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99 The Edge Effect Sarah Gorham You may have noticed. Spreading your towel over a thin strip of sand below the dunes and near the Atlantic, what usually matters is the angle of sun. But just this once, you observe the beach is dense with animal and vegetable action. Is it the time of day? The lack of humidity? Maybe. More likely, this abundant activity has to do with where you’ve planted your picnic basket. It’s called the edge effect, an ecological term to describe what happens when two contrasting biomes—forest and field, ocean and shore, and most recently, wild and developed or disturbed land—blend, a territory called the ecotone. This overlap, this edge effect, produces double the ordinary plant life, nesting, predation, and most importantly, the rampant growth of opportunistic species. Poison ivy is one example. We’re all familiar with that weed, one of the first to populate an ecotone. Here’s another one: the sea rocket, common along the edges of dune and water. This extraordinary member of the Cruciferae family has the most amazing seedpods: like small two-stage rockets, they pop apart easily. Both sections are filled with seeds: one section has a corky substance that allows it to float away during high tide and populate new areas; the other remains with the mother plant, buries itself in the sand, and eventually produces a new plant. Thus, the sea rocket both stays its ground and easily expands into new territory. Ingenious. Modern development in wilderness areas—new housing tracts, highways, malls—has led increasingly to areas of mixed biomes or ecotones. The very same thing is happening in creative writing. Literature is today, quite clearly, in a period of overlap and integration. Just as in the natural world, we have seen certain species of literature benefit opportunistically, and, in fact, new species develop as a result of the edge effect, of living along the borders between poetry and prose. We have poems that look like prose, stories that resemble poems, and 100 Ecotone: reimagining place 100 essays that abandon most of the requirements of the form in favor of poetic techniques. In fact, as Christine Hume pointed out in a recent review in the online journal Constant Critic, two new poetry presses— Slope Editions and Verse Press (which is now an imprint of Wave Books in Seattle), both began their publishing ventures with books of prose: Joe Wenderoth’s novel, Letters to Wendy, and Jenny Boully’s The Body, an essay in the form of footnotes. The three most prominent of these edge species are the prose poem, the short short, and the lyric essay. But every so-called “innovation” usually has some precursor in the distant or not-so-distant past. Blended genres are no exception. For example, paper was very costly in the Middle Ages. Because of this, a certain economy of white space developed: verse was transcribed without lineation, sometimes even without spacing, in order to save parchment—written by necessity, as it were, in prose. Texts were written in two versions, verse and prose, for two different audiences, learned and lay. Writers of metrical texts might also place a prose paraphrasal in a facing column. As anyone who has read Shakespeare knows, characters in plays often shift between verse and prose to signal weightier thoughts or crashing emotion. Changes in genre are also used by a playwright to differentiate characters or the social rank of characters—the paradigm case is Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, where the nobles speak blank verse, the fairies couplets, and the minor characters—soldiers, guards, etc.—prose. In fiction, there’s Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and, more recently, Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate, all novels set in verse. Expository texts were often cast in verse to aid memorization, including works on law, medicine, philosophy, math, grammar, botany, zoology, astronomy, physics, history, and genealogy. For various reasons financial, sociological, psychological, educational, and aesthetic, there has been, for a long time, much mingling between our two biomes, poetry and prose. We can most likely agree that there are some basic qualities to the poetry side of the ecotone...


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