"Must there be a cow on every hill, a road in every valley?" A. Starker Leopold wrote those words in 1949 after departing a much-loved and hopelessly doomed chunk of Mexican wilderness. Leopold died in 1983. He was a renowned wildlife biologist, a skilled and effective defender of wild places and wild creatures, not only the philosophical but the literary inheritor of his father, Aldo Leopold. Wild California: Vanishing Lands, Vanishing Wildlife, text by A. Starker Leopold, color photographs by Tupper Ansel Blake (University of California: $29.95 until Dec. 31, $35 thereafter; 144 pp.) is a magnificent final tribute to the man. Of the eight chapters, Leopold had completed five before his death; the remainder were written by Prof. Raymond Dasmann--a former student of Leopold's and a great conservationist in his own right. Blake's thrilling 7x10 plates of California wildlife and natural scenes were sponsored by the National Audubon Society and the California Department of Fish and Game, while production of this handsome volume was underwritten by the Nature Conservancy--all organizations with longstanding ties to Leopold. From his academic home at Berkeley and his days afield with rod and rifle, Starker Leopold did more than any other single individual to conserve California's natural treasures. An evening with this fine book will help explain what inspired him: Our six bioecological regions--California's diverse treasures--are gracefully portrayed and brilliantly illuminated.
The Sierra Club has a long, honorable tradition of publishing natural history gift books with a conservation message. This holiday season there are three offerings: Island of the West: From Baja to Vancouver, text by Page Stegner, color photographs by Frans Lanting ($35; 152 pp.), Rivergods: Exploring the World's Great Wild Rivers by Richard Bangs and Christian Kallen ($37.50; 224 pp.) and The Arctic World by Fred Bruemmer (principal author and photographer) and Dr. William E. Taylor Jr., (general editor) ($39.95; 256 pp.). All three are a pace off Sierra Club's beaten path.
"The Arctic World" is a sort of modern, ecologically sensitive rendition--exhibit format, many black-and-white and color photos--of traditional geography. Synopsized are polar exploration, traditional and modern life throughout a region with many nationalities but several common cultures, the "landform" of this ice world, and of course its spectacular wildlife. Bruemmer's photography (and the other contributors), and his writing as well as the handful of collaborators--including a Russian, two Canadians and two Norwegians--has a distinct National Geographic flavor, both from the standpoint of technical excellence and from a rather impersonal objectivity. As usual, reading a heavy 10x13 picture book is a bit of a struggle (don't try it in bed), but it is a worthwhile introduction to the Far North.
If you are a hard-core river rat, then you know Sobek Expeditions. Sobek guides thousands of adventurous (and well-heeled) passengers down the most exotic waterways on Earth: the Zambezi, the Bio-Bio, the Indus, the Euphrates. Rivers that were considered completely unrunnable a decade ago, then rafted by a few brave (or crazed) souls in the 1970s, are now featured in the Sobek catalogue in wild color. "Rivergods" is a kind of glorified Sobek catalogue: big, bold, brash; adrenaline leaking from between the pages. If it was designed to make desk-bound dreamers chuck their paper piles and reach for the airline schedules, then I think it has succeeded. There are 12 major rivers draining every continent photographed in 9x12 color, accompanied by literate, relatively informed, adventure writing. That means that native cultures, local wildlife, the landscape itself are backdrop; the saga itself concerns the falls at Mile 179, the rapids, the holes and the eddies. "Rivergods" raises the word vicarious to new heights.
As there are river runners, so are there island lovers. "Islands of the West" visits those few rocky outliers that grace the Pacific shore from Canada to Mexico. Author Stegner, a professor of American Literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and son of Wallace Stegner, is a widely published essayist whose talents are well displayed herein. His personal visions of the islands--Isla Cedros, the Channel Islands, Ano Nuevo and the Farallons, Orcas Island and Vancouver Island--are well illustrated by Frans Lentin's lovely color work, as well as by the smattering of maps and historic photos. Once again, approach runs more to holistic geography than straight natural history. Stegner's underlying expertise is often obscured in quixotic whimsy and rambling style. Not for looking things up, no. But a pleasurable sojourn, an informed exploration, . . . a grand gift: Quite.