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March 21-27, 2007

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'Planet Earth As You've Never Seen It Before'

Planet Earth As You've Never Seen It Before
(Alastair Fothergill; UC Press and BBC Worldwide Americas; 312 pages; $39.95 cloth)

This sumptuous oversize volume of color photographs accompanies a Discovery Channel 11-part documentary series beginning this week (March 25 at 8pm) but stands on its own as a testament to the jaw-dropping diversity of life that is evolution's gift to wondering humans. It also serves as a calling card for the latest satellite, aerial, miniature and high-definition photographic techniques. Divided into sections according to geographical zones ("Frozen Poles," "Mountain Heights," etc.), the images encompass ultrawide-angle space-eye shots, such as a deep-russet sandstorm sweeping the Sahara; unusual overhead vistas from high-flying planes of migrating clutches of elephants and giraffes; a wary Amur tiger pacing through patchy Siberian snow drifts; and near-microscopic close-ups of open-ocean oddities like the gooseberry, whose rhythmically pulsing cilia create multicolored patterns of optical interference. The book covers both the obvious (penguins and pandas are nature's best brand) and the obscure: the sulifugids of the African desert, who manage, with their pulpy orange heads, to be even scarier than the spiders they are related to; an Asian antelope known as the saiga, which sniffs the wind with a trunklike nose and is in danger of extinction even before most of us knew it existed; and the gelada, a white-whiskered primate that is seen clinging to a rock impossibly high in the Ethiopian mountains. The chapter on caves passes into a world beyond credibility, in which even seeing isn't really believing—especially when it comes to the Snottites, pendulous bacterial colonies in the Mexican cave of Willa Luz that "feed on hydrogen sulphide and excrete drops of sulphuric acid." While all of the photos are revealing, a few rise to real aesthetic heights. A two-page spread by Fred Oliver poses an emperor penguin against a vast looming wall of emerald-green ice fleck with flurries of white—nature's natural nobility. My only complaint is that not enough information is provided about how these amazing images were obtained.

Review by Michael S. Gant


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