Linger In the In-Between

The edge is a zone of transformation and discovery, at once a marker between distinct areas and a place of its own

By Lisa Szabo, '16 BA

Illustration by Richard Mia

The edge is a zone of transformation and discovery, at once a marker between distinct areas and a place of its own

By Lisa Szabo, '16 BA

May 13, 2022 •

The edge can be a scary place. Roll your toes over the lip of a rock face before diving into the water below and you’ll know what I mean.

An edge marks the end of one thing and the start of another. It can be a physical boundary, like the curb between a sidewalk and a road. Or it can be a state of being — like the one that beckons adrenalin junkies to the next thrill.

Some edges are invisible, so mundane you don’t give a second thought. Some cover areas so great they’re places unto themselves. People who wander into these spaces leave one destination without immediately arriving at the next. They’re in the liminal unknown, between here and there.

Whether by chance or choice, what happens at the edges affects the rest of us. Drive 20 minutes east of Edmonton and you’ll arrive at the Beaver Hills Biosphere: 1,600 square kilometres of mixed-wood forest, sedge meadows and wetlands. Here, semi-aquatic beavers live in the riparian zone between forest and wetlands.

These zones have some of the highest biodiversity you find in an ecological system, says Glynnis Hood, ’07 PhD, a science professor at Augustana Campus and a Beaver Hills researcher. They’re also vulnerable: rapid changes in climate can turn wetlands into deserts, recreational development like walking trails compacts and erodes soil, and water pollution can cause damage and death to aquatic species. But it turns out that beavers can play an unexpected role in reviving damaged wetlands on the brink.

Hood studied 54 years of aerial photographs of Beaver Hills and discovered that, even during drought, ponds with beavers had nine times more open water than the same ponds when they didn’t have beavers. One reason, she says, is that beavers dig canals away from ponds into the landscape, connecting bodies of water. The canals are the beavers’ escape routes from predators and transportation routes for building materials.

Hood says these engineered waterways are “boreal neurons that reach out into the surrounding landscape and create incredible connectivity between the riparian edge and upland areas.” By carving pathways for water, beavers create shallow areas where animals like wood frogs can reproduce and aquatic macroinvertebrates can hunt.

The channels also have implications for genetic flow, she says. The linked aquatic ecosystems mean water-dwelling creatures can travel between ponds, increasing genetic diversity. And when they alter landscapes, beavers can create fire-resistant habitat, demonstrated by islands of green in areas otherwise devastated by fire in California.

We have a lot to gain from those willing to venture to the brink. In 2022, Wyvern, a company founded by U of A alumni who came from the donor-funded AlbertaSat student club, will launch its first low-orbit satellites. Wyvern hopes to use the view from 550 kilometres above the surface of Earth as a vantage point to make life better on the planet.

Wyvern will specialize in imaging related to forestry, water quality, environmental monitoring and agriculture. The technology will help industry improve sustainability and inform business decisions. For example, access to satellite images could help farmers spot invasive species and changes in soil composition, influencing planting and food production.

“You have the right to see how you’re treating the Earth,” Chris Robson, ’16 BSc(MechEng), ’18 MSc, co-founder and CEO of Wyvern, told TechCrunch. “You also have the right to take care of the Earth.”

Like Robson and his team of satellite experts, many people launch themselves into distant unknowns in hopes of gaining perspectives and stirring change. And they might find themselves in transitional, or liminal, areas.

People wander these spaces — hallways, stairwells, parkades and even airports — daily. But liminal spaces are meant to be passed through, so when someone lingers in the in-between, weird things start to happen. Sometimes that’s the draw.

During a religious or secular pilgrimage, for example, sojourners leave homes, jobs and friends behind, and set out in the hopes of experiencing a spiritual or emotional transformation that can only be found on the edge. “You’re stripped of status, you’re carrying all your stuff on your back, you’re figuring out where to go and what to do, surrounded by people you don’t know,” says Jocelyn Hendrickson, an associate professor of history and religious studies in the Faculty of Arts. “There’s a sense of being out of your element.”

That’s where change can begin. By leaving behind daily routines and expectations, Hendrickson says, pilgrims may find clarity for a problem or comfort from grief. They’re also relieved of external pressure from family, friends and co-workers. “You go to the edge, look back at your life and your customs and your assumptions from the outside,” she says.

Though nowadays large portions of pilgrimages can be completed by plane, bus or train, pilgrims of the past would make the entire journey on foot. For Muslim pilgrims coming from North Africa, the hajj — the pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia — could take years, Hendrickson says. That’s a long time to linger between destinations. She says that walking long distances is part of the process.

“Pilgrimage often involves physical exertion, challenge or even purposeful suffering,” she says. “Exertion moves your mind, creates a vulnerability that opens you to an experience of transformation.”

Despite what The Lord of the Rings may imply, the journey doesn’t end when you toss the ring into the fires of Mount Doom. A pilgrimage is not a one-way ticket. Pilgrims have to return home, where they may find themselves changed. “They come back as transformed people,” Hendrickson says. “They bring something new into their lives … and their communities.”

Not everyone will tread one of the ancient routes of Japan’s Kumano Kodo trail or Spain’s Camino de Santiago. But those who do, leave a trail of dust behind them and the world is different because of it.

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