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Photographic Negatives

Peggy Fiedler

Humanature. Peter Goin, 187 pp. University of Texas Press, 1996. $60 cloth, $29.95 paper.

I've long had a weakness for the gorgeous nature photography that has undoubtedly swelled the membership rolls of the Sierra Club, particularly when this genre first became popular more than two decades ago. These tomes romanticized nature in an undeniably compelling way that to this day still supports the large and loyal following of calendar and poster buyers.

In Humanature, Peter Goin has compiled a photographic statement about the human species' all-pervasive (and, we are to believe, unequivocally pernicious) influence on the natural world. This book seeks to evoke a visceral response to the idea that "… nature, if it exists in pure form at all, is under siege." The source of inspiration for the book is revealed in the preface, where Goin, a professor of photography at the University of Nevada, Reno, describes his own reaction when he first realized that a "virgin forest" was in no sense virginal. According to Goin, pristine nature no longer exists, just "humanature"—a message meant to elicit alarm and disdain. Such an epiphany appears oddly naive in the 1990s.

Essentially all of the book's prose is found in a 23-page essay belaboring the long-acknowledged fact that humans have exploited their environment to the extent of their technology for as long as anyone can remember. The text predictably begins with Genesis 1:26 ("... let them have dominion ...") and rambles through a remarkably traditional array of conservation topics: environmental pollutants, invasive species, restoration and reclamation, and the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers. His examples are also standard fare: kudzu (Pueraria lobata) in the southeastern United States, Florida's Kissimmee River, DDT, water allocation in the American West and beach stabilization along the Atlantic Coast, among others. Some statistics are cited, but only a few are referenced. The extinction rate of "... more than one species per hour" is offered without citation, but Jared Diamond is credited with estimating that nearly 20 percent of bird species are endangered or at immediate risk of extinction. Some of his statements are inaccurate (peanuts did not originate from the Old World) and some are misleading (stinging nettle is not exclusively an Old-World import). Many of the black-and-white photographs are unnecessary or tangential to points made.

The eight chapters of photographs—trees, the zoo, beaches, the mine, reclaimed land, the river, dams and wildlife—are uneven. A few images are visually interesting—a drain in a North Carolina swamp and the dummy deer decoy sequence, for example. But most are neither compelling nor imaginative; some are nearly indecipherable.

Humanature fails to evoke the same love of the land as its predecessors. It left this reader annoyed by the insipid tirade about the "idea of wilderness," as well as by the pat condemnation of some of the good things that biologists have done and are doing today. I take issue with his veiled condemnation of genetic engineering, biological control, and ecological restoration. Square tomatoes and sheep/goat chimeras aside, a lot of good things, particularly in the biomedical and conservation arenas, have resulted from these endeavors. And although I agree with Goin (as do most conservation biologists) that we have soiled our own nest, I am tired of painting Homo sapiens as a bad guy. An even-handed portrait of human beings and their place in the natural landscape is much more complicated than the simplistic images offered by Goin. A compendium that seeks a more insightful middle ground would be of enormous benefit to scientists, artists and the lay public. A measured treatment would be both responsible and educational. I would welcome a photo essay lying more realistically between the swooning landscapes of Ansel Adams and the stock photos of strip mines and precisely metered tree plantations—if, that is, such a book did exist.—Peggy L. Fiedler, Biology, San Francisco State University

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