Desert foothills meet forested mountains in California. (Photo by: David McNew/Getty Images) Desert foothills meet forested mountains. (photo: David McNew/Getty Images)

Krista’s most recent interview with Terry Tempest Williams is part of our series called “The Civil Conversations Project.” During the conversation, Ms. Williams introduces the word “ecotone” as an analogy from nature to describe a clash of cultures:

“As a naturalist, my favorite places to be are along the ecotone. It’s where it’s most alive, usually the edge of a forest and meadow, the ocean and the sand. It’s that interface between peace and chaos. It’s that creative edge that we find most instructive. It’s also the most frightening, because it’s completely uncertain and unpredictable and that’s again where I choose to live.”

Merriam-Webster defines ecotone as “a transition area between two adjacent ecological communities.” It comes from the Greek root tonos, meaning “tension.” Dr. Lucinda Johnson, director of the Center for Water and the Environment at the University of Minnesota Duluth explains “ecotone” in this way:

“The word ecotone derives from the landscape ecology literature, and refers to the transition area between “patches” or areas of the landscape that exhibit different characteristics… it is generally applied to the transition zones between two different vegetation types (e.g., grassland and forest), but can be both more subtle (e.g., edges of wetlands, which have subtle transitions from submergent to emergent vegetation, one of which dominates depending on water levels) or more extreme (the area adjacent to a stream, called the riparian zone). The ecotone shares characteristics of both of the adjoining patches (hence the transition).”

Subtle or extreme, I love the idea that when two disparate, even opposing viewpoints meet they create a new kind of landscape by the meeting itself. One that doesn’t draw a fixed line or a wall of opposing viewpoints but rather a kind of “transition area.” To me that transition area could be a new terrain that is not only different from my own reality, but that “shares characteristics of both of the adjoining patches.”

I wonder how this kind of encounter (with someone I vehemently disagreed with) would change my outlook and defining characteristics — and whether that area of tension is a space I could actually stand to reside for very long. Either way “ecotone” is neither a word nor a space I explore and/or inhabit often enough.

Share Your Reflection



I love that episode from Six Feet Under where Nate talks about the Ecotone in spiritual terms and the static that surrounds discernment. Looking forward to listening to this interview.

I have yet to watch Six Feet Under, even though Krista and many others were completely enchanted with the show. But now I'm going to find this clip!

It's in the last season and I think the episode title is Ecotone even. Highly recommend! Make sure you have time to get sucked in.

This really echoes Polkinghorne's statement about new things emerging at the edge of chaos and order -- beautiful!

This echoes the comment by Polkinghorne that novel things emerge at the edge of chaos and order -- beautiful!

This refers to To Terry's Mothers not so blank journals...

I have loved Terry Tempest Williams mind and words for many years -always a gift triggering big minded thinking. Namaste

I have a thought about the "blank" journals....Ms. Williams talks a lot about fear and also about her mother being a person who was alway so guarded with her feelings, I think that truly words are so powerful that they themselves can cause fear, revealing parts of ourselves that frighten us and once a word is written, it cannot be taken back. There is great fear involved in allowing such private thoughts to be revealed, and to make one self so vulnerable. I don't think these were ever blank, they were filled many times over, we are just unable to see the words.

Calling to mind Dr Flo Krall Shepard my mentor and Terry Tempest Williams's teacher also at the University of Utah who emphasized the term ecotone in her teachings to us in the 1980's and 90's a visionary in the area of Environmental Education
remembering our lineage teachers Dr Diane Nofs Nova Portland OR

The ecotone, like Ms. Tempest-Williams, is true and wise. Sitting in such places, the power of the Earth is more potent. Less easily ignored.