The Field Guides are The Wild Wander’s flagship project - a series of illustrated letterpress guides to the native species of every state in the union. It started with a single print detailing flora and fauna representative of my home state of Virginia, and ultimately grew into a study of the delicate balances that make each state feel like home. In 2020, I launched the Field Guide to Fifty Kickstarter to fund printing all fifty states’ guides.
For the fifty states, I spent over three years researching and drawing plants and animals native to each state. Rather than focusing on traditional state symbols, I wanted to capture the feeling of being in a state - what birds would you see in your backyard? Which flowers are the first you’d look for on a spring hike? What fish might you bring home after a summer day on the lake?
Capturing this feeling came relatively easy for the places I had lived or traveled to, but despite requests, I was reluctant to create guides for the places I hadn’t been. I always want my work to feel genuine and do justice to folks’ regional pride, and I wasn’t sure that I could capture the same feeling for an entire country.
The answer ended up being more focused research. I spent time on regional hiking, gardening, and birding forums, read comments on state fish and game sites, and looked to historically significant species that shaped regional communities. From this research, I came up with lists of 12-15 species that I felt represented the biogeography of the state.
Once the list was compiled I started illustration with rough pencil sketches followed by ink drawing. I generally did not have a design in mind during the illustration phase, so once the illustrations were complete, I would digitize them and move them around in a sort of collage. At times this meant adding or removing illustrations to create a more balanced composition.
LETTERPRESS PRINT PROCESS
Once the digital design is complete, it needs to be made into a polymer plate for letterpress printing. If you’re familiar with film photography or screen printing, it is a similar process - the digital design is printed as a photo negative and placed on a light sensitive polymer sheet. When exposed to light, the exposed areas harden, and the soft polymer is washed away leaving the design raised on the plate.
Once the plates are complete they are placed on a base, and then locked in place in a metal frame called a chase. The key here is registration - ensuring that the design will be aligned with both the paper and any other plates the same way every time. The chase is then mounted into the press, which is operated with a fly wheel and footpress.
To ink the press, rollers are mounted over the ink disk, and a small amount of ink is dabbed onto the disk. The press is slowly started to roll the ink evenly over the disk, and the chase is loaded into the press. The press is now ready to print, and paper can start being hand-fed to the press.
The press has size constraints, so the Field Guides are broken down into two separate prints. This means that this entire process needs to be repeated twice for every guide - the designs on each plate have to be perfectly aligned, and ink coverage needs to match.
This is an intensive, hand-crafted process, and from the very beginning of the Field Guides I knew I wanted the integrity of letterpress to be part of the project. The texture and tactile richness of letterpress printing on cotton paper is unmatched, and the vintage style of print lends itself beautifully to the designs. Our printer, Colby Beck of Post Rider Press, has been the backbone of bringing the Field Guides to life. The prints are deceptively simple, which only highlights her mastery of print. Over the years that we’ve worked together my style of illustration has been pushed by her craft, and we’ve been able to create details that I wouldn’t have thought possible when I first started.
This all brings me back to the beginning of why I took on this project. As a kid growing up in the suburbs, I often felt that my love for nature and the outdoors was somehow less valid because I hadn’t been hiking, visited National Parks, or done any of the markers of what I felt were “outdoorsy”. That my time watching birds in my neighborhood, collecting leaves, or taking notes on the weather was not a true love of the outdoors.
My hope for the Field Guides is that folks are inspired to look to the natural spaces around them - backyards, urban areas, green spaces - and see themselves as both a part of and shaped by the natural world. To reflect on their everyday surroundings with curiosity, appreciation, and respect for the incredibly delicate balances being held in place by these species.