by Sam Juliano
This past week world famous theoretical physicist and renowned university professor Stephen Hawking issued a dire warning that if the human race were not careful they could bring about their demise before one-hundred years have eclipsed. He specified three major fears -nuclear war, climate change and genetically engineered viruses as potentially lethal to the continuation of the human race, but sustained abuse of our resources and the planet we live on remains in the view of most scientists as our primary concern. Hawking warned that we were at least a hundred years from having the ability to live elsewhere in space, so the next century will tell if we will still be around to to enact that relocation. The picture book authors Diane Z. Shore and Jessica Alexander in a newly published work pointedly titled This is the Earth, have also asserted that man is responsible for the plundering of our natural assets because of greed and gross carelessness, but also because our designs have been so notoriously self-serving and our claims excessive and unnecessary. Yet, Shore and Alexander have not thrown in the towel, nor have they opined that we are past the point of no return, indeed their environmental plea, couched in verse patterned after The House That Jack Built, is meant to keep our alarming rate of pollution and contamination in check by adapting the practice of recycling, riding bicycles and maintaining gardens, even in urban areas. While young readers may well be unnerved by the confessional aspects of a race prone to overindulgence, they are nonetheless invited to make their own individual donations towards an ecological equilibrium too often knocked out of whack by unrestrained narcissism.
The authors first pay homage to the land, water and air, turning over their language sketches to wildlife artist extraordinaire Wendell Minor, whose exquisite watercolor paintings for this book rank with his finest work to date. His first spread, envisioning an African savanna, is populated by elephants, zebras, lions, a rhinoceros and a giraffe in seeming coexistence. Fish are leaping out from the waves in a turbulent river near to a sea mouth, where a canoeist tests the waters. The unrestrained crashing of the water is strikingly accented by Minor’s white water brush strokes and splashes on an aquamarine canvas. The sky spread exhibits a bevy of air borne creatures, among those an owl that fondly evokes the one seen in Minor’s beautiful recent work Daylight Starlight Wildlife, and a soaring eagle that bears some resemblance to the ones depicted in The Eagles Are Back. a lovely book from a few years back that Minor illustrator for children’s literature icon Jean Craighead George. Sandhill cranes, and Canadian geese are in the air, with wonderful pictorial balance afforded by an especially red cardinal on the lower right and Indian tepees in the distance on the lower left.
Then the Earth is seen at an earlier period when Indians and colonial settlers tended to the soil and livestock, milking cows and crushing corn meal. Again the word descriptions are given pictorial elegance by Minor, who evokes Laura Ingalls Wilder in his frontier imaginings. The building of the railroads and Mississippi River ferry steamers are followed by the early airplane. Again the handsome watercolor paintings recreate time and place in Americana mode. Next up is the Brooklyn Bridge seen from the Manhattan side, where construction workers pour concrete and tar, and commuters may they way by foot and by car to earn their keep. The artist’s double page spread is a dazzling display of urban activity, subtlety orchestrated and fully attuned to the city color codes. Shore and Alexander darken the celebration drastically with corresponding four line stanzas of a landfill and water pollution pipe, but Minor answers the call with a scene of hovering birds over a fire in a garbage dump and then in a saturated orange-brown waste water scene by the river that potently underscores the blame for water pollution. Yet the scene from the window of a factory strikingly confirms that water is not alone in being despoiled at the hands of man; stacks billowing black smoke are the bane of air pollution.
The authors bring their strongest condemnation into the forest spread:
This is the Earth, polluted by greed, as we take what we want, which is more than we need, where bulldozing trucks clear the rainforest floor and sands wash away from the vanishing shore…
According to Minor, even some of the animals understand their habitat is being despoiled as per the expressions on the Amazon howler monkey, toucan and ocelot. yet this lamentable tapestry is vividly conveyed in a scene of vivid urgency and sadness. The second part of the scene-specific consequences of our failure to control the effects of pollution is one that addresses climate change:
…where huge Arctic glaciers melt into the sea and fumes and exhaust choke the air that we breathe, endangering nature, creating despair—we forget how to live on this Earth that we share.
A fuzzy polar bear at forefront and another watching from an icy perch watched glaciers break apart into sea in a scene created with impressionist strokes in turquoise.
Minor saves his best for last with the final quartet of double page spreads exhibiting young people committed to conservation. First up are manicured brownstones, with ordered and colorful recycling containers, kids riding on bikes, others tending to a lawn, as a recycling truck is positioned to accept plastic bottles from residents. On the beach two youngsters are releasing young sea turtles as a larger group gleefully look on. The green market spread is magnificent, and features Earth Day volunteers tending to the soil around a tree that lines the street, while shoppers are seen attending to the purchase of fresh fruit and vegetables. The final stanza – Making a difference, becoming aware, together we live on this Earth that we share. is set at an outdoor hamlet between mountains, where campers walked through a gorgeous field of flowers, surrounded by various species of wildlife. Its a spread worthy of a frame. But then there are several in this book that could make that claim. The end papers hearken back to Minor’s days illustrating for the astronaut Buzz Aldrin, and display the Earth seen from the moon on opposite sides. The cover is a lovely pictorial encapsulation of the first wildlife painting, and as such it is arresting. It can’t be denied that Shore and Alexander seem to be advocating tiny solutions for the biggest problems that face the world today, but on the other hand such an effort must be grass roots level, with everyone chipping in. Ultimately it requires the participation of many to maintain the status quo on a number of fronts. The message is a vital one, but at the end of the day the sumptuous art by one of America’s most celebrated illustrators are really what make This is the Earth a work of permanence.