A California Bestiary: Beauty of the beasts

 

A California Bestiary
Rebecca Solnit and Mona Caron
64 pages, hardcover: $12.95.
Heyday Books, 2010.

In the tradition of illuminated medieval manuscripts, A California Bestiary presents 12 literary and visual portraits of fauna native to that state, from the extinct (California grizzly), to the emblematic (California condor), the ubiquitous (California ground squirrel), and the preciously obscure (mission blue butterfly). The highly allegorical bestiaries of yore were compendiums of wonder that often held deep moral or religious meanings. The book’s author -- Bay Area resident, essayist and historian Rebecca Solnit -- firmly believes that "the sense of wonder that emerges from scientific knowledge is at least as great." As proof, she points to elephant seals, which can hold their breath for an hour, and blue whales, whose hearts are the size of a bison and beat six times a minute.

This lovingly produced volume not only touches on the species’ natural history and conservation status, but also references cultural aspects. It captures the ability of wild animals to enrich our daily routines. The idea that emerges most clearly from these vignettes is that we can get to know a place through its four-legged, winged, finned or flippered denizens. Unsurprisingly, even the perimeter of a densely settled landscape remains permeable to wildness. Solnit describes California as "a patchwork of urban and wild that melt into each other as coyotes and great blue herons take up residence in San Francisco, mountain lions roam the Oakland hills -- and development moves further into what was once agricultural or wild."

The accompanying artwork by Swiss-born illustrator and muralist Mona Caron only reinforces the point; many of her colorful creations depict our footprint on the land -- power lines, dams, subdivisions and the wildlife-stopping border fence. Her creatures, however, cannot be contained. They escape from the grid, spilling into the pictures’ margins.

Much to her credit, Solnit restrains her prose, granting the animals center stage. To those who feel adrift in a tide of sameness, who feel crowded by humanity or fear that the New West is lacking in magic, she offers encouragement: "There is another California with tens or hundreds of millions more inhabitants, billions if you count the insects, a state of herbivores and carnivores, of creatures that weigh a thousand pounds and those that could land on the tip of your fingernail. ..."