TFOB Spotlight: "The Sonoran Desert: A Literary Field Guide" Blends Poetry, Prose and Natural History

By: Adam al-Sirgany, M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the UA, Class of 2015

This month, the University of Arizona Press is publishing The Sonoran Desert: A Literary Field Guide, an innovative anthology that blends poetry, prose and natural history to bring together different ways of thinking about ecology in the Sonoran Desert.

The anthology was organized and edited by Christopher Cokinos, director of the creative writing program in the Department of English, and Eric Magrane, who holds an MFA in creative writing from the UA and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Geography and Development.

The editors will be speaking about the book at the Tucson Festival of Books and featured in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences tent.

Both Cokinos and Magrane grew up using field guides, and they wanted to bring the joy of that experience to a broad readership. The book, illustrated by artist Paul Mirocha, features the work of more than 60 writers, each writing about a particular species, plant or animal indigenous to the Sonoran Desert ecosystem, and includes field guide entries describing these species in a scientifically accurate but playful, literary rendering.

“It will work at home on the couch or tossed in a backpack in the Santa Catalinas or in the Tucson Mountains,” says Magrane.

For both editors, the Southwest has long had a mystique. Cokinos is originally from Indiana, which he half-jokingly calls “the opposite of the Sonoran Desert.” Magrane comes from the Northeast United States and was so captivated by the landscapes of Southwest Arizona that he spent 10 years as a hiking guide and naturalist in the Tucson area.

“It’s a project that’s about community building between humans and the organisms they share the Sonoran Desert with. It’s also a gathering of part of the extremely vibrant writing and poetry community in Tucson and the extremely vibrant biodiversity of the Sonoran Desert,” Magrane explains. “Hopefully it speaks to people who don’t know the Sonoran Desert as well, too, and it functions as an invitation to get to know some of the Sonoran Desert’s species better.”

Describing the work’s genesis, Cokinos says, “The Sonoran Desert: A Literary Field Guide came out of Eric’s work with the BioBlitz, a citizens’ science initiative. It was Eric’s brilliant idea to send writers out to do a ‘Poetic Inventory’ of Saguaro National Park.”

The Poetic Inventory resulted in 80 pieces of writing about species living in Saguaro National Park, and these pieces led to several literary engagements, among them readings at Saguaro National Park and the Poetry Center and publication of all these writings in Spiral Orb (, an experimental poetry journal edited by Magrane.

Magrane and Cokinos assessed the success of the project and decided to develop it further. The pair began working in conjunction with the University of Arizona Press in order to select some of the original pieces they had and to enlist additional poets and writers for new works.

“Each of the contributors used a different approach to write about their species,” says Magrane. “That range of forms engages the natural history of the species in sometimes direct ways, sometimes indirect ways. There’s this conversation happening throughout the book that we hope will be fun to read.”

With more than 60 pieces of literature compiled, Cokinos and Magrane began conducting research at the library at the UA’s Tumamoc Hill Desert Laboratory in order to develop the field guide entries. As Magrane describes it, they wanted to “riff off of the traditional Peterson’s or Sibley’s guides.”

“If you look at the history of field guides—and science in general—the writing has tended toward highly technical prose. The writing will tell you about the morphology or the range of a species or something like that,” explains Cokinos. “It was important for us to write our material in a way that was accurate and playful. We hope readers will get the information they need and also find themselves surprised.”

The Sonoran Desert: A Literary Field Guide is illustrated by local science illustrator Paul Mirocha. Mirocha’s art not only adds another aspect of engagement to the book as an object, but according to Magrane and Cokinos, it helps readers to visually explore the qualities of species that make them unique. This can be witnessed in moments when Mirocha breaks down his own drawings or zooms in on a given species’ particularities. Apart from being “beautiful,” Magrane says, these thoughtful and explanatory drawings are especially useful to those using the field guide to learn more. 

The Sonoran Desert: A Literary Field Guide is the first of book of its kind. While there have been a handful of literary works with similar frames, these have tended to be gatherings of pre-existing work. The project has also inspired similar projects, including a Poetic Inventory of Rocky Mountain National Park and a community art project conducted on the campus of Oregon State University, wherein people wrote about particular organisms.

“It’s an open access idea,” says Cokinos. “We encourage it. Do your own poetic inventory. Write your own literary field guide. We hope this is the start of something.”  Magrane iterates these sentiments, explaining that these kinds of activities might be conducted in many ways, “as individual projects, or as interdisciplinary classes in geography, environmental studies, or humanities departments.” 

While the work is regional and specific, both its editors hope it will influence broad based conversations about what it means to be a human. Magrane, whose research looks at the connections between art and environment, says, “A lot of the environmental challenges we face in the 21st Century—climate change and biodiversity loss, among them—are difficult to face with siloed disciplines. Multi- and trans- disciplinary thinking is really crucial to the moment we’re in. We hope the literary field guide pushes that in a little way and speaks both to people within environmental studies and within creative writing, but also speaks to general readers trying to learn more about the Sonoran Desert.”

Cokinos, whose work has often discussed the intimacy of individuals and the environments they live in, adds his hope that the anthology touches something personal within readers. “A book like this allows people to come at these challenges and choices that we face through an image or a story. It’s not a screaming headline or a sound bite: it’s a poem, it’s an image of the hair standing up on your neck when you think you are being watched by a mountain lion. It’s slow work, but I think it can change people.”

More Info: Learn about the The Sonoran Desert: A Literary Field Guide as well as nature writing at the Tucson Festival of Books

Science in Art: Writing About Biodiversity: A Literary Field Guide to the Sonoran Desert
Science City - Main Stage
Sat, Mar 12, 11:30 am - 12:30 pm

The Sonoran Desert: A Literary Field Guide
Student Union Kiva
Sat, Mar 12, 2:30 pm - 3:30 pm

Lyricism and the Natural World
Social & Behavioral Sciences Tent
Sun, Mar 13, 2:30 pm - 3:30 pm

Readings from "The Sonoran Desert: A Literary Field Guide"
Social & Behavioral Sciences Tent
Sun, Mar 13, 4:00 pm - 5:00 pm


Published Date: 

02/10/2016 - 11:04am