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The Green Life: Book Review Wednesday: Landscapes

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August 17, 2011

Book Review Wednesday: Landscapes

Book review wed Every Wednesday, we review a selection of new and upcoming books addressing a specific aspect of environmentalism. Today we're recommending books about landscapes.

Serengeti: The Eternal Beginning (by Boyd Norton, $35, Fulcrum, 2011): Serengeti is not a book of landscape photography so much as an homage to a famous ecosystem: the Serengeti. Boyd spent 26 years photographing its wildlife, and he compiles his work here, pairing them with essays about the need to protect the Serengeti from change. The ecosystem is fragile, he says, and its majestic species are in danger of disappearing forever. As a platform for conservation, Serengeti is a huge success. As a book of photography, it falls somewhat flat, though a few of its images are stunning. Paired with Norton's memories of Africa and the surreal experiences he's had there, the book makes for a unique mixture of activism and art.

Planet Ice (photographs by James Martin; text by various authors, $40, Braided River, 2009): You've heard it before: Polar ice caps are melting, glaciers are getting smaller, the world is slowly warming. But unless you've been to Alaska or Antarctica or another icy wilderness, you may not be able to visualize what exactly we're losing. Planet Ice presents impressive ice landscapes, wildlife photography, and scientific diagrams, interspersed with educational and personal essays about ice and our relationship to it. The most impressive thing about the book is its variety: It depicts ice in incredibly disparate ways, proving that a climate we think of as static, frigid, and distant actually teems with life. An excellent book for a science classroom.

Generations on the Land: A Conservation Legacy (by Joe Nick Patoski, $25, Texas A&M University Press, 2010): In this series of vignettes and photographs, Texas writer Joe Nick Patoski profiles the eight winners of the Sand County Foundation’s Leopold Conservation Award. They are ranchers and farmers whose land practices are progressive and sustainable, the antithesis of the monoculture factory farming that plagues rural America. They rehabilitate their land and make a profit to boot. In concise, empathetic profiles of the farmers and their families, Patoski outlines the conservation principles viable on the vastly different tracts of land they farm. The book is less a handbook of practices than a portrayal of how specific and complex sustainable farming practices are — and how serious commitment to working with the land pays off. The photographs just make Patoski’s words more compelling — the lands are healthy, lush, and the portraits impressively composed.

The Left Coast (photographs by Alex L. Fradkin; text by Philip L. Fradkin, $30, University of California Press, 2011): Author Philip Fradkin moved to California more than 40 years ago and found himself immediately enamored with its coast. From Eureka to San Diego, the places where California meets the Pacific are unique microcosms, and in The Left Coast, Fradkin teams up with his son, photographer Alex, to revisit the vast coastline. The project's personal nature reflects in the product: The portraits are striking, ranging from reflective images of ponds to the neat inside of a trailer in Humboldt County. The stories about coastal California — from its agriculture to its residences and politics — are simple. They speak for themselves and intertwine history, personal memories, geology, and ecology. Fradkin is a gifted writer, and his son is a talented photographer who knows how to compose shots that are thoughtful and haunting. This book is a piece of art and will speak to anyone who feels the connection between nature and literature.

Pilgrim Eye (by David Halpern, $50, Gneissline, 2007): David Halpern is a photographer, author, and National Parks artist-in-residence. His work focuses on the American countryside, and Pilgrim Eye is his portfolio, representing a few well-culled selections from a lifetime of photography. While his essays are compelling, the most powerful parts of the book are his large-scale nature portraits, especially the black-and-white images from his early years. They are stunning, and match the sense of nostalgia that pervades Halpern's words. A wise reflection on the way a lens can capture the majesty of something bigger than it, Pilgrim Eye is Halpern's opus, and worth adding to any nature-art collection.

--Mimi Dwyer

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