Look at the Land

LOOK AT THE LAND may simply be perused in wonderment as a focused extension of every air traveler’s unsophisticated view from 30,000 feet, occasionally assisted by the pilot informing him which silver ribbon is the Missouri and which the Mississippi, which range is the Rockies and which the Sierras. Awesome aerial photographs reveal natural beauty unspoiled by time. Writer Bill McKibben invites readers to become environmentalists like himself to see MacLean’s photographs as clues to detection. What landscape architects call “beauty strips”—narrow ribbons of trees designed to give the impression you are driving through wilderness—are, when seen from above, mere illusion. Photographer MacLean and wordsmith McKibben combine to show and tell how much of the nation has been crucially altered by human presence; to enable awareness of how boundaries of human settlement are defined by concentrations of smoke and smog.

“One gazes on these images with hope as well,” writes McKibben, “with some faith that photographs like these might play a role in rekindling our affection for the planet . . . and for . . . the one and a half percent of the earth’s surface that makes up the continental United States, the astounding collection of flatness, jaggedness, wetness, lushness that it is our good fortune to inhabit.”

Among the most striking of the natural photos is the one of Shiprock, once the central core of a volcano rising 1400 feet in New Mexico. It is just one evidence of the earth as crust, underneath which there churns something living—proof, McKibben avers, “that we are riding on the back of an undulating animal, [and] our purchase on the edge of this curve is tenuous.”