Unexpected Joys of Shabby Wildflower Guide

Jack Turner, a bioregional writer and retired Exum Mountain Guide residing in Wyoming at the foot of the Teton Range, told me about the book seven years ago. He was referring to Henry David Thoreau’s two-million-word journal from the 1850s, and how climate scientists use it as a baseline, a type of before-shit-hit-the-fan baseline, because it methodically details the arrivals and departures of birds, blossoms, ice, and other natural phenomena. Turner went off on phenology, the study of cyclic and seasonal events, and ecophilosopher Paul Shepard’s notion that it was “what the mature naturalist finally comes to… a finer sense of mystery and a greater understanding.” Then he highly recommended John Craighead, Frank Craighead Jr., and Ray Davis’ A Field Guide to Rocky Mountain Wildflowers, published in 1963.

I came into the book in April and have been reading and rereading it as if it were a masterpiece of literature, an exquisite lyric poetry. Of course, this isn’t the case. But, ironically, that is exactly what it is.

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

The authors of the book. Davis, a systematic botanist who travelled abroad to gather specimens and developed a world-class herbarium at Idaho State University, was an inspirational figure but not a superstar. The Craighead brothers, on the other hand, were two of the twentieth century’s most well-known scientists and conservationists, similar to Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold. Frank and John, identical twins born in 1916 (I imagine them bursting from the womb in matching flannel and denim clothes), grew up in Maryland and got fascinated with falconry as teenagers. They drove a Chevy out west on dirt roads after high school, catching raptors along the way, and wrote a National Geographic piece about it. Using their knowledge of bushcraft and indigenous North American lifeways, they wrote a wilderness-survival manual for the Navy during WWII. They pioneered the use of large-animal radio-tracking collars in wildlife biology and undertook a long-term grizzly study project in Yellowstone. They were instrumental in the passage of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1968. They hiked and tented in all kinds of places.

Given this résumé’s adventurous components, you might think a dusty, musty field guide to tiny ephemeral flowers (apart from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, it’s the shabbiest volume in my local Crested Butte, Colorado, library) would be unlikely to spark Craighead fever. But Jack Turner wasn’t joking when he said the book is a gem. On the surface, it’s merely very useful for separating the buttercups, mallows, primroses, and paintbrushes. Furthermore, it serves as a timely reminder that the transition from winter to spring to summer in the high country is a whirlwind of activity, excitement, and anticipation. What will today’s surprise be? Who will emerge from the melting snowbanks, glittering trickles, and patches of eerie green grass? Dogtooth violet, oh my! Oh, there’s a shooting star! Long-plumed avens, oh my! The book makes me want to crawl around outside, curious, engaged, zoomed in, nose-close, which is always a good thing. Knees are soiled. Sopping wet socks. Yessir.

Okay, but I stated “literary beauty,” and that is what makes this classic field guide truly unique. I’ll compose a few parts into verse to illustrate the poetic intensity that tingles my spine as I read its aged, brittle pages.

From the swamp laurel entry’s “Flowering season” subsection:

From the end of June to the beginning of August
Mosquitoes have become a nuisance in the areas where this plant blooms as well as when it blooms.

And here’s the entry for the yellow monkeyflower:

From May until August, When Scarlet Gilia arrives, look for it first.
When Rocky Mt. whitefish begin to spawn, bull elk begin to bugle, and beaver have built their winter food caches, the flowers are still in bloom in September.

And then there’s the larkspur:

Between April and July.
Sparrow hawks guard territory when they are just starting to bloom.

You get my drift. There are hundreds of species in the book, and practically all of them get the same nuanced treatment, with the flowering season defined in relation to a larger ecosystem, or phenological context. “Such facts are often more illuminating than the bald statement ‘late June to early August,’ because the Rocky Mountain region is a vertical land where spring and summer ascend the slopes and a flower that blooms in June in the river valleys might not unfold its petals until July or even later at higher elevations,” the book’s editor, artist-naturalist Roger Tory Peterson, writes in an introductory note.

As a result, creating a user-friendly field guide for eager duffers in need of aid is a concrete strategy (e.g. me). Fantastic. Thank you very much. However, it is the lyrical quality—little words, great vision—that is truly unique and spine-tingling. Can you image looking after your backyard, your watershed, and your home with the same level of care and attention that would result in these phenological transitions? Could you tell me what the chipmunks are doing around the time of flowering if I hurled plant names at you in rapid-fire Latin binomials? And how are the trout faring? And what are the geese up to? This omnidirectional knowledge, this sensitivity to overlaps and interconnections, is astounding, and it begins to feel like a vision of a complete world as you spend more time with the book. It’s impossible to ignore John Muir’s famous, quasi-mystical remark: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it tied to everything else in the Universe.”

I discovered three blue columbines and a nest of squawking raven chicks in a lodgepole pine earlier this summer while wandering at twilight on a Thursday evening. On a tundra ridge at 12,500 feet that Saturday, I saw a sun-rotted cornice collapse into a cirque, then saw a pair of horned larks and a microgarden of alpine forget-me-nots. A cow moose bedded among marsh marigolds, a broad-tailed hummingbird perched atop a leafing willow, wispy clouds, cloud-reflecting puddles, fresh coyote scat, and a sticky geranium were among the sights I saw on a dawn stroll at the edge of town, scanning the wetlands with my binoculars, buzzing on black coffee, surging with the joy of aimless ca In other words, I saw a mosaic, a gestalt—many pieces coming together to make a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. I saw it there in front of my eyes, and I saw it again later, at breakfast, slurping porridge and reading a familiar book on the kitchen table.

Little words, but a large picture. I’m a reader. And then read it again. And I marvel at the beauty of these phenological passages that are jiggling around in my head and heart. They aren’t, however, the only component of the book that demonstrates unity. There’s also a “Interesting facts” section for each species, which tends to emphasise edibility and medicinal virtues, particularly those developed by generations of Native Americans, the Rockies’ original residents (Apaches, Crows, Utes, Bannocks, Shoshones, et al.). Is it true that silky phacelia makes a salad? Is it true that alkaloids found in false hellebore help to decrease blood pressure? Mountain sorrel is enjoyed by both elk and humans. Death camas are indiscriminate killers? Though Craighead, Craighead, and Davis don’t say it outright, it’s easy to infer a verse that goes something like this: A Field Guide to Rocky Mountain Wildflowers suggests that the feral creature known as Homo sapiens can fit snugly inside the ecological web, the elaborate lyric poem of the land, and though Craighead, Craighead, and Davis don’t say it outright, it’s easy to infer a verse that goes something like this:

Blooms when the days are warm enough to wear a T-shirt and children are learning from their parents how to pick tasty ripe berries.

Or, even better:

You’ll notice it when nerdy males crawl across meadows, counting sepals and stamens with an old ragged book in hand, beaming and occasionally yelling Aha!

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