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 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 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, 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, 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 culture 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. 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 places 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 tenable 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 Babelians 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 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. Rather than aspiring towards 5,000-square-foot palaces with spacious lawns that are clearly delineated from the clutter of “nature,” 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 and nonhuman life.

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 people 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 American 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.

Ailanthus, or Letting it Go

I once harbored a grudge against an entire species. Tree-of-heaven, Ailanthus altissima, or simply ailanthus, is a deciduous tree belonging to the simaroubaceae family. With its spindly trunk and frond-like bows of pinnate leaves, ailanthus vaguely resembles a palm plant, and its native range extends from the temperate regions of China through Southeast Asia. But if you live in Europe or the contiguous US, there’s a good chance that you have crossed paths with this “tenacious bastard,” as I once referred to it. Ailanthus is an invasive in both regions, where it thrives in disturbed, low-quality soils such as those found in abandoned lots or the margins of railroads, freeways, or any patch of land that has been cleared of vegetation (the photo below was taken at the edge of a playing field). For this reason, ailanthus is sometimes referred to as the ghetto palm, although its pungent odor and status as a noxious weed has earned it a variety of epithets: stink tree, stinking sumac, tree-of-hell.

My war with ailanthus began five years ago during my senior year of high school. As part of a project for my AP environmental science class, I learned to identify invasive plants in a tract of woods near my house. I did not come across tree-of-heaven in those woods, although in the course my research I happened on a webpage with a photograph of an ailanthus sapling under the bold-face heading “IF YOU SEE THIS PLANT IN YOUR YARD, REMOVE IT IMMEDIATELY.”  I learned that a tree I had taken to be just another part of the urban scenery of the Northeastern US was in fact a foreign invader. Thereafter, I was seeing tree-of-heaven everywhere. I eyed two saplings growing along my bike route to the YMCA, noted the prevalence of ailanthus along the edges of playing fields, and, while driving out of New York City, spotted a mature, six-story specimen from I-95 in the North Bronx. I had no idea how overrun my home was.

So the seed of alarm was planted when, one weekend that June, I noticed a young, seven-foot-tall ailanthus growing in my next-door-neighbor’s side lawn, just a few feet from my own family’s back yard. I wasn’t surprised. Our neighbor at the time was not a fastidious groundskeeper, and a veritable jungle of overgrown bushes and weeds demarcated our properties. Tree-of-heaven can produce 14,000 seeds for every pound of biomass, so it was inevitable that an ailanthus samara would settle and sprout in that jungle. After getting my neighbor’s permission, I armed myself with a pair of garden shears and a plastic lawn barrel and spent an afternoon hacking away at the invader, all the while scowling at tree-of-heaven’s burnt peanut oil scent. I had read about how ailanthus can clone itself via root suckering, and that cutting down the exposed parts of the plant is only a temporary control. Yet I also read accounts of tree-of-heaven roots growing through concrete and destabilizing building foundations, and so the warning kept flashing bright red in my head: REMOVE IT IMMEDIATELY.

Felling that one ailanthus offered no satisfaction. I continued to regard with near-horror entire colonies of ailanthus clones erupting along the roadways of the Tri-State area. That summer on a trip abroad I saw a cluster of tree-of-heaven growing beside a gravel parking lot in rural Tuscany (no!), and when I returned home to Darien I discovered that the same tree I hacked to pieces a few weeks earlier had grown back to its previous height (the bastard!). Ailanthus even infiltrated my sleep. In one dream, I walk out the front door in the morning to find that, overnight, an ailanthus of sequoia proportions has taken root across the street and bulldozed one of my neighbor’s homes to the side. In another, ailanthus samaras, borne by an equatorial breeze, are showering over the neighborhood like snow, and every native plant has been replaced by an embryonic tree-of-heaven.

Ailanthus was a punk, I decided, a spoiled brat with no capacity for restraint. It didn’t belong in New England, land of white pine and sugar maple. It was too smelly, too exotic. It just didn’t look right.

