Venture into the Liminal Space
Updated: Jul 16, 2021
Where do you go for retreat and renewal? I seek out natural areas. Unlike the built environment of people, where I just feel “small,” the breadth and depth of life in natural areas cause me to feel a small part of something large and wonderful, something humming with the energy of a Divine life source.
The place that gives me retreat and renewal where I currently live is the Fort Worth Nature Center and Refuge. The nature center is often busy, but the refuge’s trails are lightly used. They provide an opportunity for reflection and renewal; discovery and delight. Along the way, I’m always looking for birds. One of my favorite bird-watching trails follows the boundary between prairie and woodlands. It’s what’s known as a liminal space.
The word liminal derives from a Latin word meaning “threshold.” Ecologically, it’s the zone where one ecosystem ends, and another begins. It’s not a distinct line. Instead, it’s an ecologically messy area. Liminal spaces have characteristics of both ecosystems, and together, they create an area that’s not fully one or the other.
In the prairie-woodland liminal space, the new area is a shrubby one. It’s an exciting place for birdwatching. I may see a woodland bird, a prairie bird, or something totally unexpected that prefers the shrubby area. Liminal areas are full of potential and are known for their diversity of life. Biologists describe the liminal space at the edge of a forest as having high conservation value.
Those who live on or visit the coast may be familiar with estuaries. They are the iconic liminal space, where salt water and freshwater mix. Tides convert land to open water and back again on a daily basis. Their diversity and creative potential are why some call estuaries the nurseries of the sea. They are a place of vitality and life.
I rely on places of retreat and renewal to nourish me for the work I do. Without them, it’s too easy to become discouraged by the ecological and social injustices I encounter. I’m finding this especially true, as yet another Earth Day approaches. Earth Day 2021 on April 22nd, will be the 51st time people gather and say we must do a better job of caring for the planet we share. Sadly, so many of the environmental challenges we face today have not changed substantially in the last 50 years. If I’m not careful, it’s easy for me to fall into Jobian despair. Then, I remember our Creator’s divine speeches in response to Job’s despair (Job 38:1-42:6).
In the speeches, God answers Job by proclaiming he is not the center of the world. Rev. Dr. Kathryn Schifferdecker, in her book, Out of the Whirlwind: Creation Theology in the Book of Job, says, “The vision of creation that is the divine speeches enlarges Job’s own vision, so that he can move out of his self-centered despair and see the world from a God’s-eye point of view” (p. 124). The divine speeches present an alternative vision to the anthropocentric view of the Genesis creation stories. In the divine speeches, people are one creature among many, all with intrinsic value and created for purposes and reasons beyond which people can know or understand.
The divine speeches challenge us to understand our “relationship with the natural world not as one of dominion or control, but as one of participation and appreciation” (p. 131). We are called to demonstrate humility. It’s a vision that points to a sustainable way of life, one in which we show “restraint and care in using earth’s resources” (p. 132). This is the change that is needed, if we want to make substantial progress on the environmental challenges threatening us today. The needed change is so hard, so unlike our current lifestyle, that it’s difficult to imagine doing it.
Consider our current way of life as an ecosystem. It includes the places and environment where we live, work, go to school, and play. We have habits and know how to live within the ecosystem. A sustainable way of life is so different that it would be like putting a woodland bird into the middle of a prairie. The bird would be disoriented and unlikely to survive. But in the liminal space, where woods meet prairie, the woodland bird may find different insects to eat, discover advantages of being able to see further, and adapt new habits of survival. Over time, it may evolve into a new variety or even a new species. Liminal space is ripe for change and for becoming something new.
Like the prairie and woodlands, our personal ecosystems have liminal spaces, too. This Earth Day, I invite you to move from the center of your ecosystem and into the liminal space on an environmental issue of concern to you. Go to the edge of your comfort and familiarity, to the point where you’re not sure what to do. The liminal space is where you’ll encounter people with different ideas. You’ll discover new ways of doing things. It’s the place where there’s creativity and potential for bringing forth new ways of living that by ourselves, we cannot imagine.
A truly sustainable way of life will not be all or nothing, my way or your way. Rather it’ll reconcile all of us, and all life on this planet, into something new that we have yet to imagine. It starts with having the courage to venture into the messy area of our liminal space. If we do this, then maybe in 50 years there will be no need for an Earth Day.