A Field Guide to Rocky Mountain Wildflowers, released in 1963, is a treasure. (Photo: Marc Muench/Tandem)

The Unexpected Joys of a Shabby Wildflower Guide

Picking daisies with the Craighead bros

Leath Tonino

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I first heard of the book seven years ago from Jack Turner, a bioregional essayist and retired Exum Mountain Guide living in Wyoming, at the foot of the Teton Range. He was talking about Henry David Thoreau—specifically, how climate scientists utilize Thoreau’s two-million-word journal from the 1850s as a reference, a kind of before-shit-hit-the-fan baseline, because it so dutifully and meticulously documents the arrivals and departures of birds, buds, ice, and the like. Turner riffed for a while on phenology, the study of cyclic and seasonal phenomena, and the ecophilosopher Paul Shepard, who claimed it was “what the mature naturalist finally comes to…a deeper understanding and a more refined sense of mystery.” Then he enthusiastically recommended A Field Guide to Rocky Mountain Wildflowers, published in 1963, written by John Craighead, Frank Craighead Jr., and Ray Davis.

I stumbled on the book this April and have been reading and rereading it as if it were a work of unsurpassed literary beauty, an elaborate lyric poem. Which it isn’t, of course. But which, paradoxically, it absolutely is.

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

About the book’s authors. Davis, a systematic botanist, traveled widely to collect specimens and established a top-notch herbarium at Idaho State University—definitely an inspiring guy, but hardly a celebrity. The Craighead brothers, on the other hand, were two of the most well-respected scientist-conservationists of the 20th century, comparable to Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold. Identical twins born in 1916 (I picture them dropping from the womb in matching flannel-and-denim outfits), Frank and John grew up in Maryland and became infatuated with falconry as adolescents. After high school, they drove a Chevy out west on dirt roads, catching raptors en route, and published an article about the experience in National Geographic. They developed a wilderness-survival manual for the Navy during WWII, drawing on their command of bushcraft and indigenous North American lifeways. They conducted a long-term grizzly research project in Yellowstone and pioneered the use of large-animal radio-tracking collars in wildlife biology. They petitioned for the Wild And Scenic Rivers Act, passed in 1968. They hiked and camped everywhere.

Given the adventurous elements of this résumé, you may assume a dusty, musty field guide to tiny ephemeral flowers would be unlikely to catalyze Craighead mania (aside from Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, it’s the shabbiest volume in my local Crested Butte, Colorado, library). But Jack Turner wasn’t kidding—the book is a treasure. At the superficial level, it’s just very helpful in teasing out the buttercups and mallows and primroses and paintbrushes. Furthermore, it’s a welcome reminder that the slide from winter to spring to summer in the high country is nutso, totally dynamic and exciting and suspenseful. What’s today’s surprise gonna be? Who’s gonna emerge between the melting snowbanks and glittery trickles and patches of hallucinatory green grass? Aha, dogtooth violet! Aha, shooting star! Aha, long-plumed avens! The book gets me crawling around outdoors—curious, engaged, zoomed in, nose-close—and that’s always good. Muddy knees. Soggy socks. Yessir.

OK, but I mentioned “literary beauty,” and that’s the really special thing this classic field guide offers. To emphasize the poetic power that tingles my spine whenever I browse its faded, brittle pages, I’ll arrange a few passages as verse.

From the “Flowering season” subsection of the swamp laurel entry:

Latter part of June to first part of Aug.
Mosquitoes are becoming
a nuisance
both where and when
this plant blooms.

And the yellow monkeyflower entry:

May into Aug. First look for it
when Scarlet Gilia appears.
Still in bloom in Sept.
when Rocky Mt. whitefish begin
to spawn, bull elk
are bugling, and beaver
have made their winter
food caches.

And the larkspur:

From April to July.
When they are beginning
to bloom, sparrow hawks
are defending territories.

You get the idea. There are hundreds of species in the book and almost every one receives this same nuanced treatment, the flowering season defined with regard to an encompassing ecosystem, a phenological context. As the artist-naturalist Roger Tory Peterson, the book’s editor, puts it in an introductory note, “Such facts are often more illuminating than the bald statement ‘late June to early August,’ since 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 altitudes.”

So it’s a concrete strategy to design a user-friendly field guide for eager duffers in need of assistance (e.g. me). Fantastic. Much appreciated. But again, the poetic quality—little language, big vision—is the really special, spine-tingling thing. Can you imagine attending to your backyard, your watershed, your place, with the degree of care and focus that would generate these phenological passages? If I shot plant names at you, rapid-fire Latin binomials, could you tell me what the chipmunks are doing at the time of blossoming? And what the trout are doing? And what the geese are doing? It’s incredible, this omnidirectional knowledge, this attunement to overlaps and interconnections, and it starts, as you spend more hours with the book, to feel like a vision of a world that is whole. John Muir’s oft-quoted, quasi-mystical quip can’t be avoided: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

Earlier this summer, wandering at dusk on a Thursday evening, I discovered three blue columbines and a nest of squawking raven chicks in a lodgepole pine. That Saturday, climbing a tundra ridge at 12,500 feet, I witnessed the collapse of sun-rotted cornice into a cirque, then spotted a pair of horned larks and a microgarden of alpine forget-me-nots. And a few days later, taking a dawn stroll at the edge of town, scanning the wetlands with my binoculars, buzzing on black coffee, surging with the joy of aimless caffeinated searching, I saw 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. In other words, I saw a mosaic, a gestalt—many pieces fusing to form a sum greater than the parts. I saw it smack-dab in front of me and I saw it later, at breakfast, slurping oatmeal, a certain trusty book open on the kitchen table.

Little language, big vision. I read. And reread. And marvel over the beauty of these phenological passages puzzling together in my mind and heart. But they aren’t the only aspect of the book that evinces wholeness. For each species, there’s also an “Interesting facts” subsection, and they tend to highlight edibility and medicinal properties, in particular the applications honed by generations of Native Americans, the Rockies’ original residents (Apaches, Crows, Utes, Bannocks, Shoshones, et al.). Silky phacelia makes a salad? False hellebore contains alkaloids that lower blood pressure? Elk and humans alike relish nibbling mountain sorrel? Death camas kills indiscriminately? A Field Guide to Rocky Mountain Wildflowers suggests that the feral creature called 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 days
are T-shirt-warm and children
are learning from their parents
to harvest yummy
ripe berries.

Or better yet:

You’ll notice it
when nerdy dudes
are crawling in meadows,
counting sepals and stamens,
guided by an old shabby book,
grinning and sometimes
shouting Aha!

Lead Photo: Marc Muench/Tandem