Sierra Club books capture Africa and the Arctic in photos

Isak Dinesen's Africa: Images of the Wild Continent from the Writer's Life and Words, by Isak Dinesen. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books. 142 pp. $35. The Arctic World, by Fred Bruemmer. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books. 256 pp. $39.95. A mixed bag holds some treasures and some things that are just curiosities. That seems to be what the Sierra Club has come up with this time with its new volume of photographs from Africa juxtaposed with Isak Dinesen's words.

Judith Furman's introduction to ``Isak Dinesen's Africa'' is a gem. Ms. Furman has written a biography of Isak Dinesen, the pen name of a Danish baroness, Karen Blixen, who established a coffee plantation in the Kenya highlands with her husband in 1913. After two decades it failed, and the then-divorced Baroness Blixen returned to Denmark, never to see Africa again. Years later she wrote two elegant books of reminiscences and stories from that period, ``Out of Africa'' and ``Shadows on the Grass.''

Furman explains the mentality of European emigrants to Africa in the era just before World War I, as well as the problems they faced -- and brought with them. Leading up to this is this statement: ``It is the music of a place that gives the impression of its purity: the finely balanced music of many strings, equal in tension. But it is also a relatively simple matter to untune them. The emigrants did so . . . ,'' and she spells out how.

``But the most alienating and disruptive import was the Western concept of possession, of inheritance -- which begins at the moment of dispossession, of disinheritance, as it did in the original Eden.''

She is speaking of the emigrants' biggest problem, and suggests it had much to do with Isak Dinesen's awareness of the irony of her own possessiveness of her African world. Furman concludes that this is ``what makes `Out of Africa' such a useful parable about loss, and such a moving personal story.''

Some of the photographs in the book are magnificent, conveying the sweep of land and sky and the naturalness of the inhabitants. But no photograph can ever give that sense of being in a primeval world that one has when living there for a while, away from Europeanized areas.

In her preface, Diana Landau, executive editor of Sierra Club Books, admits having difficulty in matching photographs to Dinesen's already evocative prose, aiming instead for a visual distillation of African experience. Some previous Sierra Club books have succeeded beautifully in similar endeavors, and this one does, here and there. But the overall effect is not quite up to standard.

Perhaps that is because the book is a tie-in to Universal Studios' film re-creation of Isak Dinesen's years in Kenya rather than an independent effort. Or it may have to do with the layout of the book, with its slightly random arrangement of photographs and subject matter.

On the other hand, some archival snapshots, plus stills from the film, do give an interesting documentary and period flavor to the book, even if some of them may fall into the curiosity category.

There is one unfortunate pairing of text about the Ngong Hills' steep slope to the Rift Valley with a picture of the top of Mt. Kenya, which is misleading. Otherwise, the mixed bag is worth rummaging in for assorted goodies, especially by Dinesen fans.

The North Pole is as old as the rest of the globe and almost as long inhabited, but as Fred Bruemmer notes in The Arctic World, ``nothing is considered really `known' until we from the south have found it, mapped it, and named it.''

That all began only a few centuries ago. Thousands of years of mutual ignorance between Arctic dwellers and those to the south had passed before a curious Greek ventured so far into the frigid unknown. Interest flared up and died down, usually depending on visitors' expectation of gains from exploration. Now, interest in the Arctic has sprung up once again with recent awareness of its natural riches and strategic importance.

Despite the natural unity of the Arctic, the land has already been divided up among the nations bordering the ocean, so Mr. Bruemmer's contention that ``the division of the polar sea is likely to be a major challenge, and problem, of the future'' seems obvious.

Hence this book. Full of truly lovely photographs of most aspects of this relatively unknown area, the book seems meant for our education as well as appreciation. There are instructive, up-to-date chapters by several international experts on the history of the Arctic, on the geology and geography, the people, flora, and fauna.

Perhaps the most attention-getting text, for Americans anyway, is the survey of Russian exploration right up to the present, written by academician A. F. Treshnikov, president of the Soviet Union's Geographical Society. His information just isn't readily available to the general public, for whom this book is intended.

In ``The Arctic World,'' the Sierra Club has produced a beautiful book for holiday giving. Its message is implicit: Save this wonderful world. Maybe we should pay attention to some of its inhabitants, the Lapps, of whom Tacitus wrote in AD 98 that ``it is this people's belief that in some manner they are happier than those who sweat out their lives in the field.''

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