It just didn’t look right. Hungarian nationalists use these same words to describe Syrian refugees walking down the streets of Budapest. The parallel between contempt for an invasive plant and that for foreigners and ethnic minorities is an imperfect one; as the above photo of the kudzu barren makes clear, crowding of ecosystems by non-native species is a legitimate environmental concern. But displaced people and invasive plants are both symptomatic of the Crisis of Now, and therefore merit joint consideration.

In Failed States, Collapsing Systems, journalist Nafeez Ahmed outlines how the sectarian violence that has riven Syria since 2011 is partly an outgrowth of a years-long drought that exacerbated unaffordable food prices and growing unemployment. These global warming-induced pressures only added more strain to a nation buckling under declining oil revenue. Similar biophysical trends played out in Libya, Iraq, and Yemen, and in aggregate resulted in the pulse of immigration from the Arab World that Europe witnessed 2015-2016. Meanwhile, in the botanical realm, global warming enables subtropical plants to migrate northwards in moist regions such as the eastern US, while intensifying droughts in arid climates allows the further spread of xeric exotics like Russian thistle.

With this background of interlocking global systems in mind, the sentiment it just doesn’t look right” belies a lack of understanding of the complex feedbacks that are altering the contours of human life around the world. My growing comprehension of those feedbacks these past five years is partly why I no longer grudge ailanthus. I imagine that going deaf in my left ear in 2014 also helped me learn to let go of the unalterable, and much of what we as a global society will experience as the Crisis of Now progresses cannot be blunted as much as we’d like. In an article for Grist titled “Let it Go: The Arctic Will Never Be Frozen Again,” Eric Holthaus details how, as of last year, polar researchers can confidently project that the Arctic will never again be reliably frozen like it had been since modern humans evolved 150 thousand years ago. Last week, The Guardian reported that the most ancient of the Arctic Ocean’s sea ice ruptured for the first time in recorded history this past summer. In a similar vein, recent research indicates that the carbon storing capacity of soils worldwide is diminishing rapidly in relation to increasing atmospheric temperatures.

Each new climatological threshold is a potential Rubicon for globalized human civilization. In addition to giving up modes of living that we know are destructive to Earth’s life support systems – no more 5,000-square-foot houses, nightly steak dinners, or ski resorts – we also have to learn to let go of certain trappings we used to associate with home, wherever that might be. According to the most optimistic forecasting models, Connecticut will have a climate comparable to that of northern Virginia by mid-century. Worst-case-scenario models predict Connecticut’s climate will resemble South Carolina’s in thirty-odd years. If the latter turns out to be true, then I have to accept that, probably in my lifetime, white pines and sugar maples will recede to the Canadian Shield and New England will become a land of palmetto, loblolly pine, and, of course, ailanthus. Europeans have to brace for further influxes of refugees from destabilized parts of the Middle East and Africa, while all denizens of the world’s coastal regions will need to negotiate a new shoreline as sea levels rise. We can act to mitigate the effects of global warming, but words like “mitigation” and “resiliency” are already an admission on our part that there’s no going back to what we once knew.

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High tide at Holly Pond in Darien, encroaching on a seawall. A section of the wall pictured here collapsed in about 2002 from tidal action. Another collapse will most certainly happen again.

My neighbor of the unkempt jungle no longer lives next door. His property was bought up by a developer who replaced his relatively humble 1960s-era house with a larger, more marketable structure. The developer also cleared out the jungle and the ailanthus tree with it (they probably had to use a backhoe to do the job). Yet even if that tree-of-heaven were still standing, I don’t think I would care. There’s just too much that’s in flux now in the 21st century, too much change that cannot be undone, while the legitimately urgent problems are much greater than a scrawny, root-suckering tree. When I spent an afternoon hacking away at my neighbor’s invasive weed I was also motivated by a primal desire to see ailanthus – my enemy – vanquished entirely. Such a desire is quixotic in the extreme and belies a scorched-earth antagonism that will be of no help in the decades to come.

