When the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V asked Mexico’s conqueror, Hernan Cortes, what Mexico looked like, Cortes crumpled a piece of parchment, threw it on the floor, and said, “Mexico.” Mountains, bluffs, peaks and ridges.
Five-hundred years later, Michael Berman, longtime photographer/adventurer and teller of the tale above, is trekking through the mountains of Sierra San Luis. He comes across a white rock face on which someone has scrawled the word perdido, Spanish for “lost.” The word echoes across time and space, song and story. We think of lost immigrants traversing the desert to reach la frontera. We think of Gogol’s Lost Souls and Dante’s Inferno, with its dark woods and eroded pathways. Someone has left their mark, and the ambiguity of their one-word message tantalizes. Is perdido a cry for help? A statement about mankind? An improvised road sign? A warning? Is it like the underwater hunger stones that warn of droughts (under the River Elbe in the Czech Republic one such stone reads ‘Wenn du mich siehst, dann weine’: ‘If you see me, weep’)? Maybe if you see perdido, you are lost.
Lost or not, there is no sense of despair in this masterly book. Berman’s photos show largely pristine landscapes. A river glistens under a canopy of branches. Foliage-flecked hills stretch far away. The photos of humans show clearly that we belong to the land rather than the other way round. Our incursions seem trivial. Berman writes, “Wilderness is … the thing we fear most: an affirmation of our insignificance.” In one photo, three lines of barbed wire mark a minuscule fence set against vast highlands. In another, four border patrol officers wander a landscape that dwarfs them.
Many of the photos focus on the land beneath our feet, as if honoring the archaeologist’s concept of ground-truthing – you make discoveries by digging in the soil rather than looking down from an airplane. They show the treacherous earth and the detritus of our days: abandoned water bottles, a discarded balaclava. And they tell stories: “… each photograph reflects an infinite number of events we have missed.”
What surprises the reader more than the striking photos is Berman’s prose. He writes beautifully, with the lyricism and wisdom of one who’s spent time alone among mountains. He knows the name of everything he sees and much that he doesn’t, and lets the poetry of the natural world resound: “a cathedral-columned expanse of old trees,” “quick-fire bracken fern and moss understory,” “silver fir so old the trees crack in a smoking-mist-charred memory of fire.” He asks questions: What is our relationship to this soil? How do we protect it? And just how has the Sierra San Luis managed to flourish in these times of human depredation?
The narrative and the photos are complemented by fine short essays from the ecologist Rodrigo Sierra Corona, climate activist Tim DeChristopher, and conservationist Valer Clark. While Perdido comes in the guise of a coffee-table art book, it turns out to be something different: part travel memoir, part ecological cri de coeur. It’s a book in which to lose oneself.