On the edge



The two kids on the railway platform were almost certainly brothers, and the lady, sitting on the painted bench watching them fence with stick swords, was almost certainly their mother.  There was a certain swashbuckling joy to the swipes and thrusts of their swords that would sometimes find their mark, but mostly just cut through thin air.  One of the brothers, the younger one if size is a marker of age, took a couple of neat sideways steps, over the yellow markers, to avoid the artful thrust of his brother. 

The mother, suddenly animated, jumped to her feet and said:  “Stay away from the edge. It’s dangerous”.  The boy, as if pursued by demons, fled from the danger and found sanctuary waiting just a few meters away.

Edges are bad.  If you stray over them you die.

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On the radio, the commentator was whipping himself into a kind of frenzy, as a team that the pundits had said would win were ground down and beaten, by an unfancied, but youthful opposition.  He summed up the situation thus:

“They don’t have that edge anymore, they just don’t have that passion!
They’ve lost it, and they’re going to keep losing until they get it back.”

Having an edge is good.  Without one you are destined to be an also ran, a seat warmer.

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Most of the trees had lost their leaves in the storms of the last few weeks.  Piles of paper brown leaves lined the edges of the pavements.  Only the true Australian trees – gums – retained their foliage, ever blue-greens.  In the underpass water trickled down the walls, dark lines on pale paint.  There was a smell of cigarette smoke, but no sign of the smoker – an old smell, a familiar smell; student bars, walking up behind my father as he fished and passed the time with another cigarette.

The platform on the station warns me about the gap, but they really mean the edge.  Morning dulled workers and a few school age passengers generally respect the prohibition on edge walking, but a few risk takers stand way too close as the train arrives.  I’m surprised that they are not arrested, or at least warned by the watchful eye of the CCTV police in the control room somewhere distant and warm.  The train doors open with a hiss and let us pass into the safety of the carriage, leaving the yellow spotted edge behind. 

Beyond the edge of the tracks, out past the broken stones and rusting signal works, a line of nature has found a roothold.  A narrow strip of trees and brambles, garden escapees and natives; blending to make something new, something different.  These line edges hold birds that would otherwise have been driven away from the sweeps of inch perfect lawns and slug free vegetable patches.  These strips, with one edge facing the train and one edge facing the flanking houses, are the new wilds of suburbia.  They represent ecological possibility in a realm of manicured certainty.  On this day, just after eight in the morning, a trio of Black Cockatoos rise from the trees as the train passes, yellow tails bright in the morning light.  Their wings seem longer than their bodies, so that they look offset, uneven; but they also seem to float with wing beats too slow to hold such a large bird aloft.  They are without question wonderful.  No matter how good a day I have in the office (and how good can it really be?), the day may have already peaked in the vision of these birds.  This morning the rail edge dwellers make the trip worthwhile, breaking the solid edges of suburbia with a hint of the wild and the possible.  I move to the backward facing seats so that I can keep watching the birds as they move away from me – temporal and spatial.  If I had not moved seats the birds would have quickly moved over the edge of my observation and I would have lost them.  A small move makes the connection last longer.  A small move makes the day better.  A small move extends the edge of my experience.

At work I sit in a workspace with a window, a rare luxury in an office space that seems not to favour the distraction of the real world.  Trains come and go.  People walk past.  I may be distracted but I am connected, out over the windowsill to the weather and the clouds.   Sometimes I can hear the whisper of conversation leaking from the never-private workspaces.  Things that are not suitable for public consumption; gossip or maybe discontent.  The edges of such spaces are permeable, care needs to be taken so that the things that were best kept private do not pass into the public.  Mind the gap.

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The view from the widescreen windows flows down over paddocks, crisped to brown by warm weather and a lack of rain, towards the sea.  A few stumpy trees, twisted and old, hang on in folds where a little moisture may linger when all else is dry.   This truly is an edge land – where land meets sea, where European faming assumptions butt up against the reality of a land unlike anywhere else on Earth and where now, the urban edges out the rural.

Curlewis is a small, essentially anonymous, little part of Victoria.  As a child, my wife knew it as a farming area, where dairy farmers kept cows on sparse grasslands that had never before felt the heavy feet of cattle.  Today the cows have gone, replaced by boutique vineyards, and many of the paddocks are studded with identikit houses, or the marker flags that plot their progress.  There are empty streets, strangely lined with streetlights that contain not a single house.  They feel like a zone of transition between the rural and the urban, and seem to contain the least attractive elements of both places; broken fences and weed lines, abandoned building supplies slowly falling back into the Earth from where they came.  There seems to be neither life nor community.  



This is the place where the unintended edges of government policy clash with each other and fail to form a whole; edges remain distinct and gaps arise.  I see houses but no schools, I see a supermarket but little else and I see houses with garages, but streets without bus stops, as if the assumption of car ownership is both a given and a long term option.  In a small gap between two housing blocks three ute loads of workers are taking down some form of agricultural holding pen. Maybe it was intended for sheep, maybe cattle.  But it’s clear that it is not intended for suburbia.  And later in the week when it is gone, almost all signs of farming have been removed from a place that was probably sold on the basis of advertisements rich with rural with images.   A small flock of magpies – maybe six – gather on a newly made driveway and only fly off at the approach of a small, but enthusiastic dog.  Around the corner, a few rabbits nibble the grass down to the level of the soil, and there are signs asking you to drive slowly because of the dust.

I feel a terrible sense of snobbery, but I would not want to live there.  But that is a feeling made from a position that I never imagined I would have, based on the fact that I have (remarkably) moved away from the edge of poverty to one of (greater) security.  What would it be like to still in a position where heating and hot water are not assured, the origin of the next meal uncertain, and where rainy nights were passed to the sound of water dripping on the ceiling above my bed?  How would I feel about these edge lands then?  What would these smart little houses look like to me then? What dreams would I dream in houses surrounded by these dust dry paddocks and haunted by the ghosts of agriculture lost? 

Edges that we step over.  Edges that we avoid.  Edges that we embrace.

Temporal and spatial.

They are unavoidable.