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Know the West

Past and present fauna

Writers bear witness to the “Age of Loneliness,” in the midst of a mass extinction.


Some environmentalists and scientists have begun calling our current epoch the “Anthropocene” to acknowledge the gross changes humans have induced in global ecosystems. But the biologist and author Edward O. Wilson has proposed an alternative name: “Eremocene,” or the Age of Loneliness, a name that alludes to the fact that we are in the midst of a sixth mass extinction, one for which humans are primarily responsible. The impending loss of so many of our fellow creatures means that humanity faces what can best be described as a kind of  “species loneliness.” Regardless of what we call this new epoch, there are witnesses emerging — writers attuned to their environment — who are keenly aware of the implications of species loss, and who vow to bear witness to the songs of past beings and savor the life that remains.

In Giant Sloths and Sabertooth Cats: Extinct Mammals and the Archaeology of the Ice Age Great Basin, zooarchaeologist Donald Grayson surveys North America’s last mass extinction, which occurred at the end of the Rancholabrean North American Land Mammal Age in the Late Pleistocene. In all, the last ice age wiped out 37 genera, and Grayson pays particular attention to the 20 genera — mostly megafauna — that once populated what’s known today as the Great Basin, which covers most of Nevada and parts of five adjoining states. He compiles incisive obituaries for each bygone species, including mammoths, mastodons, sabertooth cats and the largest flying bird ever recorded, the giant teratorn, which “weighed about 150 pounds, and had a wingspan of about 23 feet,” analogous to “a Cessna 152 light aircraft.” In this chapter, these “hugest and fiercest and strangest” of forms seem to manifest only to perish. Echoing the 19th century naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, Grayson says that “compared to the world of the late Pleistocene, our world really is zoologically impoverished.” 

Grayson compresses and addresses the centuries of ignorance surrounding extinction by offering a series of hard-boiled clarifications. His is a temperate voice, wary of global theories of extinction. He is more interested in advocating for a compendium of individual species’ histories. Because it is “difficult to extract definitive answers from the fossil record,” an extinction narrative must instead be singular and idiosyncratic to each unique species.

While the fossil record preserves the story of extinct species, one can turn to a field guide to apprehend extant species.

For over a century, North American naturalists have been compiling field guides to aid citizen scientists in identifying the native flora and fauna of particular regions. In the case of The Sonoran Desert: A Literary Field Guide, editors Eric Magrane and Christopher Cokinos are both guides and anthologists; this is a Sonoran Desert tour led by a park ranger with an MFA. Cokinos makes the case that “the empiricism of science, the imaginative and cognitive leaps of poetry, the close observation of both … we need it all.” The Sonoran Desert is not just a field guide, but also an anthology of prose and poetry about the Arizona Upland. As in earlier “literary field guides” such as Califauna and Califlora (Heyday 2007, 2012), each species’ passage is accompanied by an essay or poem, an illustration, and a spirited description of its morphology, habitat and life history.

The 63 literary stewards of the Sonoran Desert were mostly recruited during the National Geographic BioBlitz in Saguaro National Park in 2011, an event where citizen scientists teamed up with professionals to develop a 24-hour species inventory. The resulting anthology is varied — a blend of witness and imagination, intention and happy accident, anthropomorphism and zoomorphism. In a single-sentence piece about the broad-billed hummingbird, Arizona’s first poet laureate, Alberto Alvaro Ríos, writes: “Hummingbirds are quarter notes which have left the nest of the flute.” Elsewhere, Alison Hawthorne Deming observes, “The saguaros all hum together like Tibetan or Gregorian monks / one green chord that people hear when they drive.” Such synchroneities abound in The Sonoran Desert. As Cokinos writes, it becomes a “form of literary biomimicry,” tandem imitations of nature’s patterns.

Many of these species’ life histories are implicitly authored by the Tohono O’odham Nation, a tribe that has dwelt in the Sonoran Desert for thousands of years. “This is what the Tohono O’odham tell us,” one passage says, “that humans can be turned into Saguaro.” In fact, the passage on Canis latrans, the coyote, is written by Angelo Joaquin Jr., a Tohono O’odham Coyote Clan Member. Neither poetry nor essay, this piece functions as a kind of outlying mythology.

In The Sonoran Desert, creosote and Coulter’s lupine garner equal attention, as do roadrunner and verdin, javelina and red-spotted toad. Likewise, celebrated Sonoran authors Joy Williams, Ofelia Zepeda and Jane Miller are joined by a chorus of newcomers, including Jeevan Narney, Aisha Sabatini Sloan and Maya L. Kapoor, who writes in her passage on ocotillo: “to live in the desert sometimes means nothing more than anchoring into soil, eating hot air, waiting for seasons of lushness.”

Giant Sloths and Sabertooth Cats and The Sonoran Desert are both significant literary offerings that illuminate the bioecology of the Great Basin’s past as well as the Sonoran Desert’s present. For those who dread the prospect of an Age of Loneliness, these books provide excellent company, bringing to life the precious biota of the American West, both the species that have long since vanished and those that still survive, at least for now.

Giant Sloths and Sabertooth Cats: Extinct Mammals and the Archaeology of the Ice Age Great Basin
Donald K. Grayson
320 pages, softcover: $24.95.
University of Utah Press, 2016.

The Sonoran Desert: A Literary Field Guide
Eric Magrane and Christopher Cokinos (editors), Paul Mirocha (illustrator)
216 pages, softcover: $19.95.
University of Arizona Press, 2016.