Chris Uhtoff had a problem.
People kept coming into his family's Northwest Nature Shop and asking for a book on local wildflowers. Uhtoff knew exactly the right book to recommend — John Kemper's "Wildflowers of Southern Oregon" — but it had gone out of print.
Books that focus on Southern Oregon natural history are relatively rare, despite the region's stellar reputation among scientists for its rich biodiversity. Many statewide books devote a chapter or a few pages to Southern Oregon. Here are three of the most useful titles with a strong local focus.
"The Klamath Knot," by David Rains Wallace, uses the region as a way to discuss a wide range of ideas on everything from evolutionary theory to the existence of Bigfoot and the astonishing ability of steelhead trout to survive in salt- and freshwater. While "the knot" sprawls across Southern Oregon and much of Northern California, Wallace's work is generally regarded as the most incisive exploration of our region.
"100 Hikes in Southern Oregon," by William L. Sullivan, is a trail guide first and foremost, but Sullivan offers readers little insights about the flora and fauna likely to be seen on each route, along with anecdotes about early European settlers, as well as the people who were here before their arrival.
"The Rogue River Trail Flora Guide," by Rachel Showalter, focuses on the plants most commonly seen along the trail that follows the federally designated Wild and Scenic section of the Rogue River, but many of those same species are found across Southern Oregon. There are photos, and the scientifically inclined can use the dichotomous keys at the beginning of each section. Its 5.5-by-7-inch format, spiral binding and waterproof pages make it the perfect carry-along for trail hikers.
"It's a totally professional, good, useful book," Uhtoff said. "It's portable and it's great for backpacking."
Uhtoff tried to convince Kemper, who lives in Medford, to reprint the wildflower guide, but the project was just more work than the retired engineer wanted to take on.
"I'm almost 90 years old," Kemper said. "I'm just too old to deal with the distributing."
Kemper proposed an alternative. The Uhtoff family could reprint his book, with one stipulation: they could make no changes. The Uhtoffs — Chris, his sister, Marie, and mom, Kathy — happily agreed. Who would want to change a book that had been so carefully designed for ease of use?
"It's not that we were looking to do this," Marie Uhtoff said. "He just handed it over."
"We knew it was a book that sold," Chris Uhtoff said. "That made the decision easier, and it fit so perfectly with our store.
Happily enough, "Wildflowers of Southern Oregon" ($21.95) is back on local booksellers' shelves, under the imprint of Ashland's Northwest Nature Shop, just in time for the spring bloom. Flipping through the pages, it's easy to see why the book sold out its original printing. As Kemper notes in his introduction, he set out to make a practical field guide for non-scientists.
"The book is organized by flower color, since color is the most obvious thing a person generally notices about a plant," he wrote. The 166-page book includes 698 species of the most common flowers, including a few colorful weeds and invasive species such as scotch broom and gorse. The book includes close-up, color photos of 443 species, and each image includes site-specific information about where and when the flower was seen (e.g., "National Creek Falls Trail, Jackson Co., early June"). He avoids scientific terminology as much as possible, and uses our everyday English measures rather than the metric units that science requires.
Kemper's name is well known to natural-history buffs in Southern Oregon and Northern California. Besides the wildflower book, he wrote and self-published several other field guides, including "Southern Oregon's Bird Life," "Birding Northern California," "Southern Oregon's Beautiful Places" and "Discovering Yolo County Wildlife," which he wrote while living in California.
A Portland native, Kemper originally planned to be a journalist.
"Writing was in my blood," he said, "but I discovered I could make more money being an engineer than I could as a journalist." He finished his career as dean of the School of Engineering at the University of California, Davis, and retired to Southern Oregon.
"We used to spend all our vacations in Southern Oregon," he said. Retiring to the Rogue Valley was an easy decision after his daughter settled in Ashland.
Kemper said the wildflower book took about two years to produce. As a self-taught naturalist, he had to learn to see the subtle structural differences that distinguish, say, the western trillium from its smaller cousin, the brook trillium.
"You've got to get down with your magnifying glass," he said. "I had to teach all that to myself."
He spent hundreds of hours collecting photos of flowers in their natural settings, traveling the backroads of six counties: Jackson, Josephine, Klamath, Coos, Curry and Douglas. He discovered that photographing wildflowers was a snap compared to the bird images he'd collected for his bird guides.
"It's easier to carry the equipment," he said. "I had a huge telephoto lens for birds that was too heavy to carry. The flowers do hold still. That helps, too."
He learned that an old man photographing flowers beside the road may get a surprising reaction from passersby. One day when he was lying quite still on the ground to compose a photo, he heard a car screech to a halt behind him. The driver jumped out, asking if he was alright or needed help.
The wildflower book is the Uhtoff family's first publishing venture. For nearly 30 years, their store in Ashland, just a few steps from downtown's busy Main Street, has been a source for products that help kids and adults learn about nature. It's a place where you can buy everything from a high-tech, squirrel-proof bird feeder to a home weather station that records temperature, rainfall, humidity and more data than most people would ever want to know.
Kemper's book was "an opportunity we couldn't pass up," Marie Uhtoff said. "We knew we could sell them eventually.
"You can't find any big publishers that are going to print books for Southern Oregon," she said, because the region's relatively small population can't generate enough demand for the five-and six-figure press runs publishers need to justify their investment.
She said she'd like to see more books about the region's unique biodiversity, a happy accident of geography where three distinct bioregions (the Great Basin, the Cascades, and the coast mountains) merge. Some species can be found nowhere else but Southern Oregon. Others have a wide range, but are rarely found together except in Southern Oregon.
"We have an incredible talent pool in Southern Oregon," she said. "The ability to write quality books for this area is here."
Right now, the Uhtoffs are busy distributing their new book to local bookstores and other outlets, such as Crater Lake National Park and Oregon Caves National Monument.
They're still touched by Kemper's generosity. "It's really neat that he was willing (to give us the book)," Chris said. "He asked for nothing."
Kemper takes satisfaction knowing his work will continue to spread knowledge and appreciation of a place he loves.
"I'm glad," he said, "that it's back in circulation at a reasonable price."
Bill Kettler is a freelance writer living in Rogue River. Reach him at email@example.com.