Love Letter for a Magazine

Dear readers,

As Ecotone approaches a landmark birthday, I thought it time for a love letter. I have known this magazine for fifteen years now, only one year less than I’ve known my daughter, and as with my daughter I’ve watched it change and grow dramatically. What began as a passion project, borne on the backs of already overworked graduate students, is now fully fledged, a consistently ambitious and vibrant magazine that regularly wins national attention and prizes. For that very first volume we solicited our famous writer friends, calling in favors so that we could fill the issue. Now, a decade and half later, submissions pour in from all over the country and beyond. And while the magazine has stayed true to its commitment to place, it has grown and changed in ways that we could not have imagined.

It is important that Ecotone, a magazine of place, also grew out of displacement. During the years before it was created I was living on Cape Cod, and if a pot of money, or a bestseller, had fallen out of the sky, I might have happily stayed there forever. Cape Cod, where the sound of the ocean is never far, is a place that has been written about as much as any in this country, and I  was steeped in the place, its nature and its literature. From Henry David Thoreau to Henry Beston to John Hay (all white guys from Harvard), the land had been tramped and celebrated by a brigade of nature writers, and I might have been content to tramp and celebrate along with them had not certain realities interfered. Those realities included paying off a student loan debt as big as a mortgage, and the birth of my child. Before I knew it, I found myself staring out at the same ocean from a different beach, this one in the South, where I was suddenly teaching at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Tossed up on an unfamiliar shore, more Robinson Crusoe than Thoreau, I felt certain of nothing. Finding myself in a place that had chosen me, not one I had chosen, I had to build from what I discovered on that shore. Ecotone was one of the things I built.

Or, more accurately, helped build. When I came down to interview at UNCW, I had the good fortune of going out to lunch with two graduate students in the creative writing program, Heather Wilson and Kimi Faxon. They were already envisioning a magazine, and place was already central to their vision. A year later we were working on that first issue, joined by a team of committed grad students that included Emily Louise Smith, whose artistic vision would come to guide the magazine, and by my wife, Nina de Gramont, who was our first fiction editor. It wasn’t easy launching a new magazine, and perhaps I was not always the most equanimous and generous of leaders. When Nina finally quit her post two years later, she did so with these words: “I ain’t gonna work on Gessner’s farm no more.”

Central to those first years was the idea that an ecotone was a transition zone between communities, a place in between, and that the tone part of the name derived from the Greek tonos, meaning tension. The cliché of writing that focuses on place is that it is placid and pastoral, from shepherds tending their sheep to Wordsworth’s intimations of immortality. But what we were interested in was something more dynamic, the creative tension that emanates from those places that aren’t one thing or another, and the sort of writing that refuses to stay still. This applied to our evolving ideas about place and to the way these ideas were presented. We were hungry for the new, the quirky, the strange. New forms were particularly appealing; new voices too. I should add that we were obsessed with maps. A secret driving concept was the semi-crazy notion that if we collected enough stories from enough watersheds, we could present a literary map of the entire country, and maybe, eventually, the entire world.

One thing that made the place Ecotone grew out of tense and uncertain was that Wilmington, North Carolina, is a hurricane bull’s-eye. A line by the poet A. R. Ammons practically became my mantra: “Firm ground is not available ground.” It was appropriate that our very first cover, a painting by the artist Pam Toll, featured an unmoored house floating on the sea.

“I vividly remember visiting Pam Toll’s studio with Emily and Heather before that first issue,” Kimi Faxon told me recently, “and encountering Pam’s collages, and feeling so profoundly that the visual story she was telling in her work aligned powerfully with our vision for the magazine.” Kimi, like me, felt exiled when she first moved to the South, and part of our work on the magazine was about helping us to call this unfamiliar place home.

Our ideas about place were fluid too. In our second issue, Jennifer Sinor wrote about how growing up an army brat, moving from base to base, affected one’s sense of place. In issue six, Camille Dungy introduced some of the work that would make up her groundbreaking anthology, Black Nature, exploring questions of race and place that anticipated the current national dialogue. Another kind of diversity was featured in 2008, in a double issue with the theme of evolution. As I look back at the table of contents from that issue, I am astounded and proud to see the list of nationally prominent scientists, biographers, novelists, and poets, all of them breaking out of the silos of their disciplines to come together on a meeting ground where science and art were both welcome.

