The Sonoran Desert: A Literary Field Guide
edited by Eric Magrane & Christopher Cokinos



University of Arizona Press, 2016. ISBN 978-0-816-53123-3.
Reviewed by Susan J. Tweit
Posted on 03/01/2016

Poetry; Nonfiction: Nature/Place/Environment; Nonfiction: Science

"The ecological view [of biodiversity] is that you cannot remove one species without disturbing the whole system," writes National Park Service biologist Dan Swann in the Foreword to The Sonoran Desert: A Literary Field Guide. "But there's also a human part to biodiversity: that so many different kinds of birds, trees, lichens, and bugs—each uniquely and beautifully adapted to their environment—make the word a richer place for us. Their existence makes us more human!"

Swann's foreword is one clue to what's unique about The Sonoran Desert: A Literary Field Guide. Of course, like any regular field guide, the book includes brief and factual descriptions of desert plants, insects and spiders, birds, mammals, and reptiles and amphibians. And like most field guides, it is also copiously illustrated—although Paul Microcha's exquisitely detailed and beautiful drawings are hardly ordinary. But no field guide I've ever known also introduces each species with a poem or personal essay written specifically in response to that particular life.

Like Rachel Lehman's poem for Coulter's lupine, one of the desert's most beloved annual wildflowers, appearing like magic after winter rains:

Sunwatcher

dark place for the under parts, dark place dry place,
small moist for the drinking little shallow place,
lupines, blue blue, purple-blue
banner we reach for
we give the blue of the blue that holds your bright bloom in winter.

Or like Aisha Sabatini Sloan on Tarantula hawks, large parasitic wasps that capture and paralyze tarantulas to feed their young:

I don't like nature very much. Well, that's not true. But I don't think of myself as an outdoorsy person. In fact, on the freeway between Tucson and Phoenix a few weeks ago, I got scared because I saw a black pickup truck with bumper stickers that said things about the NRA and "I heart violence"... I wanted to exit the freeway. But I found myself chuckling because of another bumper sticker on the truck that read, in a graphic meant to resemble the North Face logo, "Hey Fuck Face." Which is all to say that when I was asked to write about the tarantula hawk, I dragged my feet like Steve Martin in "The Jerk," forced out of his fancy house. What. Do. I. Have. To. Say. About. A. Bug.

Another thing that's unique about this literary field guide might not immediately stand out. But as a woman who entered field science at a time when it was a guy's world and who is very aware of the continuing gender imbalance in biology/natural history writing, I was surprised and delighted that 52 percent of the contributors are women, reflecting the gender balance of the world at large. I doubt that was intentional, but it's still lovely to hear so many female voices, plus one transgender voice, in this collection. That makes The Sonoran Desert a model of sorts for inclusive writing.

I nodded and chuckled my way through the entries, from Arizona sycamore to Western diamondback rattlesnake, savoring each drawing, each description, each writer's response to these unique lives.

My only quibbles about the book are two: First, it was over too soon. I wanted more—more species, more poems, more wry asides by the editors in the descriptions. Second, the utterly unremarkable cover, which does not do justice to either Mirocha's glorious illustrations or to the richness of the perspectives and lives within. The Sonoran Desert deserves more, because as the book generously reveals, the bioregion it is named for is a complicated and fascinating place full of extraordinary lives, human and wild.

The Sonoran Desert reads like a dialogue between humans and nature, sometimes ecstatic, sometimes fearful, sometimes simply awed. This is a book that cries to be read outside, to be read aloud, to be thumbed through in the delight of re-discovery as we find again what it is that connects us—cell to cell, heart to heart—to all of those other lives with whom we share this glorious planet: our kin, kind or not.

Read an excerpt from this book.


Ed Magrane is the first poet-in-residence at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. He has been an artist-in-residence in three national parks and is the founding editor of Spiral Orb, an experiment in permaculture poetics. Magrane is currently completing his Ph.D. in geography at the University of Arizona.

Christopher Cokinos is the author three books of literary nonfiction: Hope is the Thing with Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds, The Fallen Sky: An Intimate History of Shooting Stars, and Bodies of the Holocene. Winner of several national awards, Cokinos teaches in the MFA program at the University of Arizona and is affiliated faculty with the Institute of the Environment.

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