Book Reviews

Images, Dead and Alive

skulls, by David Liittschwager and the California Academy of Sciences. California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco, CA, 2002, 112 pp., $19.95, paper.

Look, if I could just get this through that thick head of yours, you would know that the set of 30 osseous elements (dem bones) sitting on top of your neck makes a mighty fine skull.

Your skull (and all skulls) is the focus of a major natural history exhibit at the California Academy of Sciences. The exhibit’s companion book, photographed by David Liittschwager, delivers on its promise to “get inside your head.”

The intimate composition and photographic technique Liittschwager used in his previous book, Witness: Endangered Species of North America, create an artful foundation here. However, unlike the subjects of that book, whose evolution may be truncated or extinguished, skulls illustrates evolution at work on a bony head. The 100-plus photographs in this stunning collection present in marvelous detail the diverse skull adaptations that have allowed birds, mammals, reptiles and fish to survive.

The act of viewing the California sea otter’s purple-toothed grin brings to mind the famous engraving of a skeleton inspecting a skull from Renaissance anatomist Andreas Vesalius’s The Fabric of the Human Body. While the engraving leads us to contemplate our mettle and mortality, the photographs in skulls leave us pondering the origins of all species.

X-Ray Ichthyology: The Structure of Fishes, by David Catania and the California Academy of Sciences. California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco, CA, 2002, 60 pp., $14.95, paper.

While boarding a plane recently, I glanced over and saw the entire contents of a carry-on bag pass across the security guard’s video screen in ghostly silhouette. X-rays reflect a compromised privacy, where you perceive something you cannot—or should not—see with the naked eye.

Cataloguing valuable fish specimens with an X-ray intimately combines scientifically important information with visual impact. The haunting, ethereal images allow one to see arrangements of tissue and bones that might take a hundred dissections to understand. Luckily for us, David Catania has already made those dissections, and his intimate knowledge of fish anatomy shines through in the captions complementing these images.

Wildlife; The World’s Top Photographers and the stories behind their greatest images, by Terry Hope. RotoVision SA, Hove, United Kingdom, 2002, 176 pp., $35, hardcover.

Many wildlife photographers’ careers are hitting a crescendo as cable television channels fill their weekly programming with wildlife images 24 hours a day. These video images underline a tenet fundamental to wildlife photography books—that “we will only take care of what we love and we will love only what we know.” Now the nature DVD is starting to compete with the sumptuous coffee table book. Does this mean cinematography will replace what was once the wildlife photographer’s role—inspiring us to preserve and protect the world around us?

Wildlife proves this will not happen soon. When edited down to 20-second scenes for TV attention spans, video begins to approach the economy of expression in photography. Yet, good wildlife photography can distill from the natural world a 1/125th of a second view of reality and make it timeless. It is this trick that makes it inspirational. A wildlife photograph is haiku, deftly expressing in a single image an entire life. Enjoy it now, for as technology advances, our confidence that images are “real” will retreat along with their inspiration.

Against this backdrop, Wildlife could become an historical touchstone for wildlife photography. Viewers will want to get to know the people instrumental to framing the way our generation perceives nature; Wildlife introduces you to the eyes and stories behind the cameras to the industry of wildlife imagery. You will see why photographers are fond of answering the question “how long did it take you to get that breathtaking shot?” with the koan “my entire life.”

Joseph Kinyon

First in Biodiversity

Atlas of the Biodiversity of California, California Department of Fish & Game, Sacramento, CA, 2002, 101 pp., $20.00 via

Of the fifty states, California ranks first in richness of biodiversity and in the number of species that live only here. But it rates second only to Hawaii in the overall number of species at risk. Using modern computing and mapping technologies, the Atlas superimposes layers of information that together allow for the accurate identification of “places on the landscape where biodiversity appears to be unusually high.”

Many of California’s organisms are rare and found nowhere else. By some authorities, five of Earth’s twenty-five hot spots are located in California, and five of the seven identified within the contiguous 48 states of America.

Generously illustrated with photographs, maps, and charts, and provided with an excellent bibliography and glossary, the Atlas provides information on what biodiversity actually is and how it is measured. Threats to habitats and unique organisms are described and discussed. The final section, “Sustaining Biodiversity,” illustrates California’s strategies for conserving biodiversity, through coordinating policy-making and action programs.

