Excellent nature photography has become so available that it suffers from overexposure. We have become spoiled by superb productions: television documentaries and glossy oversize books that seem to capture even the most elusive and private of creatures in their most intimate moments, all of it perfectly exposed in marvelous color. Despite a certain satiation that has set in, and an erosion of life's mysteries, the trade-off has been worth it: Our urban population has a more realistic picture of nature than they are likely to acquire firsthand; people have--one hopes--been seduced and inspired by the charms of wildness unimpaired; and doomed biotic communities have been recorded for our grandchildren.
Stephen Dalton's latest "photographic essay" is a gorgeous 8.5 x 11 production with 145 color photographs and accompanying paragraphs elegantly arranged and impeccably rendered on coated stock. Its subject is the great northern deciduous hardwood forest--surely one of the more photogenic and appealing biomes on the face of the Earth for those who, while reclining by the pool amid gray-green tangles of chaparral, nonetheless hark back to the mighty oaks and dappled, moist sunlight of our ancestral habitat. But here's the catch: Dalton's Oakwood is in Sussex, in southeastern England. It's a fragment of an ancient forest that was occupied, and altered, by ancient Britons, Romans, Saxons and Normans. It was a home that provided wood for houses and fuel, game, wild herbs and berries. Its trees were cleared for farm plots, or coppiced to produce poles. Ironically, the intense exploitation that culminated in the 17th and 18th centuries, and the utilitarian management of the 19th Century have, in the 20th, been largely supplanted by preservation in wildwood as people have abandoned the countryside. This pattern is repeated, to varying degrees, in much of Northern Europe as well as eastern North America, where there are more acres of forest now than at any time for 150 years.
So Dalton's forest is a foreign one . . . and yet, not really. There is a nice, unintended lesson in ecology and evolutionary biology in this book, obviously written for an English, not an American audience of nature-lovers: The Sussex forest is a sibling of one you might find in Massachusetts, or Ohio. The oaks and beeches are different species, but oaks and beeches nonetheless. The deer are roe instead of white-tailed, the jay is more buff than blue, the woodpeckers' spots are arranged differently. The players' roles are nearly all clearly recognizable, and largely interchangeable from one continent to the other. Where climate and soil permit, The Great North Temperate Deciduous Hardwood Forest encircles the Earth. The heroic predators, wolves and bears, have been exterminated from most regions of this biome. In some places, local performers offer variation on the theme. The cougar haunts portions of the American forest, while in eastern Siberia, the tiger--if not burning bright--still smolders. Forests like England's, which have suffered exploitation the longest and adjoin large human populations, have lost more elements and are more severely fragmented.
In fact, there is an element of sublime illusion in "Secret Life of the Forest." The forest fragments that still plentifully dot southern England are not really resurrections of the forest primeval. The megafauna are largely gone and will not return. Many of the summer songbirds have been decimated by habitat loss or hunting along their European migration routes, and in the Mediterranean and Africa where they winter. The hawks and falcons barely hang on against the onslaught of poachers, pesticides, and loss of prey. Alien plants and animals brought in at one time or another from America, Europe, and elsewhere have wrested pieces of the landscape from the rightful heirs: The American Eastern gray squirrel has decimated the native--and more attractive--red squirrel, while savaging nesting birds through its egg-eating habits. Pollution, especially acid rain, has silenced frogs, stripped the streams and ponds of fish, and may be robbing the very oaks of their vigor. Yet only the vaguest hint of these blights disturbs the tranquillity of this book.
For all that, Dalton's forest vision is breathtakingly beautiful. Divided into the four seasons, his essay captures flowers, birds, mammals, greenery, and even insects with equal perfection. The paragraph-long captions are at once scientifically punctilious (some credit here goes to collaborator Jill Bailey) and without pedantry. If the presentation can be faulted at all, it is in its very perfection. These are idealized vignettes where badgers freeze in razor-sharp, perfectly lit detail, and bumblebees hover posed over blossoms, not the real forest in all its ambiguity and messiness, where wildlife is glimpsed in murky shadows while ticks and nettles all too readily make themselves known.