Celebrating and Protecting a Unique Landscape: Baja California Sur

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One of the most beautiful and fragile landscapes in our hemisphere is Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula. Around 50% of the Mexican state of Baja California Sur is designated as a biosphere reserve or as national parks.

It is a land full of rare, endemic species and home to dozens of migratory birds, and of course, it is an important mating territory for the grey whale.

Today I have the pleasure to present a review of a book called Oasis of Stone: Visions of Baja California Sur. Oasis of Stone is a book of photography and fascinating essays about the natural history and landscapes of the southern Baja California peninsula of Mexico. It is also a call to action to protect this fragile land.

The essays are by Bruce Berger whose work has appeared in such publications as the New York Times, Orion, and Sierra. The photographs are by Miguel Angel de la Cueva, an award-winning photographer and founder of Planeta Peninsula, an organization that works to promote and protect the rich natural and cultural treasures of the Mexican state of Baja California Sur.

Oasis of Stone is co-published by Sunbelt Publications and Planeta Península.

The book is arranged in four chapters, “Rock that Flows,” “A Stroll through the Thorns,” “Creatures of Mirage,” and “The Newcomer.” The order of the book is very important. This is a journey through a unique land, from its geological formation to the present. During this journey we get a sense of the impermanence of landscapes, and of their fragility.

The first chapter, “Rock that Flows,” is an exploration of the peninsula’s geology. This chapter sets up the context and many of the themes for the rest of the book.

While many people view land and stone as unchanging, geologists see the Earth in constant movement. The trick is to adjust our sense of time. In terms of geology, most changes take place over thousands or millions of years. Other changes to our landscape can occur in the blink of an eye, as is with the eruption of a volcano, or through an earthquake. This region has been subject to slow geological changes, as well as the volcanoes and earthquakes mentioned above. The ocean is also at work on three sides of the peninsula, allowing us to see other geologic processes at work.

One of major themes of the book is discussed in this chapter. On a geologic time scale, says Berger, “..the peninsula that we take for a permanent marvel is only a passing phenomenon, as are we.” Berger does a great job of giving us the story of Baja California Sur’s geological history, and presenting us a context to explore the plant and animal life that are the subjects of the next two chapters.

Non-scientists may at times feel a bit overwhelmed by the details in this chapter, but Berger always keeps things interesting. The essay reminded me of some of John McPhee’s best work in the book Basin and Range.

Miguel Angel de la Cueva’s photographs in this chapter reveal a land that is often surreal and alien. Some of the landscapes look like they could be from Utah’s Canyonlands National Park, except for those date palms and mango trees. These exceptional images remind you that this is truly an unusual place.

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In the next chapter Miguel and Bruce take us on a stroll through the desert, introducing the reader to the many endemic and other plant species of the region. As is with the rest of the book, the text and images perfectly complement each other, serving to transport you to this strange world.

I must admit that if the essays were presented without the images to accompany them, I may have felt a little overwhelmed by the information. However, with the photos to refer to, the essays have a power that they might lose in a different context. There is information here to stimulate the amateur botanist, while Berger keeps thing interesting enough for the average reader.

The next chapter, “Creatures of Mirage,” gives us a chance to see and get to know the beings that inhabit Baja Peninsula Sur. If you were to visit here yourself, you would probably not see many of the animals represented in this set of photos. Berger says, “Baja California’s creatures, physically so imposing, melt like phantoms into their terrain.”

Pumas, coyotes, and bobcats are shy, solitary creatures. Oasis of Stone gives us a rare opportunity to see them up close. While we may never see one in the wild, it is reassuring to know that these beautiful animals are still there.

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Animals that we’re more likely to see are also included, especially birds. There exists a great variety of shore birds, birds of prey, and migratory birds in Baja California. One of the most striking photographs in the book is of an osprey. In Miguel’s hands, this unique bird becomes a symbol of the imposing majesty of nature.

The final chapter is called “The Newcomer”, and it is a fascinating exploration of human beings’ presence here. The text and images follow an order that mirror the themes of the book. The first photographs show the work of early humans, reflecting a time when humans were more harmoniously integrated with the environment.

Ancient petroglyphs and pictographs contain simple abstractions and animals. These ancient works of art literally blend into the stones and plants around them. In this chapter Berger says, “there is no evidence of serious impact from the first documented human presence on the peninsula, around 12,000 B.C. until a mere two centuries before the present.”

The photos then move to modern portraits of people now living in the area. Photos of ranchers, cowboys and children are among them. Other photos show stone churches and thatched-roofed homes.

The book ends on a potent cautionary note. A fold out series of photos is hidden behind this text: “Besides his cultural traditions, man bequeaths another heritage.” Upon unfolding these pages, there are four photographs of human beings’ recent impact on the environment here. A sea-lion injured by fishing nets, contaminated water flowing from a mine, logging, and a pile of junked cars with a road scar in the background.

Berger concludes the chapter with the words, “Because of its exposure the desert must wait, centuries if necessary, to heal from its wounds. Man inflicted those wounds and must start the healing process.”

The book is thus not only a fascinating exploration of this unique landscape, it is also a call to action. Oasis of Stone presents us with these ideas: the Earth is constantly changing and evolving. We as humans are alive at a unique point in time to witness the marvelous land that is the Baja Peninsula. We are ultimately responsible for letting this beauty and uniqueness either thrive or perish.

If we choose to protect this land, we can view this book as a sort of love letter to the Baja Peninsula. If we choose not to protect it, the book will more likely become simply a record of what we had and lost–an obituary. Thanks to Bruce Berger and Miguel Angel de la Cueva for reminding us of our responsibilities and for presenting us with the wonderful work of art that is Oasis of Stone: Visions of Baja California Sur.

Here’s more information from the publisher about the book:

ISBN 0-916251-76-4 $49.95 11” x 11”, hardcover w/dustjacket, 208 pages, 180 color photos

Gorgeous full-color photography by photographer Miguel Ángel de la Cueva, and evocative text by Bruce Berger (Almost an Island, There Was a River), bring the southern half of Baja California to life. Beginning with its unique geology, and moving on to the coastal, desert, and mountain ecosystems of Mexico’s little-known peninsula, this lushly decorated coffee-table book highlights the geology that created this “oasis of stone” and the flora and fauna that are make their homes here.

Ending with a short photo-essay on “The Newcomers” (mankind) from cave painters to the enduring rancheros, the book packs a pro-environmental punch by following the many pages of glorious natural beauty with some succinct words and images of what man’s enduring legacy might be, should we continue unchecked.

You can see more of Miguel Angel’s work at the Planeta Peninsula Website.

Bruce Berger’s website is an excellent resource for those who want to learn more about the award winning essayist and poet.

Please visit the Sunbelt Publications website to learn more about Oasis of Stone. Sunbelt has an extensive collection of books about Baja California and Mexico.


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