By Rudolf Schmid

Modified from: Schmid, R. 2002. Armchair botanizing in deserts (and elsewhere) with a DVD player. Taxon 51: 610. Aug.

BOOK INFORMATION: Mares, Michael A. (ed.). 1999. Encyclopedia of deserts. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, in collab. w/ the Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, University of Oklahoma. xxxvii, 654 pp., ill., ep. maps, 287x223 mm, ISBN 0-8061-3146-2 (HB), $55.00. -- Contents: use of book; subject list by topic; 5-p. intro to deserts; 606-p. ency.; 46-p. index.

With summer temperatures now exceeding 40°C in many major areas of the western United States (though summers in the San Francisco Bay are usually hospitably less than 25° maximum, and as I write on 15 July a cold 15° in mid-afternoon), heat and deserts continue to fascinate, the two being synonymous to most laypersons, who know not of polar deserts and alpine deserts. Encyclopedia of deserts is an outstanding, fine, comprehensive work on the deserts and semideserts of the world. Editor Mares's informative 5-page overview precedes the 606-page encyclopedia of circa 700 entries (done by 37 contributors, including Mares) on climatology, geography, geology, hydrology, anthropology, history, and especially biology (plants, animals, etc.). Each entry has a list of cross references and a brief bibliography. The general accounts of the four deserts of North America have this coverage: Chihuahuan Desert in 7.1 columns (account by K. A. Ernest), Great Basin Desert in 3.4 columns, Mojave Desert in 2.8 columns, and Sonoran Desert in 3.7 columns (accounts by G. K. Hulett & A. Renner Charles). Subdeserts and other regions such as the Colorado Desert and Painted Desert have their own listings, though not the "Southwest Central Valley Desert" (or equivalent) of California (see Taxon 51: 419). A 46-page index concludes. The book, which has 10 maps and 133 illustrations, is oversize, in fact, a tad needlessly so due to the broad margins, rather large font (base 10), and wide line spacing. Although this is a book for browsing and for reference, and not for reading in bed, a more compact size would have been desirable.

The title of this review needs explanation. It was prompted by a fascinating but somewhat flaccid five-page entry by Orlando Ocampo entitled "movies in deserts." Ocampo includes (p. 379) a "partial list of [28] major motion pictures set in a desert" and elaborates on his listing (p. 380) by considering "the basic dramatic functions of the deserts in movies: (1) to isolate people and settlements; (2) to threaten their survival; (3) to become the meeting place of savagery and civilization; and (4) to test men's [sic] abilities and values. These functions are found inextricably combined to different degrees in virtually all film genres dealing with the desert."

Ocampo does not mention botanical incongruities that appear when a movie depicting a certain desert is actually filmed in another desert. For instance, the 1958 movie (in B&W) of Irwin Shaw's thoughtful anti-war book, The young lions, purports to depict British-German war action in the Saharan (Libyan) desert but was actually filmed (and/or used background rear projection) in California, showing Fouquieria splendens (e.g., DVD 1.08.10, 1.13.11, 1.34.53, here being the starting times) and Ferocactus cylindraceus and other cacti (DVD 1.08.28, 1.09.25, 1.11.21) in the Colorado (Sonoran) Desert and Larrea tridentata (DVD 1.38.02) most likely in the Mojave Desert. At the end of the movie a blondized, rather slim Marlon Brando, who shines playing a conflicted Nazi officer, is shot in lower montane coniferous forest amidst Calocedrus decurrens (DVD 2.43.11) and Pinus ponderosa (DVD 2.42.17, 2.42.23, 2.44.40). (At two hours, 47 minutes, it is a long movie!)

DVD players excel for this type of botanizing. The botanical incongruities are more conspicuous on DVD, particularly in widescreen presentations such as The young lions. Its DVD has an aspect ratio that is widescreen anamorphic, 2.35:1, whereas its VCR video and TV broadcasts have a full-screen (standard, academy) aspect ratio of 1.33:1, meaning that the images are pan-and-scan with loss of lateral imagery. Moreover, DVDs have much better clarity (especially in component video) and sound, and are much more convenient to use. This all results in significantly better movie botanizing. (PS: In my post retirement years I anticipate being available as a botanical consultant to movie studios.)

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Last revised: January 2004