Regional books: “Hidden Life Around Us,” “A Prairie Season” and more

Some regional books of note for December:

“The Hidden Life Around Us,” principal photography by Peter Feinzig (Aspen Center for Environmental Studies)

In a preface to this book of spectacularly beautiful photography, Chris Lane, chief executive officer of the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES), writes, “My vision was to show the variety of wonderous and critically essential life overflowing all around us by sharing a sampling of life in ACES’ own small backyard.”

ACES’ backyard is 25-acre Hallam Lake Nature Preserve, which has been protected since 1969. The preserve is home to a stunning variety of wildlife, from bear to bats to birds that fly as much as 4,000 miles each year to reach Hallam Lake.  There are insects and snakes, plants and fish.  Hundreds of species, from the lowly dung beetle to the beloved hummingbird, live in this preserve. They are pictured here in some 100 stunning photographs.

Some images show insects many times their size.  A full-page shot of the head of a grasshopper turns the insect into a frightening monster.  All of these creatures are “utterly dependent (on Hallam Lake) for their survival,” writes Adam McCurdy, an ACES director.

The purpose of the project, Lane writes, is to encourage other communities to inventory the rich collection of species to give “developers and lawmakers pause the next time they consider whether to put up a mall or parking lot, spray as pesticide, or bulldoze a seemingly lifeless piece of land.”

Some 15% of the world’s land mass and 7% of its oceans are protected, Lane says. “We must do much more,” he writes. “The Hidden Life Around Us” makes his point.

“Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life Well Lived,” by Malcolm Varon (University of New Mexico)

Georgia O’Keeffe was photographed in her Abiquiú, N.M., home by the world’s best photographers, and quite a few amateurs (including me.)  She was a natural in front of the camera, striking a profile or three-quarter pose in front of adobe walls and animal skulls.

She was also exacting and allowed only two photographers to capture her artwork. One was Malcolm Varon. His pictures of O’Keeffe and her artwork have appeared in more than 175 books.

“Georgia O’Keeffe:  A Life Well Lived” is a study of the last decade of O’Keeffe’s life. She died in 1986 at the age of 98. Varon’s photographs show the traditional O’Keeffe, dressed in black or white, her wrinkled face solemn, facing away from the camera. They also portray a lesser known side of the artist. There are rare photographs showing O’Keeffe smiling, and even some of her laughing with long-time companion Juan Hamilton.

Varon includes photographs of the O’Keeffe compound and the countryside the artist loved to paint.

“A Prairie Season,” by William Wylie (Flood Editions)

In the dying towns of northeast Colorado, high schools are so small that boys play six-man football. To be eligible for the league, a school must have no more than 75 students. Thirty schools in Colorado qualify.

Rules are different. A first down requires 15 yards, and a field goal counts for four points. Games are high-scoring and often lopsided. If one team is 45 points ahead, officials simply let the clock run.

Photographer William Wylie chose one of those schools, the Prairie School near New Raymer, for his photographic essay on a season of high plains football. He photographs the team, starting with early practice, through its eight-game season and one playoff game. The photographs include portraits of each of the Prairie School Mustangs, wholesome boys, shirtless or in football uniforms.

He photographs the Friday night games, often played under lights, showing the joy the players feel at winning and the disappointment of losing.  He also shows the agony of the star player who suffers a dislocated shoulder in the last game of the regular season. Heavily bandaged, the boy soldiers on to participate in the playoff game.

Wylie’s photographs of a season of small-town football on the Colorado prairie are a moving tribute to an American tradition.

“Fragments of Spirit,” by Sara Frances (Photo Mirage books)

Artists and photographers have been capturing the Taos Pueblo for well over 100 years. Denver photographer Sara Frances has been taking pictures of it for the past 60.  The result is a fine collection of photographs of a traditional community that today looks much as it did generations ago.

Frances’ photographs are in black-and-white, color, sepia and, most striking of all, duotones.  These are black-and-white photographs of the mud brown adobe walls with doors hand-painted in faded turquoise, green and red.  Her photographs are architectural, showing mostly the pueblo, but she captures the people, too.

Peter H. Hassrick, former head of the Buffalo Bill Center in Cody, Wyo., calls Frances’  photographs “spiritual” and “poetic.” He compares her work to that of Paul Strand, who photographed Taos in the 1930s.

“Fragments of Spirit” is something of a hodge-podge, however.  Reproductions of paintings by other artists, eight testimonials by academics and an overbrown personal text by the photographer detract from the book’s photographic legacy.

“Pulling Harvey Out of Her Hat,” by Mimi Pokross (Rowman and Littlefield)

Mary Coyle Chase is best known for having written “Harvey.” It won her the Pulitzer Prize for plays; she’s the only Coloradan to ever receive it. The Denver native wrote 13 other published plays, three screenplays, two books and innumerable articles.

Born in 1907, Chase grew up enamored with plays and writing.  She worked as a reporter at the Rocky Mountain News, where she met her husband.  As the mother of three boys, she juggled motherhood and household duties with writing, and in what was appropriate self-depreciation for a woman of her times, she referred to herself as a housewife who wrote plays.

Growing up in an Irish family, Chase was intrigued with pookas, mythical beings that took animal form. She first visualized Harvey as a man-size canary but decided he worked better as a rabbit.  When the play opened in 1940, producers wanted to introduce a bigger-than-life rabbit, but at a tryout, the creature in a black rabbit suit didn’t work.

The play was a sensation; so was the movie. James Stewart, who played the irrepressible drunk  Elwood P. Dowd in the movie, said it was his favorite role.

“Pulling Harvey Out of Her Hat” is a fact-filled biography of Chase and her writing. Chase also wrote “Mrs. McThing” and “Bernadine,” which was turned into a movie introducing Pat Boone.  But nothing ever surpassed “Harvey,” writes Pockross.  Eighty years after it was introduced on Broadway, it is still being produced.

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