Edges. That’s where a lot of the action is.
In nature, edges are where the differences come out. The contrasting conditions create a diversity not apparent on either side of the edge. While some species of animal and plant life require deep constancy to thrive, almost all species use the edges to test limits and adapt to changes, making them stronger, like annealing does for steel.
Under an electron microscope, you can see the flaws and stresses in heated metal and how, with hammering, these bleed over to the edge, where they then essentially disappear, making the metal stronger and more resilient. Edges do the same thing for nature.
Edges can serve as buffers between different conditions, providing a transition zone that’s neither fish nor fowl. Speaking of which, the beach is perhaps the best example of a natural edge or transition zone — where land flora and fauna bump up against those who thrive in the sea and create a population that is neither and both.
Buffer zones also provide separation of one habitat from another, a place where their meeting blurs and neither side controls. In modern times, we think of buffer zones around different types of facilities as a way to protect one side from the other
Buffer lands can become their own kind of special places. Industrial and military buffer zones become “no man’s lands,” unused by humans, and destined to rewild. Just as we have seen in recent reports from around the world during the COVID-19 pandemic, lessened human activity leads to the return of nature — first, the most mobile animals and later, invasive plants. Unused land does not remain unused for long, but provides room for nature’s return.
Airports are buffered to reduce noise impacts on surrounding lands. Military bases and certain industrial facilities are buffered for security and safety reasons. Coyotes and foxes occupy the airport buffers, following the prairie dogs or gophers into the untrammeled land. Ground birds build their nests and other birds feed in the untouched grasses and forbs that occupy the space.
In the past, and still in some places, farmers buffer their fields with hedgerows that provide great habitat for all kinds of creatures. Small animals and birds occupy the edge and can improve the health of the adjacent land. Predatory insects based in the hedgerows can lessen the need for pesticides and the hedges serve as windbreaks that can minimize wind erosion and drying of the soil.
Edges are important for home gardeners, too. A mix of vegetation on your border helps to lure birds or insects into your yard. Birds like the different sequential heights of trees, shrubs and grass stair-stepping down to create an edge that provides a diversity of habitat. Bees and other insects need a variety of conditions for their interrelated societies. Dead vegetation, flowers, shrubs, trees and grasses provide homes, shelter, and food differently for different creatures.
Even humans like to try out different environments away from our normal routine. Interestingly, much of our exposure to nature occurs, not in some remote mountain or desert landscape, but in our own yards and neighborhoods. One of my great joys these days is to sit at the kitchen table and see the squirrels roaming through the trees, bunnies nibbling the grass near the alley, or some unusual bird at the feeder. In my small-town, semi-suburban neighborhood, we’ve seen a bear, elk, a moose, rabbits, deer, foxes, raccoons, and, of course, squirrels, geese, ducks, eagles, various hawks and whole hosts of lesser birds.
The edges of our yard and the edges of the neighborhood provide a variety of habitat for non-urban creatures to venture into ‘civilization’. We can help to create these edgy experiences by keeping at least some parts of our yards and neighborhood a little untamed.
Try occasionally “walking on the wild side.” You won’t regret it.