With its charts, graphs and scientific data, Gwendolyn Waring’s book about the San Francisco Peaks seems rather academic at first look. But delve deeper, and it reveals itself as part love story.
“I have tasted the magic of the Peaks,” Waring writes in the introduction to “The Natural History of the San Francisco Peaks: A Sky Island of the American Southwest,” the story of the making of Flagstaff’s massive volcanic feature and of its flora, fauna, climate and human impact.
“Its whole story is incredible,” Waring says. “There are wonderful mysteries up there.” My hope is people see how much I love the Peaks, and that they enjoy the book and it inspires them.”
Waring begins the book with the area’s geological history including the violent events that formed the San Francisco Volcanic Field. She covers the establishment of mountain’s ecological world and what we now find in the Peaks and ends the book considering the “dry days ahead.”
With warming trends continuing, the Peaks ecosystem will face new sets of challenges, she says, and those call for further study of the mountain.
“It became more and more apparent that there was a need to understand this mountain better, to consider how it has changed and is changing,” Waring argues. “A greater understanding of the mountain leads to greater protection of it.”
“The Natural History of the San Francisco Peaks” packs lots of figures and fascinating information in 200 pages, and the details are thought provoking.
It’s the only mountain in Arizona with plants above tree line, “making for a very rare ecosystem,” writes Waring. There are 33 plant species on the Peaks that exist nowhere else in Arizona, and at least one — the San Francisco ragwort — is found nowhere else in the world.
In the book, Waring writes that grizzly bears were present in northern Arizona until the early 1900s, that the Inner Basin was once covered in glaciers and that the Alberta arctic butterfly is abundant on the Peaks along with other species that appear only in tundra-like conditions.
Arctic? Tundra? How did such life come to be on Arizona’s highest mountain? Waring says that is among the unsolved mysteries of the Peaks.
“What intrigues me is how these tundra species survive and how they got to the Peaks. They have an utterly improbable life up there.”
Waring devotes a few pages in the book to the 1889 studies of naturalist C. Hart Merriam, who assigned life zones from the desert to the tundra on the Peaks. Waring says he was likely the first to recognize the Peaks as a sky island, a mountain surrounded by different lowland terrain.
A longtime Flagstaff resident, an artist and explorer, Waring first savored northern Arizona as an undergrad studying biology at Texas A&M University.
“I went to the North Rim [of the Grand Canyon] to learn about field biology, and I never left.”
She finished her degree at Northern Arizona University, went to Tucson to earn a master’s degree and came back to NAU for doctoral studies that centered on the creosote bush. She said an article request became a “game-changing experience” for her.
The request came from Robert Breunig, then director of the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix and later director and CEO of the Museum of Northern Arizona. He had asked Waring for a piece for Desert Botanical’s magazine, and she began to write about science in a way that might appeal to all people, not just scientists.
Her excitement for the Peaks and its environs is evident in exclamation points that pepper her text. “One female [mountain lion] had a range that encompassed the entire mountain!” she writes in the section on animals.
The self-published compendium (she acknowledges financial backers in the book) brings together a wealth of research that has been done on the mountain and supplements parts with anecdotal evidence from those who’ve spent time there. In the appendices, are lists of all plants, fungi, birds and mammals found in the Peaks.
Out since last fall, her book has been well-received, Waring says, and she continues to lecture and hold discussions about it in Flagstaff. It is Waring’s second book. Her first natural history book, published in 2011, covered a broader area — the Intermountain West.
At the conclusion of "The Natural History of the San Francisco Peaks," Waring notes that drier times ahead “will mean that we all need to approach the place a lot more gently.” She implores us to leave the mountain as we find it. “No more garbage, please, only love.”
“The Natural History of the San Francisco Peaks” is $35 and available in Flagstaff at the Museum of Northern Arizona, Aspen Sports, Babbitt's Backcountry Outfitters, Winter Sun and Jay’s Bird Barn. It can be ordered online at http://sanfranciscopeaksnaturalhistory.com.