Permaculture…permanent agriculture…permanent culture. Always, “the edge is where the action is.” This is so true—and there are many rough and many tender edges to explore within our own hearts and in how we come together as people, as communities. We’ve inherited a broken society where our longing to celebrate common life, shared values, and rich interdependencies has eroded into bare threads of civility.
My friend Ann, a student in the first course I helped to teach six years ago, has taken this saying about the edges and run with it. She is constantly exploring the edges of physical space (living fairly close to the edge of her neighborhood), cultural space (living in a yurt in the Tetons for decades; pursuing a PhD in philosophy). She also writes an “edgy” blog (www.exopermaculture.com). And it has come to be a particularly thorny issue for her over the past five months.
In 2008 she bought the house and lot next to her with the goal of creating a neighborhood garden that would also feature permaculture education and design demonstration. She’s worked with the local university repeatedly giving students the opportunity to research and contribute small projects to the overall function of the garden. Students designed a composting system and a cob oven to fit into the back corner of a ferrocement wall on the SW corner of the garden.
Now, that corner is on an intersection—and it turns out that this wall (which some of us referred to as the “Berlin Wall”) has been the source of great ambivalence. It’s been an edge—literally and figuratively. The addition of fire—in this case the cob oven—sparked conflict. This garden, which is meant to serve the neighborhood—which has influenced the region (even beyond the city), has been critiqued by one neighbor—who took her concerns to the city.
Out of the unfolding process, the garden will transform again. Ann, as the owner of the land, has engaged with the city—educating where she can, respectfully building bridges and doing good work with neighborhoods. She’s weighed her choices carefully and opted to do what is, in the end, not only for the greater good, but her long months of contemplating this difficult conflict has culminated with a welcome redesign of several other features within the garden. The “Berlin Wall”—which, we realize now, served as an anchor to shelter and protect the new garden for its first three tender years of incubation — will be moved to a place where it will serve as a backdrop to a new meditation space; it will be replaced with an embracing and beautiful gate and other features to invite community participation. The needs of one person in the community will be embraced (the cob oven will be replaced with a “smokeless” rocket stove). The garden will become even more whole, more of a community place.
The city has played its role in this transformation, too. Options, choices, considerations, and collaboration have all come out of this experience. The GANG is a bit unlike anything else in the city–the officials are just not quite sure how to fit it into the existing structures. And that is perfect. In permaculture, we want to grow that edge. There are other projects, other community programs that do not fit neatly into the space allocated either. We will all–everyone involved have to become more creative and flexible.
Ann, rather than escalate the situation with her neighbor has chosen to take on the conflict at the personal level. It’s not that she’s bound up in the ego so much—though there is that personal, hurt, agitated side (which needs a significant boundary)—but that rather than put the whole community through a dramatic conflict which would further alienate the neighbor, she’s held that edge and made space for the garden to evolve further in service to the larger community. What feels sad, and still difficult, to both of us, is that this neighbor hasn’t been incorporated into the growing feeling of neighborliness. Where, in our interpersonal work—with those rough and ragged edges in our hearts, do we draw healthy lines? How do we draw healthy boundaries while still building relationships with those who are closed to us? How much power can one person have? In the Occupy movement, consensus is reached with 90%–with the express understanding that a very small percentage can push the greater good off track.
I don’t have the answers. I know that in this case, I’m disappointed with both the neighbor and with the community in that the only way forward has been for Ann to have to make difficult choices about this project. I urged her the last time we talked, to bring it back to the communal wisdom. And I still celebrate the changes in the garden.
I think it is a marvelous gesture that the wall will be replaced with a gate.