HISPANIOLA: A Photographic Journey Through Island Biodiversity. Eladio Fernández. The Belknap Press, $60.
Naturalist and conservation photographer Eladio Fernández is clearly in awe of the biodiversity and raw beauty on display in his homeland, the Dominican Republic. In Hispaniola, a coffee-table book showcasing the flora and fauna of the island that contains both the Dominican Republic and Haiti, Fernández tries to impart that same appreciation to others.
The book's strikingly beautiful color photographs take the reader on a visual tour of the swamps, tropical beaches, wooded mountains and marshlands of the island's national parks and reserves. Among my favorites are the photos of todies—adorable little birds endemic to the area, whose fluffy feathers appear to have been brushed with emerald dust (above right).
Fernández aims not just to capture the amazing variety of creatures, but also to spark an interest in preserving the island's natural heritage. To that end, he has included essays by experts describing the birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles, insects, flora and fungi of Hispaniola. The essays—which appear side by side in both English and Spanish—make it clear that many of the ecosystems and species pictured are at risk. The book allots more space to the Dominican Republic than to its neighbor primarily because Haiti has much less biodiversity—only one percent of its land remains forested, and almost all of its freshwater rivers and streams are polluted. Although steps are being taken by the government of Haiti to halt this destruction, a lot more needs to be done, or else many Haitian species will no longer have a home anywhere but in the pages of this book.—Marla Broadfoot
KITCHEN LITERACY: How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes from and Why We Need to Get It Back. Ann Vileisis. Island Press, $26.95.
Even with recent product recalls in mind, it's hard to imagine feeling deep suspicion on encountering a cereal box or a can of soup in a grocery store. But when these goods were first introduced, the fact that they rendered the food inside them invisible meant shoppers could not rely on their own knowledge to evaluate it—and this made those "hygienic" packages suspect. Ann Vileisis's Kitchen Literacy, a history of the American food system from the late 18th century to the present, brings to life the process by which consumers came to accept store-bought, factory-made foods, from bread to tea bags to mayonnaise.
Firsthand knowledge of food—how to choose the best apples or fish, how to grow and process vegetables—has gradually been replaced by knowledge of brands and technologies, says Vileisis. To illustrate this, she draws on agricultural science, medicine and psychology as well as historical advertisements. We meet characters such as chemist Harvey Wiley, an early advocate of research on food additives, who helped pass the first federal Food and Drugs Act in 1906, and Ellen Richards, the first woman to study chemistry at MIT and one of the founders, in the late 1800s, of "domestic science." Ironically, women's new knowledge of food was created in large part by women who had trained as scientists only to be sidetracked from more "serious" study into the new field of Home Economics.
Kitchen Literacy brings home just how essential it is for eaters to cultivate knowledge of their food.—Anna Lena Phillips
WALKING THE FOREST WITH CHICO MENDES: Struggle for Justice in the Amazon. Gomercindo Rodrigues. Edited and translated by Linda Rabben. University of Texas Press, cloth $55, paper $22.95.
Rubber tappers in Brazil have long been engaged in a struggle to gain workers' rights while protecting the Amazon rain forest in which they live and toil. Gomercindo Rodrigues, who worked for three years to help Chico Mendes unionize the rubber tappers, is ideally situated to provide an insider's history of that endeavor.
Rodrigues's memoir, Walking the Forest with Chico Mendes, first published in 2003 and now translated into English, documents both the changes Mendes wrought and the still-unfolding tragedy of destruction in the Amazon basin. For Mendes, he says, environmentalism was the by-product of a larger struggle for social and political justice. He credits Mendes with two key contributions to the effort: helping to develop and popularize the empate (a nonviolent technique for confronting workers sent by ranchers to deforest land), and conceiving of and helping to create extractive reserves (state-owned areas that allow sustainable resource extraction by traditional communities).
Mendes (shown at left with his children in 1988) led the rubber-tapper movement from the early 1980s to 1988, when he was murdered by ranchers who feared his growing local and international influence. Although his killers were incarcerated, the people who organized his murder have not been brought to justice.
Rodrigues's patchwork account, grounded in descriptions of the practicalities of life in the rain forest, is heartfelt, unpretentious and moving. Context for it is provided in a useful introduction by Biorn MayburyLewis. In an afterword, translator Linda Rabben offers her own reflections on Mendes.—Roger Harris