National Writing Project

NWP Writing Retreat in Santa Fe, New Mexico: Gathering Around Our Writing

By: Tim Gillespie
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 5, No. 4
Date: September-October 2000

Summary: Tim Gillespie reflects on his experience at the second annual NWP Writing Retreat.


"Stop! You are in an ecotone."

I did stop, dutifully, at the metal plate with these words etched on it beside the Frijoles Canyon trail at the Bandelier National Monument.

This was where I spent my day Thursday, in the hours before I arrived at the NWP Writing Retreat. Northwest of Santa Fe, Bandelier contains extensive archeological remains of ancestral Pueblo people, including the ruins of the village of Tyuonyi (chew-OHN-yee), a meeting place for different language and dialect groups, the guidebook said. As I hiked out to look at the plaza encircled by the long-abandoned pueblo and to scan the elaborate cave dwellings, I imagined the lively community that thrived here for a short time.

On my way back along the looping trail I took the nature trail segment and dallied to read the metal plaques, each explaining some aspect of Frijoles Canyon flora, geology, or animal life.

"Stop! You are in an ecotone!" stated the plaque in front of me.

Ecotone? I thought. What the hell is an ecotone? New word to me. For a second I attended to the wind whispering through the cottonwoods and the modest gurgling of the little creek. Ah, an eco-tone! But no, I don't think that's what it's talking about here.

Well, this must be a typo, I thought. They must mean ecozone, not eco-tone. What a shame, etched forever into this metal plate. What kind of red pen could fix this?

But as I read on, I found I was wrong.

The plate explained that this steep canyon, cut into the mesa of the Pajarito Plateau, is the rare place where a number of ecological zones cross, so it is habitable to both piñon and ponderosa pines, which usually thrive at different elevations, as well as varieties of bush grasses that don't usually grow in the same meadow, and birds that usually stick to different habitats. An ecotone is a place where these varied representatives of different environments meet, mingle, and create a new, rich, surprising, and harmonious kind of place. An ecotone.

Now, three days later, as I look around, I understand even more firmly what an ecotone is. Here we are, representatives from different environments who have ventured far from our home grounds, our varied territories, to this place in the high desert. We don't often cross habitats—we teach our respective first-graders and freshmen, college students and convicts—in clearly delineated and separated spaces. Yet we have come together from our widely diverse geographies—mountain and plain, coastline and bayou, city and suburb, small town and country. We are of many colors—and camouflages—young and old and in-between, speaking different dialects and languages, in all ways representing a rare biodiversity. Yet we've all gathered around this one watering hole—writing—and have drunk together, and have made rare and lively community for this short time that has allowed us to create something new, rich, surprising, and harmonious.

The Sunrise Springs Writing Project Retreat 2000. An ecotone. Maybe there is music to all this.

About the Author Tim Gillespie is a teacher-consultant with the Oregon Writing Project at Lewis and Clark College in Portland.

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