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NATURE BOOKS : The Naturalists's Bookshelf

December 05, 1993|CHARLES BOWDEN | Bowden's most recent book is "The Secret Forest."

A huge mechanical beast waddles across a pond of duckweed in Devils Lake, North Dakota and bobs on a rubber lattice work that weaves through the violently green image. What we're seeing is a sewage treatment pond and what we're getting in part from this year's crop of nature books are volumes that do not simply celebrate beauty but question the things we do. For most of us, this genre of large format color books began with the famous Sierra Club series on wildernesses. But increasingly coffee table books display a new edginess. Nature is no longer just a pretty face. LOOK AT THE LAND: Aerial Reflections on America, photographs by Alex MacLean, text by Bill McKibben ( Rizzoli: $50; 176 pp. ) presents the work by Alex MacLean who since the mid-'70s has been cruising the nation in his Cessna 182 with an array of cameras. The images are punctuated by a brief series of meditations by McKibben. The result is a departure from the typical nature book (ah, wilderness) and a venture into images of decay (the Bronx), surprise (the beauty of the sewage pond) and sensuality (the shoreline). Besides moments of beauty, the photographs reveal how boring we can be as a species--living in little boxes and obsessed with straight streets and endless furrows. The perfect gift for that friend who believes the earth was made solely for us and that we are incapable of failing as stewards.

In this year of ethnic cleansing, ENDANGERED PEOPLES with a text by Art Davidson and photographs by Art Wolfe and John Isaac ( Sierra Club Books: $30; 208 pp. ), points out the war against otherness has been going on a long time. Nobel prize winner Rigoberta Menchu argues in her preface that "the indigenous community is not a vestige of the past." But it soon may be. The velocity of a global economy (the rape of the forests of New Guinea for example where a thousand languages and cultures persist) and the brutal policies of nations against smaller groupings (the endless campaign of the Chinese against Tibetan culture) make many peoples as endangered as the spotted owl. The book offers a global catalogue of cultures living at the edge of extinction and is studded wth an array of portraits to demonstrate just how varied the human race can be.

John Burroughs (1837-1921) was so successful in his mission that he has almost been forgotten. As the author of 28 books, he taught an entire nation that nature was just outside the door and was fascinating. Edward Kanze in THE WORLD OF JOHN BURROUGHS ( Abrams: $39; 160 pp. ), has constructed a brief biography lushly illustrated with images of the New York farm that powered Burrough's imagination, plus curious historical photographs that capture the bearded nature prophet hobnobbing with Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone and fellow guru John Muir. Just as Thoreau boasted that he had traveled much in Concord, Burroughs found a universe in Slabside farm and persisted in his vision despite a cold marriage and scant income. He is a useful reminder in our peak bagging, eco-tourist age, that the natural world is all around us, not simply in some far off designated wilderness.

Though Ansel Adams died in 1984 at age 82, it's hard to say that we miss him--his work glows all around us in books, calendars and on walls. His black and white vision of America's wild spots has become largely the way we see the land, at least in our kinder and gentler moments. Now the Trust he left to administer his photographic legacy has issued ANSEL ADAMS IN COLOR ( Little, Brown: $50; 132 pp. ), with 50 plates selected by Harry Callahan, a man who knew Adams and whose own work has helped define 20th-Century photograhy. Adams left more than 3000 color shots but to the end of his life alternately distrusted or loathed color images. While alive, he could never quite bring himself to publish them in a book. He felt color printing techniques were too inaccurate and moreover, he loved control and in his time the available color technology denied him sufficient mastery of a shot. Given these facts, the book is surprisingly bewitching. Between the color plates spanning decades in which the evolution of color technology is apparent, and Adams' wonderful letters and notes on color photography (pro at times but mainly con), we get to see something very rare: an extremely talented man thinking out loud about matters most of us fail to notice. Anyone who thinks photography is simply a mechanical act (click!) will have their prejudices disarmed by Adams' ethical wrestling with the honesty of color images. He was appalled by the fact that his color images wowed people at the same time he believed them inherently false. Give this book to anyone who loves the American West or anyone intrigued by the curious ways of that first power notebook, the human mind.

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