MEDITATIONS ON LIMINALITY AT THE END OF THE WORLD
WHAT IS A VEGETABLE?
The End of The World
Liminal. It was very much a buzzword in 2022, though it didn’t make the top 10 words of 2022. For what it’s worth, gaslighting was number one. I am not here to gaslight you into believing that liminality was on the tips of all tongues this past year. You were there. You heard it. Was it just me? Was anybody not accused of gaslighting somebody this year? Has anybody not entered the liminal space between their hearts and minds to question whether these accusations were just?
I was on a jaunt at The End of The World at the edge of the Bywater not long ago, perhaps passively questioning these notions myself. I couldn’t say for sure. The wall of thoughts is stacked a thousand bricks high any given minute, what is happening between the cracks, what wiggles through the gaps is all we have even a chance of holding onto. So there I was, at The End of The World, where thriving industry meets infrastructural collapse meets residential rebirth meets a broad socioeconomic staggering of humanity meets a whole lot of cute dogs all in one place.
And then the metaphor threw itself in my face and The End of The World got even better. It is a thriving ecosystem: the diversity of flora just between the levee’s crown and the water’s edge, the cacophony of insects reveling in the hilly meadow on the other side, the countless species of birds relaxing waterside of the Industrial Canal or feasting on the hordes of fish languidly meandering below the water’s surface. Also, not infrequently, alligators.
It is a space in between defined spaces. What I’m calling a liminal space, ecologists call the edge effect. Edges are zones of transition from one ecosystem to another. In these spaces an integration of habitat is created that, in many cases, enables greater biodiversity and thriving food webs not possible in more defined spaces.
Permaculture acolytes love the edge effect, so much so that it is integral to one of their Twelve Principles (#11: “Use Edges and Value the Marginal”). And while I draw many lines between permaculturalist belief systems and my own, this is a middle ground we share. On a microclimatic scale—that is, on the scale of, say, your home garden—the edge effect is very much in play.
Edges are places where nutrients and organisms accumulate and flow through, creating more intensive energy cycling and a better place to live, as a plant. Biomass is accumulated at an exorbitant rate in these spaces, and mutually beneficial relationships, exemplified by the soil food web, thrive in turn. In summation of these moderately big words you were probably forced to learn in middle school, everything feeds everything else better, and the practical result for you is also getting fed better.
Some permaculture followers understand that it is in the space between everything that everything thrives, and that this applies to society as a whole, not just to the natural world. The edge effect belongs everywhere. Other permaculture practitioners are in the game solely to increase their own self-sustainability, missing the forest for the trees, not realizing that we can only survive the end of the world by connecting, sharing boundary zones, and bleeding the edges into the whole together.
What is a Vegetable?
Speaking of bleeding edges and blurring lines, vegetables thrive in the liminal spaces of our lexicon as bountifully as they do at the edges of our gardens. Vegetables semantically defy borders and revel between boundaries, queering categorization while giving nutrition for time immemorial, especially in relation to fruits. We could get into herbs and spices and seeds and flowers too, but, let’s start defining the indefinable in the binary first.
I’m going to start here with a mildly outdated simile. There is the grower’s definition of vegetable and fruit, and then there is the nutritionist’s version of the same, and this can be thought of as sex versus gender.
So first, the sexy farmer version. A vegetable. It is any part of a plant that is edible but not reproductive. That is to say, roots, leaves, bulbs, stems, and such. A fruit on the other hand, is, very specifically, the part of a plant that contains its seeds and is directly related to the plant’s reproductive cycle. It is that simple. If it has seeds, it is a fruit. Specifically, it is “the” fruit of any given plant. And anything else we eat that is part of a plant, this is a vegetable. Yes. Tomatoes are a fruit. Peppers are a fruit. Every green bean is a fruit.
The dietician’s gendered worldview is more nuanced and mutable, ever subject to shifting societal whimsies and dynamic cultural belief systems. And perhaps setting a good example for the human world, this fluid-gendered notion has far more sway on our opinion of what is fruit and vegetable than the “sex” notion of our foodstuffs does. Fruits and vegetables are whatever we want them to be. But also, vegetables are savory and mild, and fruits are sweet and tart. Vegetables are higher in nutrients and fruits are higher in sugars. That’s it. That’s the whole thing.
Herbs just make things messier. Because any vegetable can be an herb and any herb can be a vegetable. And some herbs are fruits too. The primary definition of “herb” in the Oxford dictionary is “any plant with leaves, seeds, or flowers used for flavoring, food, medicine, or perfume.” That could mean literally anything you want it to. It also kind of covers that whole “herbs and spices and seeds and flowers too” thing I said earlier.
Everything makes a little more sense in the spaces where it’s hardest to make sense of things. We need definition to make it through this world, but we don’t always need to be working our way through. We can also just sit in the middle of it all and soak up what is shared in the spaces between. We’re already living at the edge of the end of the world, we might as well grow up and embrace it.
illustrations by Rachel Speck