Books: Wildflowers, Desert Journal, Canine True-Crime

Sunday, November 15th, 2020

From the pile of books and manuscripts to review on my desk, here are three fascinating ones--passion projects all. If you're looking for gift ideas, any of these would appeal to readers. (Full disclosure, I contributed writing to one of these; the other two are by writers who took workshops from me.) 

The two books pictured above, Beauty and the Beast: California Wildflowers and Climate Change, and The Magical Universe of the Ancients: A Desert Journal, are both coffee table books filled with glorious photography and writing that both inspires and informs. They are also both conceived by husband and wife teams who spent decades visiting and photographing the subjects (and in the case of Magical Universe, writing about those travels). And both books were born from the author/photographers' passion for conservation of our western landscapes. 

In the case of Beauty and the Beast, award-winning photographers Rob Badger and Nita Winter spent more than three decades trekking and camping throughout California to photograph the state's extraordinary indigenous flora. Their outstanding photos--both portraits of individual plants and dreamy landscapes--are complimented by essays by a variety of authors, from eminent botanist Peter Raven to beloved Potawatomi author and scientist Robin Wall Kimmerer. (And me!)

"Fritillaria recurvata with Rufous Hummingbird," one of dozens of individual wildflower portraits in Beauty and the Beast (Copyright Winter-Badger Studio)

Although the book, co-published with Colorado Native Plant Society, focuses on California, it is such a compelling celebration of natural diversity that it would appeal to any reader who loves wildflowers and nature. It's also sure to kindle wanderlust--for whenever travel is safe--to see these stunning wildflower displays in person. 

From Beauty and the Beast: California Wildflowers and Climate Change (Copyright Winter-Badger Studio)

"Poppies and Giliga, Antelope Valley Preserve," From Beauty and the Beast: California Wildflowers and Climate Change (Copyright Winter-Badger Studio)

The photographs in The Magical Universe of the Ancients are mostly moody black and whites that capture the ancient mystique and sculptural forms of the Four Corners country where Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico meet, a landscape that photographer Gerry Morrison and author Julie Whitsel Weston have lovingly explored. On trips ranging from llama packing to four-wheel-drive tours, Weston and Morrison experienced life in canyon country in all its rich and sometimes dangerous beauty. 

Morrison's evocative photos capture the beauty and mystery of these places, from long-abandoned cliff houses and vivid pictographs to round-shouldered adobe churches. Whitsel Weston's essays are drawn from her journals of each trip, and illuminate the diverse cultures (and characters!), and vibrant nature, along with contemporary conservation issues. 

(The photos in the book are not crooked--it's my fault for not getting square photos of the pages!)

Anyone fascinated by the cultures and landscapes of the northern Southwest will enjoy this book, and be inspired to help protect these threatened spaces. 

Untangling the story in Heartbreak Kennel: The True Story of Max and His Breeder also absorbed the author for decades, but on an entirely different subject: true crime. Unkelbach, a journalist and lawyer by training and a lover of Labrador retrievers by inclination, discovered quite by accident that the breeder of Max, one of her favorite dogs, had abandoned nearly 100 dogs, many sick or dying, on a Colorado farm. 

Unkelbach couldn't reconcile the picture of the woman who bred her and her husband's goofy Lab, their best hiking dog, with someone who would abandon her animals in crates in a field in the summer heat. The contradiction sent Unkelbach on a quest, using both her journalism and law training, to understand how a college-educated animal lover from an upper-middle-class background could end up abusing her dogs. The resultant story reveals both the very human flaws of this particular breeder, along with the often unseen failures of both animal protection laws and the business of breeding pedigreed dogs. 

Three passion projects, three good reads for a variety of reading tastes. Enjoy!