That same year the editing and production of the magazine passed out of my amateur hands and into the more capable and professional ones of Ben George. As editor, Ben brought in new writers, and took my hazy vision of the magazine and made it into something particular and concrete. At the same time, Emily, who is the publisher of Lookout Books and was until recently the art director of the magazine, set about revamping the journal’s look—redesigning with new logotype, larger trim size, pull quotes, new typefaces, and large opening spreads—until the magazine started looking like the one you are holding in your hands.

In a time of rootlessness and uncertainty, writing about place serves a moral role.

Anna Lena Phillips Bell, who took over as editor in 2013 after a stint as senior editor at American Scientist magazine, has upped the ante even more, making it her mission to make every issue of Ecotone a work of art. Here’s the thing: she cares, down to the last comma. Under Anna Lena’s watch Ecotone has reached new heights, regularly winning major awards and gaining a truly national reputation. In a time of rootlessness and uncertainty, writing about place serves a moral role, one it has often served historically, and in a time when climate change’s effects are apparent daily and growing, part of what place-based writing must do is confront hard truths. I find these truths as I skim through the pages of recent issues of the magazine—but, I am happy to report, I also find joy. Consider Jane Wong’s essay “Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City,” from issue 25, which takes us to the boardwalk to vividly evoke both her father’s gambling addiction and casinos’ predatory marketing to Asian Americans. Or Toni Jensen’s essay “Carry,” from issue 26, which takes on campus open-carry laws, women’s sovereignty over their own bodies, and the oppressive treatment of Native Americans on college campuses. Or any of the writers for the Poem in a Landscape department, including Aimee Nez­hukumatathil, Linda Hogan, and Kamilah Aisha Moon, who explore the ways place affects poems by writers from Ellen Bass to Pablo Neruda to Gwendolyn Brooks.

The magazine has flowered with the kind of wild diversity we could only have imagined when we started it. Diversity is the lesson that nature teaches again and again, filling every crack, every niche, and Anna Lena has helped open up this formerly stodgy genre to new voices. Twenty years ago I wrote an essay called “Sick of Nature,” in which I decried the solemn and homogenous way people tend to write about place. As I sit here browsing the pages of Ecotone, I find a celebration of how place writing has expanded, and I like to think we were part of what broke this open. Who knows where we will be in another fifteen years? But I am sure it will be someplace new, someplace unexpected, someplace wild.


Yesterday I drove down to UNCW’s Center for Marine Science, near my house, and took a walk out onto a long dock that juts into the Intracoastal Waterway. Before I reached the dock I saw three deer, a doe and two fawns, running from one patch of woods to another. It was a beautiful sight, but I knew its dark backstory. The land next door to the center, which had previously been a forest of longleaf pine and live oak, had been deforested for development—hundreds of acres of trees mowed down, right along the hurricane coast. That was the reason I was now seeing so many deer on my morning walks. Their homes had been destroyed, and they had been displaced. My mood darkened as I walked out along the dock, and I barely lifted my head when a group of pelicans flew over. But something, a glint of light, a flash of white, caught my eye, and I looked up. In my sixteen years in the South, pelicans, at first novel, have become a common sight. But these were not our everyday brown pelicans. They were white pelicans, radiant white with black-tipped wings, a sight I had never seen in my adopted home. While brown pelicans are very large birds, white pelicans are massive, their seven-foot wingspans second only to condors in North America.

I am not claiming that seeing those birds was redemptive, or that it washed away the darker thoughts about the deer’s displacement. But the sight stayed with me the rest of the day and lifted me when I thought of it. I do not have an organized system of faith or belief, but the pelicans are something I have faith in. It is no stretch to imagine that these shining birds were the inspiration for the idea of angels. And here they were flying along an unfamiliar coast, far from their usual habitat—out of place, but stunning in their grace and beauty, and looking perfectly at home.