California's wilderness in prose and image

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Wild California: Vanishing Lands, Vanishing Wildlife, by A. Starker Leopold. Photos by Tupper Ansel Blake. Berkeley: University of California Press. 144 pp. $35. Conservationist A. Starker Leopold and photographer Tupper Ansel Blake have teamed up with the University of California Press to produce a book of major significance called ``Wild California: Vanishing Lands, Vanishing Wildlife.''

This coffeetable book serves as a fitting memorial to Mr. Leopold, an internationally known wildlife biologist who died before the book was finished, and as a showcase for 100 of Mr. Blake's stunning color photographs. This juxtaposition seems fitting, and serves as a symbolic passing of the torch from one whose career of influencing our viewpoint through his teaching and writing has now ended, to one who will continue to influence it through his photographs. This same torch came to Leopold from his father, Aldo Leopold, whose book ``A Sand County Almanac'' has had tremendous influence in establishing a conservation ethic.

This book originated when the writer was routinely consulted by the photographer, who was carrying out a major photography project sponsored by the National Audubon Society and the California Department of Fish and Game. They soon became friends. When Blake's photographs went on public display, it was clear to Peter Seligmann, California Field Director for The Nature Conservancy, that these two great talents should be linked up in a joint venture. This book is the result, published in cooperation with The Nature Conservancy.

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Leopold's essays are devoted to the history and the legacy of California's wild lands and to four of the state's major regions: Desert, Sierra Nevada, Central Valley, and those portions of the Great Basin dipping within the state's boundaries. He gently reminds us of the delicate balances of nature, such as how desert wildlife survives from the boom of wet years to the bust of prolonged drought, or the strategy of the blue grouse for surviving a Sierra winter. Equally gently, but firmly, he reminds us of the foibles of our land use practices and how they interact, for example, with the population cycle of migratory deer herds.

The final two essays, titled ``The North Woods'' and ``California Farewell,'' are written by Leopold's friend and student, Raymond F. Dasmann, who so skillfully draws from Leopold's other writings that you scarcely know there has been a change of author.

Among the passages chosen by Dasmann is one which I feel could serve as an epitaph for A. Starker Leopold: ``Though I lament the passing of the wilderness, I mean to pick no quarrel with civilization as a whole; automobiles, modern houses, and beefsteaks are as much appreciated by me as by anyone else. I question merely its universal spread.''

Blake's photographs are as elegant as Leopold's words. Almost all of them feature a living creature as the central subject. Some of them are awe-inspiring, like the back-lit mountain lion who seems ready to come purr and preen on the photographer's lap. Some are humorous, such as the row of common mergansers swimming in lock step along Redwood Creek, or the prickly tail-end of a porcupine at Clear Lake. Each is accompanied by a paragraph informative enough to serve as a mini-lecture for the scene depicted. The photographs are all expertly reproduced on heavy, high quality paper and for me, are alone worth the price of the book.

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