We humans have ants in our pants. We are road warriors, million-mile-flyers, web-surfers, because-it-was-there climbers. We come upon this tendency honestly. Our early ancestors sprung up and out of Africa 60,000 years ago, on a grand trek that involved land bridges and star navigation. The march continues to this day. Only now, on a grand scale, we really have nowhere left to go. No uncharted points on the map. No hospitable land to grab. Not many stones left unturned. Our billions have spread far and wide and down and up, scraping the sky and mining the deeps and paving even the wildest of paradises.
We social innovators are not immune to the adventurer’s inclination. As “change-makers,” we strain against the start gate, our eyes trained on the finish line. Armed with sticky notes, we rapidly prototype our way from pain point to panacea, from shame to solvency.
“We should not rush through the in-between places.”
Of course our work is needed. I am no stranger to sticky notes. I work as a strategist, helping social innovators crystallize their organizational identities squarely in the solutions space. But I am coming to realize that the rush from problem to solution may be leaving something essential in its wake. My colleagues and I are stepping into, and learning to savor, the rich and marvelous state that exists between problem and solution. A less celebrated place, for certain, but a place well worth our attention if we are to learn not only how to race but how to stay.
In nature this place is called the “ecotone.” Translated from the Greek, it means “house of tension.” Ecologists see it as a transition zone between two established biomes — a swath of shrubs between field and forest, or a bed of reeds between aquatic and terrestrial habitats. These are the places we fail to notice when we lift our eyes to the horizon. But we should not rush through the in-between places. If we stay awhile, the ecotone offers a unique analogy for our work in the world.
When we pause in the reedbed or the scrubland, we begin to see that the in-between place is a habitat all its own. In fact, it demonstrates what ecologists call the “edge effect,” or the bumping together of species from adjacent ecosystems. In the ecotone, differences must be accommodated, and sheer proximity forges new forms of collaboration. The inherent biodiversity of the place begets new forms of transaction, creative ways of living together. In the ecotone, energetic tension makes life a furious and fertile affair.
The ecotone is not only a place of healthy tension; it is also a step in succession. Through the process of succession, a few brazen weeds in a lava field will eventually give rise to an old-growth forest. Left undisturbed, a landscape will shape-shift over time, from a settlement of hardy pioneers to a deeply rooted, complex web of life. The in-between stages along the way are the successional ecotones, where intermediate species cultivate soil fertility, establish early mutualisms, and create microclimates hospitable to new residents. These “intermediaries” are neither the heroic settlers nor the ultimate protagonists of the landscape, but they make the story happen nonetheless. Without ecotones, the arch of life would have no curve.
Lastly, and most wonderfully, an ecotone is nature’s practice field for integration. In ecotones, realities from either side are merged until they form a new, emergent state, a diverse, complicated, productive zone that is neither here nor there but reminiscent of both. This integrative state exists on all scales: Ecotones can be found in a foot of water or they can stretch across a continent. On a recent hike outside San Francisco, my breathless queries finally yielded this response from a biologist: “Really, Victoria, all of California is an ecotone.” And so it is: The Golden State is a transition zone from sea to land — a step in succession across tectonic and climatic epochs, a practice field for the integration of multiple ways of life, including our own. A place that is never finished. A problem that is never solved. A state that requires heightened attention both to what is and what could be.
“What if we didn’t race for the answer?”
What if we stayed in this place? What if we didn’t run from the despair? What if we didn’t race for the answer? What if we held the problem in our hearts a little longer, dug for solutions a little deeper? What if we saw the edge effect as a function of community success and cultivated biodiversity on our land, in our institutions, in our designs? What if, by holding our questions a little longer, we saw answers where we least expected them — rediscovering carbon not as a poison, but as an essential element of life, or viewing conservation not as an act of separation between “civilized” and “wild,” but as an expression of intimacy between the two? What if by learning to work together in this unstable place we gave rise to its emergent stability? And what if our work laid the ground for a chapter we would never read, for a lush landscape we would never behold? Would it be so bad to have been the in-between ones?
Natural historian David Rains Wallace writes, “Civilization no longer needs to open up wilderness; it needs wilderness to open up the still largely unexplored human mind.”
In the ecotone, nature offers us the chance to step into the unfamiliar territory of neither-nor, of both-and, of almost-not-yet. There actually is a there there, a verdant and vital place that we can see and touch. We tireless explorers should stop there and rest a while, learn how the intermediaries live. Our next big adventure will not be to the darkest part of the ocean or to the rusty surface of Mars. The next step in the social innovation journey will be in staying put, learning our place, and making a home here in this house of tension, by willingly extending our roots into shifting soil.
Victoria Kindred Keziah is a is a bio-inspired strategist specializing in sustainable and social innovation.
For more information, please visit www.netgenerative.com.