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The Unexpected Joys of a Shabby Wildflower Guide

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The Unexpected Joys of a Shabby Wildflower Guide

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Seven years ago I first heard about the book by Jack Turner, a bio-regional essayist and exum mountain guide who lives in Wyoming at the foot of the Teton Range. He talked about Henry David Thoreau – specifically, how climate scientists use Thoreau’s two-million-word journal from the 1850s as a reference, a kind of pre-shit-hit-the-fan baseline because it so dutifully and meticulously documents the arrivals and departures of birds, buds, ice and the like. Turner studied phenology, the study of cyclical and seasonal phenomena, and the eco-philosopher Paul Shepard, who claimed that it was “what the mature naturalist finally achieves … a deeper understanding and refined sense of mystery.” He then enthusiastically recommended A Field Guide to Rocky Mountain Wildflowers, published in 1963, written by John Craighead, Frank Craighead Jr., and Ray Davis.

I stumbled upon the book this April and read and reread it like it was a work of unsurpassed literary beauty, an elaborate lyric poem. Which of course it isn’t. But paradoxically, it absolutely is.

Frank (left) and John Craighead Jr. (Photo: Courtesy Craighead Institute)

About the authors of the book. Davis, a systematic botanist, traveled widely to collect specimens and established a world-class herbarium at Idaho State University – definitely an inspiring guy, but hardly a celebrity. The Craighead brothers, on the other hand, were two of the most respected conservationists of the 20th century, comparable to Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold. Identical twins, born in 1916 (I imagine falling out of their wombs in matching flannel and denim outfits), Frank and John grew up in Maryland and were infatuated with falconry as teenagers. After high school, they drove a Chevy west on dirt roads, caught birds of prey along the way, and published an article about the experience in National Geographic. They developed a guide to wilderness survival for the Navy during World War II based on their mastery of bushcraft and the indigenous North American ways of life. They conducted a long-term grizzly research project in Yellowstone and pioneered the use of radio tracking collars for large animals in wildlife biology. They moved for the Wild And Scenic Rivers Act, which was passed in 1968. They hiked and camped everywhere.

Given the adventurous elements of it curriculum vitae, you can assume that a dusty, musty field guide to tiny ephemeral flowers probably won’t catalyze Craighead mania (it’s the seediest volume in my local library in Crested Butte, Colorado aside from Marcus Aurelius’ meditations). But Jack Turner wasn’t kidding – the book is a treasure. On the superficial level, it’s just very helpful to tease out the buttercups and mallow and primroses and brushes. It is also a welcome reminder that from winter to spring to summer in the highlands the slide is crazy, totally dynamic and thrilling and thrilling. What will the surprise be today? Who will emerge between the melting snowbanks and glittering rivulets and patches of hallucinatory green grass? Aha, dog tooth purple! Aha, shooting star! Aha, long-feathered Aven! The book makes me crawl around the outdoors – curious, engaged, zoomed, nose up – and that’s always good. Muddy knees. Soaked socks. Yes sir.

Okay, but I mentioned “literary beauty,” and that’s what’s really special about this classic field guide. To emphasize the poetic power that tingles my back when I leaf through the faded, brittle pages, I arrange some passages as verses.

From the subsection “Flowering time” of the marsh laurel entry:

Late June to early August.
Mosquitoes become
a nuisance
both where and when
this plant is blooming.

And the yellow monkey flower entry:

May to August. First look for it
when Scarlet Gilia appears.
September still in full bloom.
when Rocky Mt. whitefish begin
spawn, bull elk
are trumpets and beavers
made their winter
Food caches.

And the delphinium:

From April to July.
When they start
bloom, Sparrowhawk
defend territories.

You have the idea. There are hundreds of species in the book, and almost each one receives the same nuanced treatment that defines flowering time in terms of a vast ecosystem, a phenological context. As the artist-naturalist Roger Tory Peterson, the book’s editor, put it in an introductory remark: “Such facts are often more revealing than the bleak statement ‘late June to early August’, since the Rocky Mountain region is a vertical country in spring and summer rise up the slopes and a flower that blooms in the river valleys in June may not unfold its petals until July or even later at higher altitudes. “

So it is a concrete strategy to design a user-friendly field guide for needy duffers (e.g. me). Fantastic. Very appreciated. But here, too, the poetic quality – small language, big vision – is what is really special, tingling goosebumps. Can you imagine looking after your garden, your watershed, your space with the care and concentration that these phenological passages would produce? If I shoot you plant names, rapid-fire latin binomials, can you tell me what the chipmunks are doing at the time of flowering? And what are the trout doing? And what are the geese doing? It’s amazing, this omnidirectional knowledge, this attunement to overlaps and connections, and as you spend more hours with the book it starts to feel like a vision of a whole world. The often quoted, quasi-mystical joke of John Muir cannot be avoided: “When we try to pick something out for ourselves, we find it connected to everything else in the universe.”

Earlier this summer, at dusk on a Thursday evening, I discovered three blue columbines and a nest of screeching raven chicks in a twisted pine. That Saturday, as I climbed a tundra ridge at 3,500 feet, I saw a sun-rotten cornice collapse into a cirque, then discovered a pair of horned larks and a micro-garden of alpine forget-me-nots. And a few days later, when I was taking a morning walk on the outskirts of town, scouring the wetlands with my binoculars, buzzing black coffee and gushing with the joy of aimless caffeinated searching, I saw a cow elk nestled between marigolds, a tailed hummingbird perched on top a deciduous willow, wisps of cloud, cloud-reflecting puddles, fresh coyote droppings and a sticky geranium. In other words, I saw a mosaic, a figure – many parts merge into a sum that is greater than the parts. I saw it soaking wet in front of me and I saw it later at breakfast, sipping oatmeal, a certain trustworthy book open on the kitchen table.

Small language, big vision. I read. And read again. And be amazed at the beauty of these phenological passages that are enigmatic in my head and in my heart. But they’re not the only aspect of the book that shows wholeness. For each species, there is also an “Interesting Facts” subsection that highlights its edibility and medicinal properties, particularly the uses shared by generations of Native Americans, the original inhabitants of the Rockies (Apaches, Crows, Utes, Bannocks, Shoshones, et al.). Silky Phacelia makes a salad? False hellebore contains alkaloids that lower blood pressure? Moose and humans alike like to nibble on mountain sorrel? Death camas kills indiscriminately? A Field Guide to Rocky Mountain Wildflowers suggests that the wild creature named Homo sapiens may fit well into the country’s ecological web, elaborate lyric poem, and while Craighead, Craighead, and Davis don’t directly say it, it’s easy to infer one Verse that goes something like this:

Blooms when days
are t-shirt warm and children
learn from their parents
harvest delicious
ripe berries.

Or even better:

You will notice
if nerdy guys
crawl on meadows,
Counting sepals and stamens,
guided by an old shabby book
grinning and sometimes
scream aha!

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