David J. Weber, Book Review Editor
Our Historic Desert: The Story of the Anza-Borrego Desert: The Largest State Park in the United States of America. By Diana Elaine Lindsay. San Diego: Copley Books, 1973. Bibliography. Illustrations. Maps. Index. 154 pages.
Reviewed by Alfred Runte, Ph.D. Candidate in American Environmental History at the University of California, Santa Barbara, author of National Parks: The American Experience (forthcoming), “Beyond the Spectacular: The Niagara Falls Preservation Campaign.” New York Historical Society Quarterly 57 (January 1973): 30-50; “‘Worthless’ Lands—Our National Parks.” The American West 10 (May 1973): 4-11; and other articles.
Our Historic Desert obviously was intended to be of regional rather than national interest. To be sure, there are many “historic” deserts more famous in the United States, Death Valley being just one noted example. “Our” refers to the people of Southern California in general and San Diego County in particular, those for whom proximity to the Anza-Borrego region has resulted in a special appreciation and understanding. Nor is this a book for research scholars, despite the fact that it has been written by a professionally trained historian. Rather Our Historic Desert is for the weekend enthusiast, the dedicated amateur who wants to know more about his favorite backyard hideaway, but not to the point where he is overwhelmed by uninteresting facts and boring statistics. In this regard the book succeeds admirably. It contains just the right amount of detail, presented in a clear, flowing style that most general readers will enjoy. Included is coverage about a variety of topics—geology, botany, wildlife, history and folklore, complemented by additional treatments of the Indians of the Anza-Borrego Desert and modern efforts to protect the region as part of the California state park system.
Still, by no means is this a mere “coffeetable” book lacking in substance. The pictures clearly supplement the text rather than overwhelm it. Perhaps it is the subject matter itself, so clearly subdued in comparison to a Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon, that helps keep the photographs in their proper perspective. But the absence of additional tinting and retouching for effect, ala Arizona Highways, also gives a truer visual interpretation of the Anza-Borrego region. In this day and age when real often is not real enough, the simplicity and effectiveness of the photographs are also much to be appreciated.
Other readers undoubtedly will enjoy the sprinkling of colorful desert paintings, which likewise are effective in presenting another interpretation of the Anza-Borrego Desert. In addition, basic plant and animal life has been tastefully presented in six pages of black and white drawings, while a full-color “bird’s eye view” map on pages 110-111 graphically situates the Anza-Borrego State Park with regard to the city of San Diego, its environs, and the Imperial Valley.
Seeing this book, it is regrettable that more has not been written about the state parks movement in this country. Unusual landforms like Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon attract scholars much as they attract tourists, while the state parks, for the most part carved from less spectacular scenery, have been out of the mainstream of American life and thought. But the state parks also have their story, often as dramatic and significant if not as well known or popular. Indeed, were it not for the fact that a few Americans looked beyond the spectacular in nature, to the value of the ordinary as well as the extraordinary in the natural world, most state reserves simply would not exist, including Anza-Borrego. It is therefore much to the credit of Ms. Lindsay that she has deemed it worthwhile to come forth with such a fine book as Our Historic Desert. Undoubtedly few people outside of Southern California will read it, as is to be expected. Nevertheless, in the final analysis Our Historic Desert promises to educate and inspire the people who count, those for whom the Anza-Borrego Desert is a region worth preserving because it is a part of home.