considering, to see the context in which it formed, the larger grouping surrounding it, other groupings that intersected with and influenced it – all with more clarity that I could have if I was trying to see beyond the edge from the center.
Seeing Both Within and Beyond the Boundary of Something
I believe this ability to see both within and beyond the boundary of something (galaxy, community, culture, civilization) is an important quality of Edge-dwelling – one that can be discovered, learned, cultivated. It’s a practice we can grow within ourselves.
This ability to see both within and beyond is a crucial quality for our times – living within and at the edge of a crumbling civilization, entering an epoch of human-created climate change whose impact on our Earth is not yet known.
This is a huge edge to be living on.
Our times invite and call on us to look inward at our civilization, to view with clarity its underlying dynamics and motion – and also to look outward beyond the horizon of our times – to view honestly the perils of the climate change our civilization has caused and with hope to vision the potential to create a human culture that lives in harmony with our Earth and all its varied life forms.
Viewing our civilization from the edge, it becomes possible to see more clearly its constructs, assumptions, norms and biases. Things that from the center may appear so obviously true as to not even be worth questioning, are in fact, not only NOT obviously true, but so destructive one wonders how they came to dominate human civilizations for thousands of years.
Some examples of our civilization’s constructs that have brought our Earth to this time of human caused climate change and unknown consequences are:
~ Infinite growth is possible on a finite planet
~ Capitalism is the best possible economic system
~ Profit is the best way of measuring whether or not something is worthwhile
~ God (or science) gave man dominion over earth, plants and animals to “manage” as “natural resources”
~ Hierarchy, patriarchy, dominance and war are natural and inescapable characteristics of humanity
Fortunately, I am far from the first person to notice the destructiveness and fallacy of these concepts. Many other edge-viewing people (I don’t know if they consider themselves Edge-dwellers) with visions far vaster than my own have written on these themes so abundantly I cannot say who was the first person to critique one or another of these constructs. Some people I offer personal gratitude to for offering their insights to my own Edge-dwelling journey are: Thomas Berry, Chellis Glendinning, Richard Heinberg, Joanna Macy, Starhawk, Daniel Quinn and many others.
This ability to see both within and beyond the boundary of some thing (galaxy, community, culture, civilization) is intertwined with two qualities of Edge-dwelling mentioned in the first article of this series:
~ the ability to create something new from the place where two things meet
~ the ability to vision beyond the horizon, beginning the bridge between now and beyond
It is this ability to see both within and beyond the boundary of our civilization and culture that enables us to vision both the potential that exists within our times and the possibilities that can be created for our future.
It reminds me of the deep truth in the often-cited quote by Albert Einstein, “No problem can be solved by the same level of consciousness that created it.”
Without being able to see from a bird’s eye or edge view, the inner workings of the civilization of which we are a part, and question its constructs, we can’t fully gaze beyond, see the way things could possibly be, then vision and begin to create a way to get there.
Yet this is precisely what this moment in history is inviting and calling on us to do.
This work of re-visioning our humanity and our place within the web of life (as part of rather than in control of) is already begun. Joanna Macy calls it The Great Turning. Thomas Berry calls it The Great Work. We each have only to add our unique voice to visioning and building the bridge that can bring us from now to the regeneration that can arise beyond our crumbling civilization’s far edge.
Read the first two articles of this series here: