In the counseling/coaching technique I work with, Clean Language, we use the term ‘metaphor landscape’ to describe the inner world of a client that is populated by personal metaphors or symbols laid out in specific locations, like a map. While each client’s landscape is unique in its details and their interactions, I find some symbols are used frequently: rivers, lakes, and mountains; flowers, birds and fountains; trees, fields, and roads.
Perhaps it is because these “personal ecosystems” appear repeatedly with my clients that two words caught my attention as I was thumbing through a permaculture gardening book recently. The terms ecotone and edge effect are new to me. An ecotone* is a transition area—a place between two plant communities, for example, the area between a meadow and a forest. Ecotones may be distinct lines, such as one created by a farmer on a mower, or they may be broader areas, such as many mountain slopes or wetlands.
Often these transitional areas have species of flora and fauna common to the ecosystems of either side, as well as additional ones that thrive in neither of the other two. It is this characteristic that is described as the edge effect*: the tendency of such an area to have a greater diversity of species than exist in either of its bordering communities.
Clients’ metaphor landscapes demonstrate an edge effect, too. It is in those moments on a metaphoric bank, just before a client wades into a river, or goes through a gate or leaps onto a boat, when the client faces some significant, even transformative, change. Here on the threshold, the client may know things not only about the two worlds, the one behind and the one ahead, but also about things which are found in neither worlds, but which are crucial for staying a new course.
Symbolically, the space between worlds may be a single step, like through a doorway, or it may involve numerous steps, like across a bridge or down a hallway. Sometimes the distance is measured in time as well, as in a journey on a boat between two ports. However wide or narrower the space, however long or short the time spent there, it is a space that holds information unique to this overlapping of world views.
To think of these terms ecotone and the edge effect as metaphors is a wonderful way to describe the significance and potential this “in-between” time or space holds. They are good reminders for therapists and coaches not to rush clients heedlessly through such spaces, but to explore them for their potential riches.
These spaces in a metaphor landscape are not always comfortable places to be. How appropriate then, that the word ecotone comes from eco– and the Greek word tonos, meaning tension. To move from one way of being to another may require significant preparations for readiness and a rallying of resources. The steps before the shift can seem hair-splittingly small. It’s easy to gloss over a client’s statement as a common turn of phrase when s/he says “I want to be able to start to change,” but notice: there is a want, an ability to start, a starting, all before s/he gets to the changing! Each step may involve consequences to explore, a decision to act, and courage to be mustered to step away from the known and into the unknown. All the more reason to pause at such choice points to learn more about resources and resolve, about the process needed for change.
Often clients come for help when they are living in a broad “ecotone”, in a space between two worlds or ways of being. As we explore both where they may be stuck and where they want to go, these new metaphors will remind me to consider “the edge effect.”
*Definitions taken from wikipedia.org entries for ecotone and edge effect