Land Camera

For Thomas Wiewandt, the Southwest is one big show-and-tell.

The Southwest Inside Out: An Illustrated Guide to the Land and Its History (Wild Horizons Publishing, $24.95) is all that the title promises--and a bunch more. This book is a visual delight and an encyclopedic treasure, even for veteran desert dwellers accustomed to first-rate natural histories and Arizona Highways photography. Written, photographed and published by Tucson ecologist Thomas Wiewandt, this is a labor of love that took more than 12 years to produce. And the quality shows.

Interested in our volcanic past? That's in the "Fire-Formed Landscapes" chapter. "Stories in Stone" covers fossils and footprints in time. Another chapter deals with sand dunes (and divulges the secret of dunes that sing). Sculpted rocks and cliff dwellings are described in words and pictures in "Standing-Up Shapes." Other chapters focus on where water is found in the desert, where it comes from and where it goes. The Southwest Inside Out offers photographic tips in a section called "Capturing the Beauty" as well as listing scenic attractions with maps to get you there and providing links to Web sites and other reference sources.

It's a veritable one-stop-shopping-center to appreciate the desert.

Wiewandt's photography has been featured in National Geographic Society publications and magazine pages ranging from Audubon to National Wildlife. He shot many of the book's more than 300 color images on photo safaris that he led in seven western states and northern Mexico.

As pretty as this book is, Wiewandt is quick to cut off references to it being a coffee table item, insisting that it is not meant to just lie around and be admired. "Take it with you in the field," he says. It's a large-format, fact-packed paperback that can travel in an RV next to the atlas, in a picnic basket next to the wine or in a backpack alongside a canteen.

The reader-friendly format invites area newcomers to learn more about events that shaped the land, people and wildlife of a region defined more by natural features than political boundaries. Picking up the book begins a pleasant page-turning project. Even longtime residents are surprised to learn about singing dunes, rocks that race and lakes that vanish. The book covers the usual, also--how the Painted Desert got its colorful patina and just what makes the Grand Canyon grand. "You can pick it up, flip to any section and learn something new," says the book's creator.

Wiewandt knows the Southwest well. He grew up in northern New Mexico, surrounded by mountain settings that nurtured an innate fascination with plants and animals. "There was never any doubt I would be a naturalist in one form or another," he says. And 23 years after earning a Ph.D. in ecology from Cornell University, he has paid tribute to the beauty of his homeland in the form of this fascinating tome.

"Much of my thinking and photography is aimed at telling stories, contemplating and capturing a single moment frozen in time. I have an endless fascination with the ephemeral, be it as short as a lightning flash or as long as a desert wildflower bloom," he says.

The light went on his true calling after a decade of photo treks and a common theme of questions concerning the geology of desert landscapes. But the text, pictures, drawings and maps in this informative jewel go far beyond the formation of the land and into the integral relationship of all aspects of a living environment. What started out as an 80-page publication with some pretty pictures ended up to be almost three times that size.

"This is a reference book. It's a layered experience in which the visuals pull readers into photo captions and story sidebar information. I've always looked at myself as an ed-u-ca-tor," he enunciates like an English teacher.

Trying to be all things to all people is a frustrating task, but Wiewandt thinks his book comes close to accomplishing communication on multiple levels. Its breathtaking photos draw seasoned desert dwellers who relate to the images based on experience. But its words and pictures invite perusal by all age groups and intellectual levels regardless of a background in geology or science. One retired TUSD teacher, after reading the book cover-to-cover, remarked it should be required reading for high school students. "That was one of the finest compliments the book has received," Wiewandt says, "and my immediate reaction--aside from pride--is that bulk discounts can be arranged."