The Fecundity of the Edges

When I began this writing project, I had the vague idea in mind that I wanted to explore the margins. In ecological science, ecotones – the transitional zones between biological communities – are known for nourishing novel, adaptive biotic regimes, and I wanted to see if marginal human communities were similarly resilient. After all, from the sixteenth century up until the 1800s, escaped slaves in the Americas established self-sufficient societies in swamplands that were considered to be “economically negligible” by the commerce-minded powers that be. And right now, the slums of the Global South’s urban centers are humming with an informal economy of trading, recycling, and repurposing global neoliberalism’s material waste. I wondered if similar processes of subversion and inventiveness were taking place out of sight in my own home territory in the Northeastern United States. Such ponderings led me to incorporate a study of northern New York’s indigenous Mohawk community and Shelter Island’s historical slave community into my honors thesis/essay collection while also lending this website its name “Towards the Edges.” I completed my thesis in the spring, and soon I will have in my hands a print and bound copy of my writing. But before I can begin unpacking my findings here, I need to expand upon my consideration of the margins and from where they derive their fertility.

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Transitional zone between woodland and saltwater marsh in midcoast Maine.

In These Wilds Beyond Our Fences: Letters to My Daughter on Humanity’s Search For Home, the author, Bayo Akmololafe, is told by a traditional Yoruba priest that “You have chased away the spirits with your roads and development projects. They hide in the thick forests, and it is there we must go in order to understand what is happening” (130). Another priest expands upon this injunction when he tells Akomolafe that if those of us who live amidst the trappings of modern consumerism want to find our way back to the spirits, “we must first come away from the road and become lost” (xxxiv). As a whole, the message is both literal and metaphorical. If we want to apprehend the wisdom of nonhuman nature, then we must venture to those redoubts where nature is still allowed to flourish according to a logic that defies anthropocentrism. I had the same idea in mind when I dedicated one of my thesis essays to my suburban hometown and what insights I could glean when I focused on those pockets of land in Darien, Connecticut, that have not been given over to McMansions and manicured lawns – the  woodlots, marshes, and parcels where weeds are still allowed to bloom in wild profusion. Yet we can become lost without physically going anywhere at all. The priests are intoning Akomolafe (and, by extension, the rest of us who live amidst roads and development projects) to abandon our certitude about what constitutes correct and proper human conduct. On a metaphorical level, then, to go towards the edges also means to consider alternative modes of being human on this planet.

To Akomolafe, nothing embodies the spirit of the edges better than dust. He writes, “As the world…grates upon us, we shed our cutaneous cells and hair and pieces of ourselves, contributing these into a commonwealth of dust that includes their beings and their shedding. Edges bleed in traces of becoming, melding dying and living, beginning and ending, into an always pregnant middle (19). Furthermore, “dust unsettles foundations and eats borders, and yet gives birth to the world” (21). According to Akmolafe, the components of the material world and human society cannot be reduced to stable essences. The physical processes of reality simply do no allow for absolute stasis. With that understanding in mind, the edges take center stage as the place of creation. Left to its own devices, dust eventually accumulates into   humus, and the entire province of terrestrial life depends upon topsoil for nourishment. Were it not for the constant disintegration that takes place on the edges of things, that topsoil and the abundance of nature it supports would be nonexistent.

So, can the fertilizing properties of the material edges be applied to human society? Can the persistence of swampland communities of runaway slaves in antebellum America be attributed to their consolidation of the most useful teachings of European, African, and indigenous American society? I am inclined to say yes. I would even venture that many marginal human communities point the way towards a more sustainable way of conducting our affairs in an age of converging global crises.

Consumerist culture and neoliberal capitalism aspire to the shining metropolis – the utopian city on a hill, free of effort or want, that will surely come about if stocks keep rising, or if we give free rein to the wizards of Silicon Valley, or if we finally elect the right politicians. Ambitions and promises of these sorts have their origins in the early days of Sumer and Shang Dynasty China, when palace elites established the world’s first state granaries and standing armies, thus ushering in the age of empire. But here we are, five thousand years later, and we are less than sixty growing seasons away from completely degrading our topsoil; the exponential growth paradigm is pushing industrial society into collapse mode; and our drive for microbial purity both in ourselves and in our livestock is breeding frightening new strains of antibiotic-resistant infections. Like the Israelites told of in Genesis who tried to construct a tower to heaven, our aspirations towards dominion over the planet are unreachable. This time around, however, our strivings for transcendence are threatening our very survival as a species.

