New Photo Book an Homage to Last U.S. Wildlands

D.L. Parsell
for National Geographic News
October 29, 2002

National Geographic photographer Annie Griffiths Belt and prize-winning author Barbara Kingsolver have collaborated on a new book that looks at natural areas in the United States that have managed—almost miraculously—to escape the crushing impacts of modern society.

Kingsolver, in the text, calls these scattered remnants of wilderness "a swan song for a continent that once roared with wild grandeur."

Belt produced many of the artistically stunning photos in the book using an approach that evokes the timeless appeal of wilderness areas. The book is organized by habitats: wetlands, woodlands, coasts, and so on. Woven into the text are the stories of five pioneering naturalists and conservationists—William Bartram, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Edward Abbey—who, Kingsolver said, "have seen through the centuries what most people don't yet get."

The book's title, Last Stand: America's Virgin Lands, reflects the authors' concern that unless people agree soon to halt the loss of the last great wild lands, generations to come could face a future devoid of the beauty, diversity, and spiritual solace that natural places provide. As Abbey once observed: "Even if I don't get to Alaska, I need to know it's there."

To help ensure that places like those in the book continue to be "there," Belt and Kingsolver have tied the book to conservation efforts. (See related sidebar for details on the Last Stand Fund.)

National Geographic News interviewed the two women about the project.

Was this project a collaboration from the beginning, or did that come later? What did you hope to accomplish by doing the book?

AGB: In my 25 years as a photographer, working in every region of the United States, I have often been struck by how little virgin land is left. I wanted to show what the land had looked like before it was inhabited. I wanted to create the images in a special style I had used to photograph natural history and which seemed to be effective. When I came up with the idea and got support from an Expeditions Council grant [from National Geographic], it allowed me to take a chance on a project that was very unusual—and something I wouldn't have tried early in my career.

Occasionally you have a vision for a project and you exceed what you set out to do. When I became interested in expanding the project to make a plan for conservation within our own country, I went to Barbara for advice. We had worked together on a National Geographic project years ago and I knew about her interest in conservation.

BK: Annie really started with the ideas behind this book years ago. She spent a long time giving birth to it and brought me in at the midwife stage. We talked a lot about how to organize the book. The day it began to percolate with me was when Annie came to my house and laid photos out on a table. I was overwhelmed with a sense of both timelessness and urgency. I was very much inspired by Annie's photos—it inspired me to look at these places as habitat types and include narratives for each.

How did you select the places featured in the book? Did you travel together?

AGB: I started with a lot of brainstorming, talking to people at The Nature Conservancy, America's Rivers, and other organizations. I had also traveled to a lot of places. I knew the book couldn't be comprehensive; it had to be representational. I spent about 10 weeks in the field, and the whole project took about a year. Combined with [the new photographs] was work I had already done, from color transparencies. The oldest shot in the book was actually taken 26 years ago.…But you really don't start out with a grand plan.

Continued on Next Page >>


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