Most people remember Charles Lindbergh for his flight across the Atlantic. They are less likely to recall that he also wrote The Spirit of St. Louis, winner of the Pulitizer Prize for autobiography in 1954.
Most people know Antoine
de Saint-Exupéry for his children's classic, The Little
Prince. They are less likely to remember that Saint-Exupéry -
an early French aviator - also wrote Wind, Sand and Stars, a book
about flying which received a National Book Award in 1939. Today,
the American West has its own version of Lindbergh and
Saint-Exupéry - a pilot and author of seven books who makes
the world come alive in words. But there is more to Michael
Collier's craft than words and wings.
family practice physician from Flagstaff, does something his two
famous predecessors did not: He works wonders with a camera,
bringing a pilot's-eye view of mountains, rivers and deserts to
earth with spectacular, incandescent aerial photographs. Collier's
books on the geology of Denali, Death Valley, Capitol Reef, Grand
Canyon, the San Andreas Fault and the downstream effects of dams
evoke large themes. And like the geological processes he writes
about, Collier continues to shift and expand - to add new layers to
This year marks the emergence of his
most ambitious book yet: Water, Earth and Sky: The Colorado River
Basin, published by the University of Utah Press. This handsome
book does what a good regional book should: It broadens your view
of a landscape you already know, pulls back curtains of myth and
misunderstanding to show you the Colorado River watershed as it is
- in trouble but still one of the most remarkable landscapes on
Collier's book is a watershed, too, one
that divides the old school of Colorado River management from the
new. The old school scissored the river into useful things:
kilowatt-hours, acre-feet, user-days, animal-unit
The new school examines how all that
tailoring is affecting the fabric. It teases apart connections,
sees strands that link dams with disappearing native fish and
riparian vegetation. But it also sees ways to stitch rivers back
together - to mend past damage with controlled floods, and with new
ways of managing dams.
Reading Collier, you can
almost hear the rumble of a flash flood down Prospect Canyon, smell
the promise of rain over New Mexico, feel the Colorado shape the
sandstone walls of Labyrinth and Stillwater
Ruby Canyon. Twentyeight Hole Wash.
Westwater Canyon. The cliffs rise and fall, breathe in and again
out. Small irrigated farms punctuate the bottomlands. The Dolores
rolls in from the San Juan Mountains. Onion Creek. Professor Creek.
Salt Wash. I give the plane some rein. She knows where the loose
rocks are, where the prairie dog holes are. There's no sense in
having too tight a grip; after all she started flying 20 years
before I did.
Collier does something many
authors do not: He shares the spotlight. The lead essay in Water,
Earth and Sky is Collier's. But four that follow come from
scientists who are shaping new ways of managing the Colorado basin.
(The final essay is by Ellen Meloy, winner of the 1997 Spur Award
for contemporary nonfiction for Raven's Exile: a Season on the
Collier's scientific cohorts do a
respectable job of writing for a lay audience. But it is Collier
who lifts their work out of scholarly shadows. Mostly he does it
through photography and flying.
It's hard not to
rhapsodize about Collier's photography. Using a hand-held camera,
flying and taking pictures at the same time, Collier captures the
basin with its guard down, unfiltered by politics or bureaucratic
slant. His photos turn canyons into cathedrals and transform mesas
I'm not sure where Collier finds
his inspiration. I'm just glad he does. With Water, Earth and Sky,
he has given us a Colorado River book that looks more to the future
than the past and speaks more of hope than
The engine sounds good, gliding over
the Green, floating past the Maze, heading toward the Orange
Cliffs. I photograph, intoxicated by the light ... As the sun sets
and the alpenglow dims, I set my camera aside and gather my
bearings. Not lost, but living in a different world. I'm guided by
the inevitability of this river heading for the sea,
through-flowing, alive and magnificent. n
Tom Knudson reports for the Sacramento Bee. He
lives in Truckee, California.
A pilot's-eye view of the West
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