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Gift Books 1987: Nature : A Compass for the Armchair Explorer

November 29, 1987|DAVID M. GRABER | Graber is a research biologist with the National Park Service.

For a brief moment, nature gift books foundered. After a generous decade, publishers retrenched in 1986. This year, they are back in force with a brave and handsome array of titles begging to be wrapped in decorative paper and placed under the tree of your choice.

The most striking offering is not a nature book, per se. The National Geographic Society: 100 Years of Adventure and Discovery by C. D. B. Bryan (Abrams: $45; 484 pp., indexed, 425 illustrations) is a friendly retrospective. Lavishly illustrated, elegantly bound, and wrapped in an image of the society's famous magazine, one might presume this to be a paean to an organization about as tightly linked to American culture as the phone company (particularly since Alexander Graham Bell was one of its founding fathers). Not quite. The society's great historical photographic archive is utterly arresting--particularly its early days when so much of the world was poorly known and photography itself a novelty. Then, as now, the society sponsored exploration and research and made history as well as reported it. But the National Geographic Society's style for much of its existence--conservative to the point of stodginess, bland, cornball--is also baldly reviewed by author Bryan. The comings and goings of the various Grosvenors, aging dynasties and political struggles--thanks to Bryan's excellent journalism--are nearly as colorful as the Geographic's subject planet. More than a coffeetable book, this tome is a natural for armchair geographers.

Kudos for the best nature photography of 1987 must go to Tracks in the Sky: Wildlife and Wetlands of the Pacific Flyway, photography by Tupper Ansel Blake, text by Peter Steinhart (Chronicle Books: $35; 176 pp., indexed, 120 color photographs). That's no small feat, as the standards for nature photography have gone stratospheric. Two years ago, Blake produced "Wild California," with renowned wildlife biologist A. Starker Leopold doing the writing: It was a smash. Leopold, ardent lover of waterfowl, is gone. But in Peter Steinhart, Blake has found a graceful and informed voice for his powerful images. And once again, printing and binding are impeccable. . . . California is the midpoint of a migratory path that extends from Alaska to Central America. Its riches are marshes, swamps and little strings of riparian woodland that we Californians have been most successful at eliminating. Along with the wet places have gone millions of ducks, geese, swans and other denizens of these richest of habitats. So take a gander at what is left. It will take your breath away.

Unsurprisingly, the Sierra Club has published two notable contributions to the holiday list: Portraits of the Earth by Freeman Patterson ($35; 180 pp., 115 color photographs) and The Edge of Fire: Volcano and Earthquake Country in Western North America and Hawaii by Robert Wenkam ($35; 176 pp., 110 color photographs). Patterson uses photography as his canvas to reveal a deep, personal relationship with the natural world. His subjects are as exotic as Angola's Namib desert and as homely as the local creek at his home in New Brunswick, Canada. Often they are highly abstracted--the play of light on a desert dune or an ice floe; or sometimes as formal as an array of bare winter alders; occasionally floral and sentimental. Patterson has published several books about photography and includes substantial detail about the making of his pictures that will prove of interest to hopeful photographers. But it is his vision of nature and his intimate relationship with his subjects that give this book something extra.

Earthquakes are timely for Californians. They will be for the next several million years, at least. And there are undoubtedly volcanoes in the forecast as well. So must it be for dwellers of the Pacific Rim, our side of which includes the West Coast from Alaska to Central America, and the Hawaiian Islands--places where the great Pacific and Continental plates forever collide in a kind of slow-motion Armageddon. Robert Wenkam's flamboyant photographs and prose link this unstable earthly platform with the kinds of societies we Westerners have built, from Mayan to Angeleno. Nothing technical, but quite literate, Wenkam's narrative thread weaves exciting, sometimes catastrophic images of roiling lava and rended landscapes with others seemingly more bucolic: the Sierra Nevada, Baja California's rugged coast, Crater Lake . . . but in fact equal testament to this land's tempestuous nature.

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