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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, December 8, 2003

Conservation and critters for the coffee table

By Mary Ann Grossmann
Knight Ridder News Service

Stores are in full holiday mode. So it's not too early to begin our yearly roundup of gift coffee-table books, which are fun to look at even if you aren't in a buying mood. The past few years have been tough for publishing, so there aren't as many expensive books around this year. But the ones you'll find on the shelves are worthy. Today, we look at lavishly illustrated books about the land and animals.

"Dinosaurus" by Steve Parker (Firefly Books, $49.95)

If you're serious about dinos, this is the book for you. Subtitled "The Complete Guide to Dinosaurs," the hefty volume tells about the important fossil finds, with small maps showing where they were located. In the text, which begins with the first signs of life on earth about 3,500 million years ago, the reader is taken through the rise of the dinos, with descriptions of each. The paintings of the creatures in motion are riveting (and sometimes a little scary), and the whole book is fun to look at, even if you aren't much interested in the scientific debates about what these giants ate or how they ran.

"Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and Land" by Sub-hankar Banerjee (Mountaineers Books, $35)

Much debate and outrage surround the Bush administration's desire to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Banerjee's book, subtitled "A Photographic Journey," was instrumental in persuading the U.S. Senate to vote to prevent drilling within the refuge. Banerjee went to the area to photograph polar bears, and ended up spending 14 months in the field over two years. His pictures of birds, bears and sun-struck mountains of ice are beautiful, but what makes this book so valuable are the essays by nature writers, including Peter Matthiessen and George Schaller.

Former President Jimmy Carter wrote the foreword, in which he states his belief that the small amount of oil in the refuge (1 percent or 2 percent of what this country consumes every day) isn't worth degrading "the greatness of the arctic refuge."

The book concludes with Terry Tempest Williams' popular poem "Wild Mercy." It begins: "The eyes of the future are looking back at us and they are praying for us to see/beyond our own time. They are kneeling with clasped hands that we might act with/restraint, leaving room for the life that is destined to come."

"South Sea Islands: A Natural History" by Rod Morris and Alison Ballance (Firefly Books, $35):

There's a lot of interesting information packed into this book, which looks at the ecosystems and inhabitants of 14 islands, from Madagascar to the Galapagos, Easter Island to Hawai'i. The New Zealand filmmakers discuss the Easter Island statues, how iguanas got to Fiji and the demise of the elephant bird, which weighed 1,100 pounds. They photographed cute Tasmanian devils, a snake that might grow big enough to eat a human, giant tortoises and seals. A nice blend of informative text and beautiful pictures.

"Amazonia: The Land, the Wildlife, the River, the People" by Afonso Capelas Jr. (Firefly Books, $35):

It isn't possible these days to publish a book about a lush landscape without discussing degradation. That's certainly true of "Amazonia," a book that celebrates the inhabitants and natural wonders of the Amazon basin, which spreads across almost the entire top half of South America. The area is home to 2,500 species of trees, 300 species of mammals, 2,000 kinds of fish and 2,000 species of birds — about a third of all the species on this planet.

But that could change. Deforestation, fires, poaching, logging and poisons unleashed by gold miners are depleting rain forests at twice the rate experts had predicted. These practices affect indigenous peoples and threaten wildlife. Afonso Capelas' text is factual but nonjudgmental, which is too bad. When the rain forest is gone, there will be consequences for the entire globe. What we need is some anger and outrage as well as pretty pictures.

"Grizzly Seasons: Life With the Brown Bears of Kamchatka" by Charlie Russell and Maureen Enns (Firefly Books, $29.95)

The Kamchatka Peninsula in far eastern Russia teems with brown bears that Charlie Russell and Maureen Enns have been photographing for eight years. The naturalists wanted to do a study confirming their beliefs that bears are not vicious predators, and they successfully adopted three orphaned cubs. But when they returned to the area in May of this year, they discovered that all their study bears and many others had been slaughtered in an apparent attempt to make them stop their work. Their photos of the bears are so alive, readers feel they could reach out and touch these furry giants. One sweet picture shows Russell standing in a stream, fly-fishing, with one of the cubs standing beside him on hind legs, as though he's watching for a good catch.

"Mammal," edited by Don Wilson (DK Publishing, $30)

This would be a nice companion to "Dinosaurs," since tiny mammals took over from the big guys more than 200 million years ago. This big book, which features some 500 full-color photos, takes a continent-by-continent look at small chipmunks and big whales and mammals in between. There's information about habitats and about the relationships and impacts humans have on mammals and their environment.