Life on the edge. Why we feel drawn to outdoor liminal spaces

It was only a couple of years ago that a friend first introduced me to the word ‘liminal’. We were standing on a golden sandy beach, in the middle of London.

She slipped off her shoes (I suspect not something you see often on the Southbank), and headed for the liminal line where sand met murky Thames water. Literally a line in the sand.

What does liminal space mean?

The word liminal means the space between two things; that place or time in which you pass one threshold and approach another. Liminal space has been used in architecture to denote areas that people pass through rather than inhabit on a more permanent basis.

Why are we so fascinated by liminal spaces?

I’ve thought about the word often since that trip to London. Like many people I’m drawn to liminal zones. River banks, cliff tops, dawn, dusk, even that space in time that lingers briefly between rain and sunshine.

I’ve often wondered what the attraction is but my recent readings about nature and permaculture have helped explain.

We love the liminal because exciting things can happen at the edge.

Take a wood as an example. You’ll find more species and productivity at the woodland edge than either in its depths or in the fields outside its bounds. This liminal place where two ecosystems meet is lively and bountiful. Which is why, in permaculture, we’re taught to use the edges and value the marginal. My garden edges are a jumble of flowers, herbs and even fruit. It’s all found its own way there.

The top of the hill

One could easily argue that mountain tops are liminal spaces. Small wonder then that we love to climb. Who wouldn’t want to feel the wonder of being part of both the earth and the air at the same time?

Lots of us love to swim. My favourite place to be is floating with my head half in and half out of the water. I am mildly obsessed with the above and beneath. Of my realm but of another one too.

In fact the more I think about it, the more I can see the positive impact liminal spaces have on my life. Perhaps that’s why crowds bother me. They take away my understanding of where the edge is. If I ever have to live in a city, it’ll have to be one like Exeter where you can usually see the surrounding Devon hills.

Mind the gap

The liminal however can also be frightening. At night I turn lights on before I enter a room, I can only edge towards a cliff top, and would rather sit in water than balance on stepping stones above it. Perhaps our mind-the-gap life mantras are too strong; I have a feeling I’m sometimes missing out.

Exciting things happen at the edge. Let’s all head over there more often.

When your work makes you proud – Ordnance Survey’s new Walk London map

Should we be applying permaculture principles to our outdoor writing?

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