Among the many handsomely mounted, extravagantly illustrated and very expensive books that will glut stores this holiday season, several are actually worth reading. Four in particular I heartily endorse, two for their celebration of nature, one for its practical uses, the fourth for its evocation of times past, and all for the beauty of their photography.
A Society of Wolves (Voyageur Press, $29.95) by the photographer-naturalist Rick McIntyre is as thorough and engaging an account of the lives of these misunderstood animals as any you will find among a mounting number of wolf-as-victim treatises in these days of environmental awareness. McIntyre tells us that man and wolf hit it off well enough in the primitive eras when both survived strictly by hunting. But as soon as man took to the farm and subsisted largely by raising livestock, the wolf was chased from his door. Medieval man, in fact, demonized the hapless creature, recounting horror stories of the Big Bad Wolf. Wholesale slaughter of the beasts virtually eliminated them from the European continent by the 18th century.
We Americans didn't get around to exterminating them until the next century, when the West was pioneered, but we did an even nastier job of it with the aid and encouragement of the federal government. Before the arrival of European settlers in North America, two million wolves lived in what is now the lower 48 states. By the 1930s they had been exterminated in the western states.
McIntyre, a former park ranger, has been studying wolves for more than 15 years and living congenially among them. On one occasion he was granted, by a female whose trust he had earned, the unprecedented privilege of entering her den, where he took pictures of her newborn pups. Far from the snarling man-killers of ancient legend, the wolves in McIntyre's splendid photos are handsome creatures, playful, companionable and, with every justification, wary of human beings.
In Okavango—Africa's Last Eden (Chronicle Books, $45), National Geographic photographer Frans Lanting offers readers a look at the Okavango Delta of northern Botswana, an 8,500-acre wetland oasis in the middle of the Kalahari Desert. Here mammals, reptiles and birds of every description thrive in a primeval domain that Lanting calls "half-liquid, half-grass." In more than 130 color photographs, Lanting captures at work and play hippos, crocodiles, zebras, impalas, lions "in lethal procession" and even warthogs, butting their monstrous heads. And he has photographed elephants immersed in the delta waters. "The sheer surprise of seeing an elephant emerge from underwater," he writes, "is one of the Okavango's wondrous sights."
This is beautiful country, but it is threatened by encroaching civilization. New paved roads will soon bring this once-inaccessible oasis within a one-day drive of two major cities. "In the years ahead," writes Lanting, "people will further chip away at the edges.... There may still be diamonds in the ground larger than any that have ever been found, but there will never be another Okavango."
Golf Resorts of the World (Abrams, $45) is one book you can tell by its cover: a photograph of the lush Indian Wells course, near Palm Springs, Calif. Some 96 golf resorts—64 in the U.S., 32 foreign—are lovingly photographed, analyzed and judged on their accommodations and service as well as their courses. Ratings are based on reports from Golf Magazine's correspondents, and the book's text was written by Golf's Brian McCallen. Even if you despise the sport, you'll want to visit these places once you've seen Mike Klemme's photographs.
Charles M. Conlon was, from 1904 to 1942, baseball's supreme photographer, though he was scarcely known in his own time and never gave up his job as a newspaper proofreader. The brother and sister team of Constance and Neal McCabe have used 205 of Conlon's 8,000 negatives stored in the archives of The Sporting News for reprinting in their wonderful book, Baseball's Golden Age—the Photographs of Charles M. Conlon (Abrams, $29.95). The McCabes argue that "Conlon deserves to be ranked with the acknowledged masters of twentieth-century documentary photography," and these photos seem to substantiate that claim, particularly the classic 1909 shot of Ty Cobb sliding belligerently into third. This is an invaluable volume for baseball fans and American-history buffs alike.