The Sonoran Desert: A Literary Field Guide Edited by Eric Magrane and Christopher Cokinos
The Sonoran Desert: A Literary Field Guide, edited by Eric Magrane and Christopher Cokinos, is a collection born out of love and appreciation of the Sonoran Desert. Divided into five sections—plants, invertebrates, birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians—this anthology is the field guide you’ve always wanted. Combining factual information alongside a creative response to each entry, The Sonoran Desert harmonizes science and the arts. This much needed convergence is made in a time where the two fields are often separated and pitted against each other as fabricated opposites.
The creative components of the entries satisfyingly range as wildly as the subjects of study: a poem by Farid Matuk about the lesser long-nosed bat, a personal narrative featuring the barestem larkspur by Scott Calhoun, a poetic incantation of the Arizona blond tarantuala’s mythological and actual place in the desert ecosystem. Writings range from a single page to a couple of pages. Most notably short and powerful is Arizona’s first poet laureate, and a former chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, Alberto Álvaro Ríos’ tribute to the broad-billed hummingbird: “Hummingbirds are quarter notes which have left the nest of the flute.”
A cohesive personality emerges in the book through the habitat/description/life story information included after each creative piece and also through Paul Mirocha’s illustrations. In the informational interludes, readers learn the “text book” information necessary to have a holistic understanding of the specimen. But readers also hear a personal voice providing small asides that make one feel as if you have an in, as if someone with all the first-hand knowledge of the subject’s real life implications whispers in your ear as you walk through the desert. Following a poem by Cybele Knowles about the sacred datura (datura wrightii), the life history section informs us that “One nonshaman who reported trying the datura likened it to ‘having his mind ripped apart.’ But just looking at the plant can be visionary…Look. But don’t touch.”
Gorgeous black and white illustrations by Paul Mirocha fill the book, accompanying each entry. They sometimes creep towards the edge of the page, as if to remind the reader that this is a document of the living world. The book avoids rigidity of form and in so doing comes alive—depending on the form the creative piece takes, the illustration is placed in a complimentary way, unstandardized. In an illustrator’s note that precedes the book proper, Mirocha says, “Secretly, I like my preliminary sketches more than the finished illustrations that they lead to. I think that’s because, although simple, they record a kind of observational thinking that happens before that essential experience is hidden under a lot of paint or shading to make it more attractive or realistic.” This sentiment, the valuation of observation over monument-making, is the greatest joy of this collection. Magrane and Cokinos capture light in a jar, so that you may take it into the field: a living, breathing companion.
L. Ann Wheeler is a writer and artist in Lawrence, Kansas. Her photo-essay “A Little Hell of Its Own” won the 2013 Bone Bouquet Experimental Prose Contest, and other work has appeared in Omniverse, Forklift, Ohio, and ILK. She studied at the Pratt Institute, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. You can find her at home with her dogs.