But edge-dwelling communities, which by their very nature embrace the promiscuity of the margins, rebuke the myopia of transcendence. Bayo Akomolafe comes to this realization when he befriends Kutti, a rickshaw driver in Chennai, and spends a night in the slum home of Kutti and his family. One of the first things he notices about Kutti’s cramped home is that, “Space is performed differently here…Everything bleeds into everything else, and in this scandalous perversion of boundaries, politeness is often fatuous” (42). Nevertheless, Akomolafe takes note of the the neighborhood’s intricate abundance of human cooperation, a collective attention to hygiene and hospitality, and concludes that, compared to Chennai proper, the slum feels like a sanctuary: “This Indian slum, hidden behind a phallic Samsung glass building, cordoned off by asphalt, shushed by the traffic of cyborg saints seeking glittery heavens to go marching into, and forgotten in the headlines that tout India as a fast-developing nation with abilities to launch satellites into space, tells a revisionist story…where humans and nonhumans, in chaotic and oftentimes risky configurations, are learning to press closer and closer to each other and live with each other” (49). By embracing the base materiality of existence and that materiality’s ever-disintegrating borders, Kutti and his neighbors have crafted a convivial antidote to the isolation and anonymity that are endemic to most modern cities. In so doing, they have also proved that monetary wealth, consumption, sterile environs, and blind individualism are not the only paths towards self-realization.

Knowing that our current preoccupations with consumption, neurotic cleanliness, and individualism are choking the planet and destroying our own communities, should we then revert to slum dwelling, open sewage ditches and all? No. Adopting all aspects of Kutti’s and his neighbors’ lifestyle is not the point. What we should focus on instead is finding ways to let the edges back into our daily affairs by living in close proximity to the inescapable materiality of the world. Rather than aspiring towards 5,000 square-foot palaces with spacious lawns that are clearly delineated from the clutter of “nature” (consumerist modernity’s translation of Eden), it’s time for us citizens of the Global North to downsize to a way of life that recognizes the wonder of the full spectrum of human to nonhuman nature.

I’m reminded now of Birdsfoot Farm, an intentional community in St. Lawrence County, New York, that I visited about five years ago. Birdsfoot Farm, with its miniature cottages backed up against gardens that bled into the surrounding woodlands, was where I first encountered the beauty of alternative modes of human organization. I’m also thinking of the Ramapough Lenape Indias of northern New Jersey, who have kept their cosmology alive by erecting traditional handmade artwork and performing tobacco ceremonies in the midst of a suburban housing tract. I’ve also seen how the subversive sense of place developed by enslaved Africans and indentured Indians on Sylvester Manor has now been honored by the Manor’s recent transformation from private property into a not-for-profit cultural museum and CSA farm. All of these endeavors are carrying into the present a spiritual mythos that our modern world of striving has forgotten. Salvation and wisdom lie not in some pure realm “up there,” but in the dense materiality of the nature that surrounds us as denizens of Earth. The wisdom and teachings of earthly existence are the spirits of the thick forests that Bayo Akomolafe is told of, and as many current edge-dwelling communities demonstrate, those spirits and their powers of generativity  can still be accessed even in this era of spiritual deprivation.

 

Lunch at Mama’s

Not long after I returned from Shelter Island I made plans to meet up with a friend for lunch at Mama Carmela’s Italian Deli.  Mama’s, located in a strip of commercial zoning along the Boston Post Road, is less than half a mile from where I live, and I had dropped in on Mama’s for sandwiches several times in the previous year or so. But this most recent sandwich stop was the first time in a while where I actually sat down with my lunch at one of its tables and took in the details of the place. Except for the Darien Times articles detailing the latest local sporting and academic exploits stuck to the tack board by the back entrance, I didn’t notice any significant changes in the appearance or atmosphere of Mama’s. Nor did I expect anything to be different. Mama’s is one of those places that has always just been there.