Besides, as Lauret Savoy tells us in her book Trace, to inhabit a landscape means also to be implicated in that landscape’s history. Well, tree-of-heaven was introduced to the United States at the turn of the 19th century, when everything Oriental was trending among America’s educated class. After being cultivated in the gardens of the gentry (including, probably, the grounds of Sylvester Manor), tree-of-heaven was used as a street tree in the young Republic’s urban centers. Imagine that: ailanthus first took root in North America when the United States was in its infancy. We grew up together on this continent. And since then, tree-of-heaven and One Nation Under God have been casting their seeds to the wind, yearning to multiply.

These thoughts in mind, I cannot help thinking of Camille Dungy’s poem, “What I know I cannot say,” which considers a different invasive plant:

“the blue gum has colonized

the California coastal forests, squeezing out native plants, dominating the landscape,

and increasing the danger of fire. I should hate

the blue gum eucalyptus, but from the well of their longing,

 by which I mean to say from their pods, you know what I mean 

I hope, their original homes, from the well of their longing

blooms explode like fireworks. I love them for this. Do you hear me?

I absolve you. You are far too beautiful and singular to blame.

I am not yet at the point where I can think of ailanthus as a beautiful tree, but I do now appreciate that tree-of-heaven and its status as an invasive in North America is only a single phenomenon, one subplot in a very complex story line. Who among us is not a manifestation of a convoluted chain of events? I’m referring here to conquests, genocides, mass migrations, innovation, leaps of faith – world history. And the pageant continues today in the decisions we make in this century of transition, an era some refer to as the Great Turning. Whatever actions we take, though, must be directed by a fierce desire to persist and forge new ways of living amidst so much loss and dislocation. Ailanthus, which can grow from the most degraded of soils, has already demonstrated a tendency to thrive far from its original home, and for that I regard it with a certain degree of respect.

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The Crisis of Now: What is it?

The human mind needs clear concepts to make sense of the world. When a chronic problem has not been properly named, we are unable to think clearly about it and figure out how to solve it.

-Joe Brewer, “Solving a Problem that Has Not Been Named”

I feel that I need to clarify what exactly I mean when I bring up The Crisis of Now in these essays; this clarification is for myself as much as it is for anyone who has been following my posts. The name “Crisis of Now” is an imprecise label, a phrase I concocted on my own so that I could easily refer to the interlocking emergencies of global warming, late stage capitalism, ecological collapse, hydrocarbon depletion, and the erosion of democratic norms and values (especially in the West). Yet even that slightly more nuanced explanation only feels at the hem of the converging trends whose consequences will remake life as we know it in the more affluent parts of the world.

Fans of Irish poetry will recognize that I am essentially trying to sketch the outlines of that rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem after twenty centuries of sleep. The language of the Crisis of Now, however, need not be biblical, esoteric, or apocalyptic. Joe Brewer, a Seattle-based complexity researcher, has grappled with this same question of how to properly identify the bottleneck we as a global civilization are approaching. His preferred term, The Great Transition Beyond Empires, is more adequate than the Crisis of Now on a number of fronts. First, a name like “The Great Transition Beyond Empires” recognizes that we are indeed living through the disintegration of a truly global empire – the enterprise of corporate globalization – and that its zenith and demise rounds out a six millenia-long era of ever more ambitious empire building.

In Beyond the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, James C. Scott enumerates the evidence arrayed against the “social contract” theory of early state-building. The earliest states of the Near East and China were not the products of reasoned, ingenious communal cooperation; they were brought into being only by the typically violent coercion enacted by centralized palace elites. They employed mass slavery, agricultural levies, harsh penal codes, and militarized physical barriers in order to maintain their spheres of influence (the reach of taxation). Now in 2018, in the wake of the Great Recession and the one-two punch of Brexit and the ascension of Donald Trump, the coercive underpinnings of corporate globalization and their shortcomings are in plain view. Fifteen years ago, the most ardent opponents of the WTO-IMF-World Bank triumvirate were small farmers and public sector employees in developing countries hit hardest by structural adjustment schemes. But when voters in the nerve centers of the neoliberal consensus can be convinced to reject the status quo (however artificial such campaign promises may be), you know the days of our paradigm are numbered.

