I once talked with an ecologist, Clinton Epps, who was studying how the wall being built at the U.S.–Mexico border might affect wildlife. A situation so hard for people was, not surprisingly, problematic for animals as well. Epps was particularly interested in desert bighorn sheep. Being closer in size to humans than other, more spry animals, they were some of the ones most at risk. Their populations, isolated from one another by the wall, might diminish to dangerous levels, both in individual number and in genetic diversity. He predicted that bighorns near the border might not make it if they were unable to move back and forth across this human boundary, to which they’d previously paid no mind.
I called Epps recently to see how the bighorns are doing. He’s moved north himself, to study the effects of solar-panel farms, among other changes to the landscape, on bighorn sheep in the Mojave Desert. It’s not his first relocation. He’s from the U.S. east coast originally, and he has an affection for bluegrass and old country music, which remind him of that earlier home. “I have a cheap old guitar I bought doing field work in Brazil—I didn’t think it would last the trip, but it has,” he told me. On field expeditions in the desert, he brings it along and plays and sings.
It’s fitting that someone studying the movement of animals would love those old songs, which so often concern humans’ need to ramble. One of his favorite tunes, “Katie Dear,” was sung by the Louvin Brothers, whose close harmonies inflected both gospel and country songs with a pain so earnest it could keel you over. It’s about a pair of lovers who plan to run away together if they can’t marry. The ability to move is a matter of not only evolutionary success but also emotional connection. “Katie Dear” shares some verses with the oldtime favorite “East Virginia,” in which the singer, who has left home only to lose a sweetheart, mourns: “I’ll go back to east Virginia, leave old North Carolina alone.” I’ve long called the latter state home and am disinclined to part from it, but the tune rings true. Wherever you’re headed (and whatever your opinion of North Carolina), you’re leaving someplace behind.
Longing, survival, wayfaring—all subjects that also permeate literature. Even the word longing stretches itself out, reaching toward a distant object of desire. Clarisse Hart, a Tennessee native whose home county has been transformed by development and sprawl, writes in this issue of another impending change, this one in her adopted state of Massachusetts. The woolly adelgid, known for wiping out hemlock trees in the southeastern United States, is moving north, and the forest near her home will eventually succumb. For the black-throated green warblers that migrate north to nest in the hemlocks each year, it’s not clear what the effect will be. “Their ability to survive,” she writes, “will depend on their ability to make do with what they find.” Hart herself resists succumbing to sadness, even as she acknowledges feeling it; instead, with her colleagues, she’s making efforts to document the change.
Abigail Greenbaum tracks a very different scourge: the wild hogs that have become a nuisance in the southeast. Along the way she hunts down an old tune from the British Isles, “Bangum and the Boar,” which long ago traveled to the U.S. coast and then farther inland. The song is still recognizable, but its journey changes it. In Molly Antopol’s story “My Grandmother Tells Me This Story,” Raya, a former Yiddish revolutionary, recounts her own journey: an escape during World War II through a sewer to a forest camp in Belarus, and from there to the United States. But it’s perhaps the degrees of distance in people’s relationships, set against vaster societal change and movement across continents, that are revealed most vividly in the story. Lilah Hegnauer writes of similar spaces, “The crossing is not wide. A shepherd’s / staff, a flock of geese, a footbridge, a moment.”
In the face of emotional or ecological shift, survival may also require the ability to contain both displacement and a sense of being home. Carolyn Beard Whitlow, in poems from her verse novel Witch Hazel, envisions the difficulty African Americans faced after the Civil War, connecting longing for lost landscapes with longing for family. She tells of the title character’s near-supernatural embodiment of motion and rootedness: “Like a waterfall // always be runnin,” she writes, but then, “seem like / anybody need huh could fin’ huh— / she dont never not be home.”
One of the things Epps liked most about his work north of the border was camping out for weeks in the desert to watch the bighorns. A new or temporary vantage point, one other than the place we usually call home, can be a respite—and offer productive clarity. So we’ve also included, in this issue on migration, Cary Holladay’s contemplation of the boarding house her grandmother kept, and a series of poems from Heidi Lynn Staples, each composed of words magpied from the trash. And, speaking of the border, Luis Urrea’s wild ride through the Sonoran Desert.
No matter the rate of travel, every migration has an end point—whether it’s the boughs of an eastern hemlock or the arms of one’s family. Having recently completed a small migration myself, I’m keenly aware of the tug between old and new landscapes. Although I love North Carolina’s coast, I miss the green, sweet smell of the air in the Carolina piedmont, where I lived for years before making my way to these new environs. But I’m happy to have found my way to Wilmington, and to a magazine I’ve long admired. The locals are as fine a bunch as one could hope to encounter. I’m thankful to Ecotone’s staff, both graduate students and faculty, for their excellent work, which has helped carry this issue on its journey. I hope you’ll give it a place to rest a while.