Life on the edge

  • Men and boys pose with leatherback turtle

    Courtesy Calif. Society of Pioneers
  • Two children with California condor shot for sport

    Courtesy Raymond Quigley

The joke is that California went from barbarism to decadence without passing through civilization. A new book demonstrates otherwise. Life on the Edge: A Guide to California's Endangered Natural Resources is a rarity: a work of coffee-table beauty and quality that tells a wonderful, although heartbreaking, story. It is a story of a state whose flag, apparently with no ironic intent, shows a grizzly bear: an animal that has been killed off within its 150,000 square miles. It is a state blessed with incredible biological diversity, thanks to the isolation provided by the Sierra Nevada range, whose residents then set about introducing exotic species, destroying the diversity.

But it is also a state that over the past few decades has become more civilized, more aware of what has been lost and what is on the edge of being lost. This book is a step toward preservation and restoration of what is not irrevocably gone.

Life on the Edge is filled with breathtaking photos of the California landscape and its endangered and threatened fauna (a companion book on flora is planned). Some of the best photos and drawings are historic: two children dwarfed by a dead condor; game hunters with mountains of shot animals or caught fish; a whale being hauled out of the water at Monterey; a cartoon of whales holding a banquet to celebrate the rise of the oil industry (which the artist thought would save the animals); and a drawing of the invertebrate family tree: the "little things that run the world."

The beauty is made intelligible by essays and interviews on wildlife species, on diversity and the threats to diversity, on bioregions, on human impacts, on water projects and on other subjects.

Some essays and interviews are workaday. But some glitter as sharply as the photos. Biologist Lloyd Kiff says that there is no reason condors can't come back; the habitat is there, and condors share with humans the same fundamental need - for open space. Another biologist, Peter Moyle, charts just how quickly the conservation ethic in California has changed:

"I took a job at Fresno State in 1969 and started going out and looking for native fishes. There was hardly anything written about them at all ... Soon I was presenting my results at local fisheries meetings. I was regarded by the fisheries establishment at that time as a mildly eccentric university professor doing rather useless research."

The "fisheries establishment" was busy wiping out native fisheries by introducing game fish, as it had been doing for a century. But soon, Moyle writes, the academic sessions on native fish were packed with "students and the younger members of the fisheries agencies." And interest has continued to grow.

The book grew out of a joint project by BioSystems Analysis Inc., in Santa Cruz, and Southern California Edison.

It is available for $45 paperback, $75 hardback, from BioSystems Books, 303 Potrero St., Ste 29-101, Santa Cruz, CA 95060; or by calling 1/800 983-LIFE; wholesale inquiries to Heyday Books, P.O. Box 9145, Berkeley, CA 94709 (510/549-3564).

*Ed Marston

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