So is corporate globalization the empire to end all empires? After all of the planet’s climatological positive feedback loops have scrambled Earth’s biosphere, after we’ve chewed through the low- to mid- hanging fruit of the hydrocarbon tree, it’s hard to imagine any financial or political entity (or an alliance of entities) wielding power the way corporatocracy does now. But whatever follows corporate globalization depends on what decisions we make in the decades to come, how we choose to fill the vacuum where consumption, wealth hoarding, and unbridled monetization once held sway.

That brings me to the second reason why I like the name, “The Great Transition Beyond Empire.” The shocks and tremors that are currently destabilizing our ideas of how we see ourselves in the world are also opportunities. Disorientation can allow us to rethink our priorities, how we organize ourselves in the landscape and relate to our co-denizens, both human and non-human. In the interim, there will be profound pain and suffering as political turmoil and dueling elements of the social body rush to fill the vacuum. Just ask the people of Syria and Venezuela, or the thousands of families separated these past months at the US border; they are already in the crucible. The dangers being unleashed by global warming, ecosystem collapse, and the sputtering of capitalism are real, but recognizing the potential of disruption and chaos gets to the heart of what crisis can mean. “Emergency” comes from the Latin emergens; to rise up or outward. We as a people – the human tribe, if you like – have the potential to emerge from the rubble of our dying way of life.

Okay, enough of the abstract theorizing. It’s time to talk specifics. Where will this transformation take place? Who will power it? Change will come from people like you and me, anyone weary of centralized bureaucracies and decision making, who  circumvent rigid federal and supranational power structure and try to effect change on the local level. I recently cut out a New York Times op-ed piece by David Brooks titled “The Localist Revolution,” which posits that the real change makers going forward will be locally oriented: neighborhood associations, state and municipal officials, farmers’ cooperatives. All 7.6 billion of us alive today face the same global emergencies, but only individuals with an intimate sensitivity to their immediate surroundings will be able to respond to how those crises manifest on the ground. After all, do you really think Congressional committees will know how to best allocate the water supplies of Oregon’s Klamath River, or that Brussels technocrats possess the regionally particular knowledge that is vital to stalling the die-back of ancient olive groves in Calabria?

The New York Times is hardly a den of fringe intellectualism, and David Brooks is only picking up on what legions of thinkers and activists have been saying for decades. In her essay collection, The Algebra of Infinite Justice, Arundhati Roy shares her hope that the 21st century will be the century of the dismantling of the big, and that the god of small things will finally be shown the deference she deserves. Already, small farms in Puerto Rico are demonstrating a newfound robustness in the wake of Hurricane Maria, and town civic associations throughout Spain are working to provide support and integration services to an influx of asylum seekers arriving from North Africa. In the digital realm, groups like Tamera and Bayo Akomolafe’s Emergence Network are working to connect and build a dialogue between local change makers across the globe. Taken together, I like to think that all of these initiatives and trends hint at a germinating reverence for the beauty and diversity of the particular.

The photograph featured at the beginning of this post was taken in the final days of the Standing Rock protests in North Dakota, when the Water Protectors vacated the main camp, Oceti Sakowin, in anticipation of Governor Doug Burgum’s eviction order.  A lot is captured in that photo. The colorless sky, stagnant water, burning structure, and backhoe waiting to clear the detritus of a once-jubilant resistance movement make for a dystopian tableau. But those who closely followed the Lakota Sioux’s standoff with Energy Transfer Partners, LP, especially after the Dakota Access Pipeline was lain under the Missouri River, have taken heart in the invocation that we the living are the Eighth Generation, and that our decisions, not just the single action of a government agency or corporation, will shape the world of the seven generations that follow. As our global crises converge, will we muster the fortitude needed to assemble our own resistance camps and triage centers, to halt and reverse the depredations of corporate globalization? The answer lies in whether each of us is willing to engage with and assume a deeply embedded citizenship of the places we call home.