The Sonoran Desert: A Literary Field Guide ed. by Eric Magrane and Christopher Cokinos (review)
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Reviewed by
Eric Magrane and Christopher Cokinos, eds., The Sonoran Desert: A Literary Field Guide. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 2016. 216pp. Paper, $19.95.

For those used to the dry, straightforward prose of a typical field guide, The Sonoran Desert offers a unique literary approach to the plants and creatures of the Sonoran Desert and southern Arizona’s Sky Island region. Editors Eric Magrane and Christopher Cokinos explain that the book emerged for the Poetic Inventory of Saguaro National Park in 2011. Unlike a traditional field guide, it presents poems and short prose pieces about various species of plants, birds, reptiles, insects, and mammals accompanied by accurate but somewhat tongue-in-cheek details about the habitat, description, and life history of each entry. Pencil sketches by illustrator Paul Mirocha enhance the book’s educational and aesthetic value so readers will feel confident about correctly identifying the plants and creatures they find while exploring the desert. Magrane and Cokinos’s text will be a useful, thought-provoking, and entertaining addition to anyone’s field guide collection or ammo can library.

The field guide is divided into a five-section species list: plants, invertebrates, birds, reptiles and amphibians, and mammals. Over sixty contributors provide poems and brief pieces about their chosen species, ranging from multiple pages to Alberto Alvaro Rios’s evocative single line about the broad-billed hummingbird, Cynanthus latirostris: “Hummingbirds are quarter notes which have left the nest of the flute” (78). The creative pieces illustrate the myriad ways of seeing in the desert and the close relationship each writer has established with the physical landscape and inhabitants of that place. Many of the poets anthropomorphize their subjects, encouraging readers to empathize, for example, with the plant Brigham’s tea, Ephedra nevadensis, as Gary Paul Nabhan gives it a voice telling us, “There are those who would die just to take me in / To have me in their backyard, a tonic for the soul” (10). I have newfound respect for the hardy bush that has staked out a spot in my front yard in Salt Lake City, far from the Sonoran Desert.

While the descriptors for the entries give the usual facts about species, the narrative varies in that it is a narrative instead of a mere listing of range, habitat, and characteristics. The field guide reads at times like a newspaper’s op-ed page complete with opinion, [End Page 374] warning, commentary, definitions, and advice. The first-person point of view creates a feeling that the writer is engaged in a conversation with the reader. For example, the entry for limberbush, Jatropha cardiophylla, explains that “in all but the driest times, you should be able to bend it and curl it as if it were made of rubber. You can call it the yoga plant” (35). The entry about the saguaro cactus describes how “the flowers open two hours past sunset, and, like a good honky-tonk, stay open all night long and well into the following afternoon, when they close against the heat” (49). The habitat for the greater roadrunner is listed as “roads” (98), while the common raven has a “bulky head that might remind some of a Klingon” (85). The creative descriptions, while amusing, appeal to readers who might better appreciate a turkey vulture when its purpose is portrayed in a utilitarian light—“Without scavengers, dead things would accumulate like roadside billboards” (111)—than from the dry facts of a traditional guide.

The guide fills a niche in western American literature by delivering a combination of literary insight specific to a region while at the same time providing legitimate field guide information in a memorable way likely to make readers chuckle. The conversational tone of the entries engages readers in a meaningful manner that might even encourage a reaching out and advocacy, say, for the American kestrel. The species entries cover a broad spectrum, with few unique species not found outside the Sonoran Desert or the Sky Islands, which means I can add the field guide to the ammo can library I take on my Grand Canyon river trips, since the species overlap. The literary content and style are what differentiate this...