Of course, Mama Carmela’s has not occupied 1981 Post Road since time immemorial. It set up shop in the summer of 2001. But Mama’s, mind you, is a “deli” deli, one of those salt-of-the-earth sandwich joints that’s as embedded in the local geography as the nearest hill or stream. Every American town needs such a place. Your equivalent to Mama’s might be flavored with a German, or Latin, or down home accent depending on where in the country you live. But whether you order fried okra or a potato knish to go with your wrap, America’s long-standing lunch and breakfast joints are all kept alive because they connect their patrons with the local ecology of human interactions that make a community. This sense of community belonging, which Wendell Berry describes as “membership,” is the topic of many an impassioned op-ed screeds, most of which (rightfully) bemoan the loss of said belonging in the face of globalized corporatocracy. But I’m not going to get caught up in a post-modern spiral here; I’ll leave that to the op-ed writers. Instead I want to briefly reflect on how precisely I feel a sense of membership when I’m standing in line waiting to place my order at Mama’s.

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Here’s a primer: Frank, Patty, Carlos, Sue, Frankie, and Juan are the vital names you need to know. Frank Colandro is the founder and head proprietor of Mama’s, and, appropriately, with his bushy beard and ham arms, mans the deli’s meat slicer on most days. Next to Frank’s work station, Patty, a sharp-eyed older woman works the cash register and speaks with an exacting, cut-to-chase tone of voice to match. At the other end of the counter, the cooks – Frankie, Carlos, and Juan – cantilever around each other with spry precision as they switch between frying eggs and bacon on the one hand and slicing vegetables and cheese on the other. Amidst all this, Sue (wearing a pink shirt in the photo above) makes sure the machinery of Mama’s stays greased. When I’ve stopped by for lunch over the years, I have seen her at work taking orders from customers, unpacking supplies from cardboard boxes, helping the cooks with food preparation, and relaying information between the entire crew. If Frank is the pater familias, then Sue is the grande dame of Mama Carmela’s.

On any given day there are bound to be alterations to this ensemble of employees. Frankie’s or Carlos’s places at the fryer might be temporarily replaced by a seasonal worker, or Frank will be stationed at the cash register instead of Sue. But the variations in staffing at Mama Carmela’s are minimal, and employee turnover is low; a sure sign that you can trust a dining establishment to prepare your food. It is this stability that allows me and dozens of other Darienites to know the staff at Mama’s on a first name basis, and the familiarity is reciprocated. You can usually count on there being a laminated flyer posted on the deli counter displaying the go-to order of a faithful patron (usually a high school athlete or local first responder): “Caylee’s Post-Game Recovery” or “Sam’s Morning Pick-Me-Up.” When I myself was a DHS student, and spontaneously grabbing lunch with friends at a local sandwich joint was a rite of establishing teenage autonomy, I became a regular enough face at Mama’s that after placing my order one afternoon, Frankie gave me a fist bump and introduced both himself and his co-workers. In effect, Frankie bestowed on me a membership that went beyond the walls of the deli and encompassed the entire web of Darien affairs that crosses paths with 1981 Post Road.

As the writer Arundhati Roy suggests, we should not make complicated what is actually quite simple, so I will not parse and dissect every meaning behind the ideas of ‘membership’ and  ‘community.’ I am even cautious about using the word “idea” to describe what I feel when I’m standing in line at Mama Carmela’s, since ideas can be maddeningly ambiguous; mere ideas, without any grounding to them, are the playthings of convoluted philosophy treatises that no one will read. Home, however, is not ambiguous. Home is where you feel most comfortable, the place you go back to, where you belong. Even though I spend significant portions of my time in New York’s North Country these days, my permanent address is still in Darien, and ordering lunch at Mama’s during summer and winter breaks serves as a reminder of where in the world I am grounded.

And did I mention that the sandwiches at Mama Carmela’s are pretty damn good?