A pilot's-eye view of the West

  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.


Collier, a 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 his work.


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 Earth.


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 months.


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 canyons.


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 Green River.)


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 into monuments.


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 despair.


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.