Ecotone: A Definition for Nature and Civility

Thursday, February 3, 2011 - 1:19 pm

Ecotone: A Definition for Nature and Civility

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 Post


is the cofounder of On Being and currently serves as publisher & editor-in-chief. He received a Peabody Award in 2007 for his work on “The Ecstatic Faith of Rumi” and garnered two Webby Awards (in 2005, and again in 2008). The Online News Association nominated his journalistic work multiple times in the general excellence and outstanding specialty journalism categories. Trent’s reported and produced stories from Turkey to rural Alabama, from Israel and the West Bank to Cambridge, England.

Share Your Reflection