The Sonoran Desert: A Literary Field Guide

devil's claw.JPG

Devil's Claw ©2016 Paul Mirocha. Reproduced with permission from University of Arizona Press.


This year the National Park Service turns 100, and while plenty of new books on the topic clamor for attention, one standout will surely interest readers of this blog. The Sonoran Desert: A Literary Field Guide, published by the University of Arizona Press takes an innovative approach to natural history by combining words and image in a most striking way. A delightful hybrid of scientific exploration and creative writing, the book is a unique match for the desert topography, which is itself a study in paradoxes: Encompassing over 120,000 miles between Arizona and Mexico, North America's hottest region is also the world's "lushest" desert, and claims five distinct seasons, allowing for a surprising array of life.

To capture the biodiversity of the desert, editors Eric Magrane and Christopher Cokinos included material from fifty writers and poets based in the American West. The writers and their styles are just as varied as the plants and animals discussed: Alison Hawthorne Deming's odes to the Saguaro cactus, "What the Desert is Thinking" and "Questions for a Saguaro," mimic the long arms of the desert's keystone flora, while Wendy Burk's spare, methodical composition matches its subject, the desert tortoise. These, and other entries represent a sampling of what the editors charmingly coined a "literary biomimicry." Plenty of creatures are included whose names alone demand further inspection, such as the desert globemallow, the fairy duster, and the Arizona walkingstick. Sketches by award-winning illustrator Paul Mirocha are crisp, bright, and lively. (Readers may recognize Mirocha's handiwork; he has illustrated over 20 children's books and pop-ups, including Barbara Kingsolver's Small Wonder.)

Each creative contribution is accompanied by the subject's physical description and habitat, and these scientific entries are entertaining as well: the desert tortoise is called "the Oreo of the desert" for their prevalence on predator menus, and inebriated young men are frequent victims of rattlesnake bites. The diversity of the text and the species of the Sonoran offer up a rich resource that celebrates the beauty of this extraordinary biome.


jumping wren.JPG

Cactus Wren ©2016 Paul Mirocha, reproduced with permission from University of Arizona Press

The Sonoran Desert: A Literary Field Guide, edited by Eric Magrane and Christopher Cokinos with illustrations by Paul Mirocha; University of Arizona Press, $19.95, 216 pages, 2016.