Living on the edge - use edges and value the marginal

by Dan McTiernan

Two years of regenerating depleted soil at Finca SlowWriting this piece in the wake of the UK's vote to leave the EU, and after having recently watched both A Simpler Way – Crisis as Opportunity and Rob Stewart's excellent Revolution, my thoughts have centered on the meaning of 'edge'.

Are we talking precipice or threshold? A point of confluence, or a line of division between how it was and how it will be, between here and there, between you and me? An intensification of creativity, productivity, opportunity and abundance as our permaculture teaching would have us believe, or a grey portal to the diminishment of everything we value? Or ought to value.

The image of the cliff edge discussed in A Simpler Way has, and continues to, resonate strongly with me.

The sentiment is stark and dark yet liberatingly simple; we are all standing on that climatic cliff edge whether we like it or not, whether we are aware of it or not, whether we live and act in denial of it. Or not.

There is a choice and there is no choice depending on your perspective.

We are going over the precipice. There is no getting around it folks.

But within that seemingly crushing statement of fact there is, at least for me, deep solace. Because we are presented with a choice, one which towers gargantuan above any in/out European Union referendum - despite its seeming importance at the moment.

While our 'leaders' wrestle in the dying embers of the neo-liberal catastrophe they so vehemently prop up, while Britain and the rest of Europe wring their hands with glee or self-pity or sorrow, the real in / out question is yet to be decided upon. And this referendum is coming fast and there will be no second vote on this one either.

The question on the ballot paper

The question on the ballot paper is this:

The natural world and humanity is standing on the cliff edge of mutually assured climatic extinction:

Please place a cross in one box:

1.) I choose to be pushed unceremoniously over.

2.) I choose to get very good, very quickly, at parachute building, and to jump into the clear blue sky of our species' and our planet's future.

And in the immediate future, I believe questions of what is and what isn't marginal will cease to be of importance to us permaculturists. Everything is becoming marginal.

The difference between good land and bad land here in Spain, where we homestead, decreases by 80,000 kilos of top soil per hectare (2.4 acres), per year ¹. According to eminent marine scientists it is predicted that over-fishing and acidification of our oceans will lead to total global commercial fish stock collapse by 2048 ².

Sitting firmly on the edge

Here at Finca Slow, we are situated on the brow of a windy, south-facing hill, with areas of bedrock visible throughout the farm. Before we bought it, the finca had been chemically farmed for years. It is, with the best will in the world, marginal land.

And yet is it so much worse than the alluvial riverside land classed as 'good' by local Catalan farmers? Hydroelectric damming of the river Ebro means that the flood-plain no longer floods. Nature does not get an opportunity to replenish the free draining silt with water-borne fertility and minerals each winter. And now, the largest farm situated alongside our stretch of the mighty river Ebro has just been dumped by a massive supermarket chain, because its soil has been burned out. The endless 'mining' of squash and watermelon, the one way extraction of energy and life-force, has come to an unceremonious end. Leaving its owners on a different kind of edge.

Dan making bread and Otso using a flint to start a fire in the bread oven

During our four years of experiencing Mediterranean small-holding, Johanna and I have sat firmly on the edge of so many facets of our life. Of culture and language (we are British and Finnish and speak Spanish but our children also speak Catalan);
of ways and modes of living (we live in a yurt and on our farm, in a region where it is not at all common to do so);

in farming methodology and philosophy (even though agriculture is relatively small scale here, it is overwhelmingly chemically managed and bare soil is actively encouraged and appreciated – while we practice permaculture and regenerative agriculture).
It would not be entirely unfair to describe our lives, in the eyes of most people, as marginal. And yet.

And yet, and yet and yet. Our principles and our learning first and foremost afford us an awareness of our situation, our status within wider society, and most importantly our understanding of the current state of the world and the profound need for change, deep and radical in nature. And secondly, and perhaps more usefully, they teach that we can, and should: Use edge and value the marginal.

And so we do, and the more we do, the more I am profoundly grateful that we are where we are; on the edge. Because, trite as it may sound, necessity is indeed the mother of invention.

We are needed right here

Yurt lifeThe world needs us permaculturists to be right here, where we are; relearning past wisdoms and inventing future ones. We are busy daily at Finca Slow, as are millions of others throughout the planet, building a prototype parachute for ourselves to use and others to replicate if they so choose.

We're making the mistakes, learning the lessons, listening to local and global wisdom and advice, doing the empirical, emotional, physical and spiritual testing for what life may be like for everyone else in the not too distant future.

At the moment, there are many people in our community who will certainly consider us raros / weirdos. I mean why would anyone choose to live in a field in a glorified tent with no mains electric or mains drinking water, 'having' to use a compost toilet, and trying to meet as much of our food and fuel needs here, when 'modern comfortable society' has solved all these problems for us already!

In a country such as Spain which is still so close to its peasant history, and the poverty and hardship that came with it, the idea that one would choose, as an act of voluntary simplicity, to move back to something stripped back, bare and raw, is currently anathema. But for us, it is the only place to find out again what it is to be human. To work at 'making a living' with your own two hands rather than 'earning a living' and paying with your happiness and more often than not, your mental and physical health.

Out here on the hinterland borders of industrial-capitalist society we haven't found all the answers by any stretch. We are still entangled in the world of money and income, and the outsourcing of many of our needs and resources. We haven't let go of modernity and 'civilization', yet we haven't gone back to the 'dark ages' either. I'm sat at a table I made, mainly from scrap wood, in my 28m2 yurt that houses four people, writing this. I'm looking out at almond and mulberry trees under-planted with organic tomatoes, aubergines, peas and beans, all growing in homemade compost and biochar and mulched with ramial woodchips from the trees above. But I'm writing this on an Apple laptop made thousands of miles away from god only knows what, and I'm communicating via a 4g internet connection beamed from god only knows where. But the whole high-tech set up is being powered by the sun via photovoltaic panels. But…but…but... You see what I mean? These are interesting times.

We are at the frayed edge of two worlds colliding, two modes of being. And you know what? It is immensely challenging, exciting, exhausting, rewarding, exasperating, and ultimately life-affirming. And there is absolutely no other place I would want to be.

Johanna teaching how to make beneficial microorganism compostAnd the reason for that is simple. We have made our choice; put our cross in the box. We have found a life and work that connects us to our humanity and our role as intelligent animals living amongst nature, not in opposition to it. We know that we can work with what is currently marginal / on the edge and by truly valuing it, by listening and learning and inventing and designing and working very hard, we can create a thriving oasis in the midst of desertifying land and crumbling capitalist-industrial structures.

By creating the change necessary in our own lives and our own soil and our own community, we will, as a movement, transform over time from a distracting flicker in the peripheral vision of the Western consumerist world, to one day, becoming an unmissable, shimmering beacon, signposting others to their own safe point of descent, over the threshold from the extractive and destructive, to the abundant and regenerative.

We want to float as gracefully and gently as possible and land into a place and time of appreciation for what we have lost, and of thankfulness for what we have found.

The polling station is now open.


Finca Slow is a regenerative homestead in Catalunya, Spain run by Dan and Johanna McTiernan.

Enjoy their beautiful instagram at





FAO (2010) State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture (SOFIA) - SOFIA 2010. FAO Fisheries Department.