THE FIELD GUIDE PROJECT: WILD AT HEART

IMAGE: NICOLE STANTON
WORDS: HANNAH O'NEILL

Scattering leavings of human affluence in Snowmass, CO, represent an unlikely truce between civilization and untethered wilderness. Pitkin County contains the most expensive real estate in the United States, and thus rugged valley halves carry spectacular mansions as well as an opulence of moose and black bear. This juxtaposition makes the Roaring Fork Valley a fascinating place for a human to inhabit. I am curious about human forging connections with landscapes, and how deep love for a place can manifest itself in prose, in a deep breath on a crag, and in the generation and employment of field guides.

In this age of vast transportation, nimble human movement, and the sometimes-vanity filled pursuit of youthful independence and individuality, an excess of human wanderers is generated. Field guides represent an opportunity to forge connections between human transplants and new landscapes… to create a resonance between land and human that can grow into a feeling, not of ownership, but of Home.

T
he efficiency of modern transport can create a dearth of knowledge about one’s own environment.  How can we care about a location we live in if we don’t know why it is worth caring about? Field guides provide stories that in an earlier age would be passed down through communities bound by space -- from mother to child, grandfather to grandchild. A field guide, like a mother, ushers you away from eating the alluring, but quite poisonous globes of Baneberry. Like a grandfather, gently imparts how both frontiersman and Native Americans used the highly abrasive Field Horsetail for scouring and polishing their gear. Like a wise older sibling, how stripes on a Geranium petal guide lusty pollinators to pollen-rich anthers.

Let me tell you about my solo- hike companion, pages curled from rainy nights but waxy and resilient, spine straight, an old friend, my copy of Wild At Heart, by Janis Lindsay Huggins. From it’s hardy binding that can sustain no warning rainstorms and backpack jelly accidents, to its comprehensive coverage of a very small area (2500 square miles) of Colorado, it is thorough in coverage, specific in terminology, divine in clarity. The pages shed water and the binding and photos remaining intact and stable even as the edges of paper curl with the use and abuse of field guide employment in the backcountry. This is a book to take with you.

What makes the content of this field guide enormously special is both the narrow geographic margin it focuses within, generating both accuracy and ease when identifying a hawk or pinecone, as well as the familial and familiar language Huggins uses to describe her physical and biological environment.

There is comfort and certainty in the narrow geographic scope of Wild at Heart. While many of the plants and creatures are found throughout the high mountains of Colorado, its specific focus on the Aspen-Snowmass area creates a guide expansive in knowledge but nimble in weight and approachability. While heavy volumes describing every extant songbird in North America are magnificent works of scholarship, to carry one on a day hike or to finger through after a morning of bird song can seem, frankly, intimidating.  Opening Wild at Heart after a breath-catching encounter with a small owl, you will be relieved to find the section only four birds deep. This succinct regional guide makes determining a correct identification reasonable. For me, the positive experience of identifying an animal or plant, and suddenly knowing more about this organism’s story, if delivered in a digestible format, can flesh out and nourish channels of empathy between humans and this world we inhabit.

In Wild at Heart, Janis tenderly profiles everything she finds in the Roaring Fork Valley. While the book focuses largely on native wildflowers, there is a small section dedicated to birds and mammals at the very end, and a brief synopsis of ecological zones and geologic outcrops found in the upper Roaring Fork valley. Through this expansive coverage of life forms, Janis, as one inhabitant of the Roaring Fork Valley, has built up a gloriously simple and painstaking testament to a place. It is a project of deep love, a rare personal creative project that can encompass a fraught relationship between man, beast, and primary producer.  Wild at Heart brings one’s nose to the earth to peep a wildflower in a way that is meaningful and important for a human living along such an actively disputed border between protected wilderness and world-class real estate.

I find that what is delightful about successfully utilizing a field guide is when you finally develop a familial relationship with plants and signs of animals around you. When you recognize a bird call, an elk track, a clump of lichen. When you can name these objects like a friend, and understand why these organisms are ecologically important, it opens your eyes to reveal a varied landscape of multiple scales.

In a high alpine meadow in Colorado, great stillness belies a pulsing and vibrant network of interconnections and ecological efficiency. The shapes of mountains breathe of past glacial activity that took place over heart-quiveringly slow and expansive time scales. Irregular tubes of churned earth hint that many inches below your very feet, pocket gophers are present: sleeping and nuzzling and munching on grass. A streak of Aspen trees, perhaps a quarter mile wide along the side of a conifer-studded slope, is a rustling reminder of an outrageous series of minutes a few decades ago when the stillness of winter was abandoned as an avalanche unflinchingly decimated the pines that inhabited that steep chute: tall and still and peaceful.

I argue that knowledge can flesh out mystique, and this is where an experience with a field guide can totally transform one’s relationship with the Backyard. Information is empowering, and the natural world is a dynamic and fascinating venue to examine cycles of birth, death, decomposition, and human footprints.