I’ve been thinking about this concept for a while but never tried to articulate it, so here goes nothing.
It’s the edges of things, not the things themselves, that are that are the most interesting.
If I could draw this idea as a map, maybe it would look like this.
If you’re sitting inside the upper circle on this map, you’re yellow. Everything and everyone around you is also yellow. You never see anything but yellow, and even if you like yellow, you’ll admit it isn’t too interesting by itself.
Likewise if you’re in the lower right circle, it’s nothing but red, red, red, all day long; in the blue circle, well, people are pretty much done with blue, thank you. In these places, nothing happens that’s very different from anything else.
But when you get near the borders between the circles, things begin to get interesting.
Clouds as Boundaries
I first noticed this principle at work when I started watching the sky and the daily drama of the atmosphere. I was awed but puzzled by the strange shapes, textures and movements of clouds and weather. I could not imagine how some of these things came to be.
After studying and photographing these unusual clouds for a few years, though, I began to start thinking of them not so much as things in themselves, so much as the boundaries between two or more other things.
Suddenly the strange and twisted shapes of the clouds started to make sense. They were being formed at the common boundary between two very different masses of air, and their strange shapes were nothing more than the shape of that boundary.
The larger-scale weather of Earth is also a perfect example of this. You could think of weather as what happens when pieces of Un-Weather meet. (A fair-weather high pressure system is in fact called an anti-cyclone!) Huge masses of air flow around the planet, each mass tending to be pretty much the same throughout, whether warm and dry, cold and moist, or any other characteristic. Inside any one air mass, the weather stays the same everywhere. Under a high-pressure dome, Kansas City weather is about the same as St. Louis weather is about the same as Omaha and Des Moines and Wichita. Nothing much different happens. Everything is pretty homogeneous, pretty similar, pretty boring.
The excitement that we call weather comes when these large areas meet and mix at the boundaries. This encounter between the two creates something entirely new, and unlike either of the things that contributed to it.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that my Boring/Interesting map looks a lot like a weather map!
Edges Describe the Center
The intersection between two different things is also where we can learn the most about each, more than we would ever find out by studying either one by itself. Behaviors occur, events take place that could never be predicted by what we know of the contributing parts.
Things show themselves most clearly through their interaction with other things.
In the case of clouds, when properly read, they can describe the shape, extent and character of whatever weather is coming. They show us the boundaries of change.
This principle isn’t limited to the weather, though. I have noticed the same effect in other area of life.
Mixing at the Boundaries
In politics, it might be fine to be a Tory, and if you are around Tories most of time, nothing much interesting will happen. People differ, of course, but in terms of your philosophy you would have more in common with your group than anyone outside. If you are a Whig, same thing applies within the party. All the interesting things happen in Congress, where the boundaries between Whig and Tory are most sharply exposed, most clearly defined, and most interesting. It is also where each group learns the most about the other — as well as things about themselves they could not otherwise learn. (If they’re open-minded, anyway!)
In ecology, boundaries between ecosystems behave the same way. The deep forest is monotonously uniform, its diversification very narrow, as is the the endless prairie. But where forest edge meets prairie edge, interesting things can happen. Plants grow there that are unique to the border habitat and could not thrive within either forest or prairie. This area can grow into an entirely new and different ecosystem of its own.
And perhaps this explains why one of the most interesting parts of any dwelling, architecturally, is the front door… the boundary between home and elsewhere, inside and outside. Memorable meetings, surprise encounters and lingering door-talk define this boundary between public and intimate.
Thoughts along these lines were what inspired my newest Greeting Card, “Borderlands”.
I like the idea of the boundary as a place unto itself, unique, separate and different from any of the lands being bordered but sharing parts of each. Like the skin of our bodies, the boundary is the place where we learn the shape of the world by touching against it, and learn about ourselves as it touches us back.
On the most intimate level, the borderlands are where we live. I like the way they invite us to step across, grow into new territory, and make it part of our selves.