The Atlas will be a major resource for policy makers as well as teachers, students, and interested citizens. The clearly-presented collective wisdom of experts in many disciplines provides an integrated whole that helps us “see the big picture” in graphic form. Further, the book will aid in developing integrated and statewide land management policies based on accurate biogeographical data.

Dugald Stermer’s beautiful illustrations and the book’s quality paper make the Atlas as delightful to handle as it is to use.

N.H. (Dan) Cheatham

Stargazing as Fun

Stikky Night Skies, by Laurence Holt. Laurence Holt Books, New York, NY, 2003, 240 pp. $12 paperback

Stikky Night Skies guarantees that in one hour, the reader will be able to identify six constellations and four prominent stars, know how to single out a planet against the stars and to know where to look for the Milky Way.

This delightful little book teaches constellation identification by keying on the most readily-observed characteristics of Orion the Hunter, the Big Dipper, or one of several other prominent star shapes. Then it methodically and patiently guides the reader through exercises in finding that star pattern in page after page of starfields, rotated in different orientations and viewing angles. During the repetitions, Stikky Night Skies deftly mixes in tidbits of star mythology, multicultural constellation interpretation, and some solid astronomical concepts and history. While differences in star brightness are difficult to convey on the printed page, the computer-generated star charts are clear and pleasingly accurate.

New publisher Laurence Holt’s approach—based on the principle that repetition and practice are the keys to learning—is simple and appropriate for all ages.

Bing F. Quock

Galápagos Guide

Wildlife of the Galápagos, by Julian Fitter, Daniel Fitter, and David Hosking. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2002, 256 pp., $19.95 paper.

Packed with natural history detail, Wildlife of the Galápagos was designed for the ecotourist. It allows near-unequivocal identification of creatures a traveler might see only fleetingly, provides details about the wildlife, and offers practical advice for a stay in these fabled isles.

The authors provide many unexpected tidbits. For example, it is commonly assumed that the word ‘galápagos’ derives from the Spanish for ‘tortoise.’ The authors argue that the true derivation is from the old Spanish for ‘saddle,’ apparently inspired by the shape of the shells of certain tortoise species.

Sharp images of many species of animal and plant, together with habitat preference, make identification easy. A coding system separates endemics from introduced species. The famous giant tortoises even get their own section. The book explains how so many tortoise subspecies evolved—for example, five separate subspecies emerged on one island because they were separated by inhospitable lava fields and a volcanic cone. All but the most exacting naturalists will find more than sufficient information here.

The hours spent getting to and around the isolated archipelago can be profitably whiled away with the well-written analyses of the islands’ geology, geological history, meteorology, and habitat types. These threads are neatly brought together in a section on Darwin, evolution, and current scientific research on the islands.

With its careful explanation of protocols, and even tips on how to take photographs, Wildlife in the Galápagos earns its space in any visitor’s rucksack.

Adrian Barnett

Everglades Ensemble

The Book of the Everglades, edited by Susan Cerulean. Milkweed Editions, Minneapolis, MN, 2002, 257 pp., $18.95 paper.

The Fakahatchee Strand. Lake Okeechobee. The Kissimee River, the Miccosukee Tribe and the custard apple. The names are strange, and the people, things and places they denote seemingly obscure. But all are integral elements of a green and steaming place that lurks in everyone’s imagination: the Florida Everglades, the great river of sawgrass and gators that percolates from the edges of Disney World 200 miles south to Key Largo.

Forays into mazelike forests of bald cypress and mangrove swamp, populated by screaming panthers and roseate spoonbills, shredded the equipment and nerves of early explorers within a few days. Pioneers bested by hurricane floods one season and baking droughts in another despaired at ever settling this wilderness.

But all that changed forever when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers showed up in the 1930s. Over the next three decades, the Corps installed a vast system of dikes, channels, pumps, and gates that imposed tight artificial controls over the water’s once leisurely journey to the sea. Against them, the Everglades never had a chance. The world’s largest replumbing project has starved the national park of its life-giving waters and upset virtually every aspect of the natural ecosystem.

In honor of the current $7.8 billion federal effort to undo some of that damage, editor Susan Cerulean has assembled a formidable company of writers and naturalists to tell the story of what may be the most endangered ecosystem in North America. They describe with passion the Everglades’ complex natural history, and how civilization has forever altered this otherworldly place. Together, their voices evoke a land of haunting beauty but uncertain future.

Kathleen Wong