Ecotone

When I was in graduate school, I was on the staff of the literary journal, called Ecotone. I knew that the editor-in-chief was a well-known environmental writer, but otherwise, I didn’t know anything about what an ecotone was. The journal’s website had an interesting definition: “An ecotone is a transition zone between two adjacent ecological communities, containing the characteristic species of each. It is therefore a place of danger or opportunity, a testing ground.”

Graduate school ended up being its own ecotone, for me. It was a transition zone between a life I knew before and the life I didn’t know but wanted, ahead of me. I gave birth to my first and only child during those four years. I also lost my father, just a few months later. I had my first essay published. I made life-long friends and learned life-long lessons. I could never go back to the life I had had before experiencing that “place of danger or opportunity,” that “testing ground.”

After graduation, I discovered that my son had autism. A year later, I moved with my husband and my son to Colorado. My husband loved the mountains, and I had visited and loved it before. But it wasn’t until after we had lived there for two years before I made the connection between my literary journal experience and my new home.

The three of us were driving from our home in Fort Collins to the far western edge of the state, the town of Grand Junction, near the border of Utah. We went for the annual peach festival in Palisade. But what I got from it was sweeter than any peach pie. We traveled from the high plains of northern Colorado, next to the Front Range but not in the mountains, looking out onto a prairie sea, westward into foothills and canyons and alpine ecosystems above eight thousand feet, surrounded by aspen trees and evergreens, and then beyond, into the rugged high desert of the Western Slope of the Rocky Mountains. The town of Grand Junction, where we stayed, is surrounded by red rock towers and cliffs and mesas. Palisade, a few miles east, looks up onto a brown mesa that could be a huge pile of sand from its appearance from the interstate.

I realized that Colorado is an ecotone. Not just one, but many. Everything that the Western US offers, except maybe the redwoods, the coastline, and saguaro cactus, you can find in Colorado. High plains, semi-arid foothills, alpine mountains, desert. Colorado contains the Old West of cowboys and ranch hands, the Southwest of roasted chilies in the supermarket parking lot, ski country, and the dramatic red rock formations that carry on into southern Utah and Arizona. All of these ecosystems find their home and confluence in Colorado.

And I think that I might amend that definition I found those years ago. Because it seems to me that the overlap of different biomes, or ideas, or ways of life, contains both danger and opportunity. Because we live on the west end of town, my husband can go rock climbing during his lunch hour. Do I wish he’d prefer stamp collecting as a hobby? Sure, but he doesn’t love stamps. He loves climbing. So here, we have both the danger and the opportunity to live as we choose.

In a few days, my autistic son starts kindergarten. Here we are: another transition. Another change in the landscape. Despite the fact that he has attended preschool for three years, Monday marks another dividing line in our lives. He is frightened. I am frightened. I’m also sad and grieving. I can’t believe it’s happened so fast. He will have teachers trained to work specifically with kids on the autism spectrum. Everyone we have met at his new school seems not just on top of their game, but also happy to be there. But it’s a new, larger environment, full of risk and the unknown.

I can only hope that as we move forward, this new stage in our lives becomes a place of danger, yes, but also of greater opportunity than we have ever known before.

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