About My 70 Co-Conspirators

There’s a thin line between an ambitious project and an impossible one, and two years ago when I started writing my nature guide about Central Oregon plants and animals, I was on the wrong side of that line.

 Ron Halvorson also contributed gorgeous photos like this one of mule's ears (Wyethia amplexicaulis).

Ron Halvorson also contributed gorgeous photos like this one of mule's ears (Wyethia amplexicaulis).

The idea seemed simple enough: I wanted to write the nature guide I’d always wanted to read. It would explain, in jargon-free language, how to identify the area’s plants and animals. It’d also tell folks exactly where to find species—not just in “riparian areas,” but at which specific parks and trails. And it’d be a fun read, full of information and stories that would make readers laugh and help them connect with the species they see along the trail.

That was the idea, but carrying it out alone was impossible. I’m a writer, not a professional naturalist. Like every other Oregonian, I know a thing or two about the outdoors and the plants and animals we have here in Central Oregon, but I couldn’t possibly describe hundreds of species, tell you where to find them, and provide local insights. Not in one lifetime.

Oh, and let’s not forget the photos: Nature guides are all about the photos. To identify birds, wildflowers, and other species, you have to see them. And to make the book appealing, the photos need to be in full color and of professional quality. I could write all the fancy prose I wanted; if the photos didn’t exist or weren’t engaging, nobody would pick up the book.

Did I mention I’m not a photographer either?

Clearly, I needed help. Lots and lots of help. So I started making cold-calls and sending out pleading emails. The first photographer I spoke with asked dozens of questions and talked with me for an hour, then said he wouldn’t donate any photos. And the worst part was that his decision was perfectly understandable—he’s a professional, his time and equipment is expensive, and how could he be sure the book would be as high-quality as his photos? It made sense, but it was also a potentially devastating blow. What if everyone saw things the same way? I couldn’t blame anyone for not wanting to be involved, but I also couldn’t create the book without their help.

Thankfully most of the photographers I spoke with saw things through a different lens (so to speak). Soon after that first refusal, I ran into Sunriver photographer John Williams on a Deschutes Land Trust hike, and he didn’t hesitate to offer up hundreds of his gorgeous photos, more than 60 of which eventually ended up in the book.

Then came more photographers. Greg Burke, Bruce Jackson, Mike Putnam—all well-known, professional photographers—each agreed to donate some of their photos. Ditto M.A. Willson, Kevin Smith, Alice Doggett, Susan Berger, Kim Elton, Jon Nelson, Chuck Gates, Tom Lawler, Carolyn Waissman … and more than 30 other photographers, most of them based in Central Oregon.

Yes, some mentioned that having their photos in my book would be good publicity, but my sense is that they also believed in the cause. You don’t get up at four in the morning to set up your camera and capture the light slanting just right across a field of wildflowers if you don’t have a deep and abiding love for the natural environment—one you want to share with others.

As more and more photographers signed on, I still had the problem of creating and editing the content. Over many months, I read dozens of articles and books so I could write with some knowledge about every species. But I still needed the help of local naturalists.

Here, I have to say I did not hear a single no. If anything, I’ve found that if you ask a naturalist—and I’m talking about college professors, Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife employees, birders, botanists, foresters, and more—about a species they’re interested in, you’re liable to learn far more than would fit in any nature guide. These are experts who have spent decades thinking about, observing, researching, and writing about specific flora and fauna, as well as how it all works together. If anything, they seemed relieved to have a non-expert who was so deeply interested in learning from them.

In all, more than 30 naturalists contributed to the book. Along with providing information, stories, and anecdotes, several reviewed every word that I wrote on specific topics. For instance, Ron Halvorson, who spent over 30 years with the Bureau of Land Management, reviewed more than a hundred pages of copy about trees, shrubs, bunchgrasses, and wildflowers. And he didn’t just go through it once—I lost count, but probably he reviewed every section at least five times. That would explain why I exchanged over 250 emails with him over six months.

Another example: I cold-called Alan St. John, who literally wrote the book on Central Oregon amphibians and reptiles. Within minutes, we were swapping stories about the challenges of writing books—already his humility and generosity were showing through, as he’s a skilled and established writer of local books, and indeed his Oregon’s Dry Side is the best book available about central and eastern Oregon.

Fast-forward a couple months, and Alan had provided all the amphibian and reptile photos I needed for the book, as well as details about where to find each one. And he reviewed and painstakingly corrected every mistake I made. Fast-forward a few more months, and Al and his wife and I were sharing dinner at Spork on Bend’s west side. Such is the beauty of working in what’s still a relatively small community.

When I started The Nature of Bend, I thought of it as my love letter to Central Oregon. Two years later, I am humbled to say “my book” is “our book,” and it’s a love letter to the people as well as the plants and animals of this area. It’s a beautiful guide to the life of this region, created through the combined efforts of dozens of people who have proven that Central Oregon is richer in far more than just its flora and fauna.

Here's Why I Wrote The Nature of Bend

 Photo: Ron Halvorson

Photo: Ron Halvorson

Before I moved to Bend, I lived on Sauvie Island—a gorgeous place and a birding hotspot. Only I didn't know how to identify many of the birds (or other animals or plants) around me. I went to workshops ... then went home and forgot what I learned. I bought field guides ... but struggled to translate their scientific descriptions of species from all over the Northwest to what I was seeing in my own backyard. 

The struggle was the same wherever I went, including many excursions to Central Oregon. I'd hike and bike and kayak and climb, but was forever frustrated that I didn't know what I was looking at along the way (I also drove many a hiking partner nuts with my questions). 

Fast-forward to a couple years ago, and I was fully, madly in love with the Central Oregon outdoors and was straining with all my might to get to know it better. This time I wouldn't be denied, even if it meant having to write the nature guide I'd always wanted to read.

So I started dreaming (some would say plotting). This magical nature guide would be about one fairly small place—Central Oregon—not all of Oregon or the Pacific Northwest or the West. It wouldn't assume you know four-syllable words, but it'd also be smart, covering the basics and adding deeper insights. It'd help you identify species AND give you reasons to care about them. It'd be beautiful, filled with full-color photos that make you itch to get out there. It'd be full of stories from local naturalists who have lived and breathed and protected this place for decades. And the writing would be as joyful and funny and enthusiastic—as wild and alive—as the species themselves.

Well, that was the goal. The Nature of Bend is the book I've always wanted, and I hope it'll deepen your outdoor experiences like it has mine.