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Anza-Borrego: A Photographic Journey. By Ernie Cowan.
Foreword by Diana Lindsay (Anza-Borrego Foundation and Institute).
San Diego. Sunbelt Publications. 2008. Illustrated with full color plates. 80 pages. $19.95.

Reviewed by Walter Hall


Cowan captures the essence of this grand desert Park and shares it with the world in this heartfelt account. Mark C. Jorgensen, Superintendent, Anza-Borrego.

December 17, 2009 (Borrego) -- This is the story of a desert love affair. A romantic journey suitable for all ages. San Diego author Ernie Cowan put his heart on his sleeve for Anza-Borrego many years ago. With this luminously illustrated volume, it is easy to understand why.

Table books are a holiday staple. All too often, they are little more than collections of postcards from faraway lands. Only rarely does one succeed in melding image and text to create a true sense of place. This is such a book and it is a small treasure.

For San Diegans especially, it is a treasure with a purpose. As publisher Diana Lindsay writes in the Foreword, the slogan Parks are Forever “takes on a new significance in areas that are so sensitive to man’s intrusion that landscapes may become irreparable in one’s lifetime...” The chronic menace of new encroachment invests these pages with unspoken urgency.

The clarity of Ernie Cowan’s vision is remarkable. Inspired by his passion, it informs his point of view and sharpens his lens. Ultimately, it is not just the unexpected beauty of his images, but the message within them that transports the reader. Like a deep breath of early morning desert air, Cowan’s camera enables us to focus.

Cowan notes modestly that there are scenes that can “only be experienced and (are) never adequately described.” He is right, of course. But his work in Anza-Borrego suggests that in practiced hands image and text really can be the next best thing to being there.

The photographer’s journey began in the early 1960s with teenage camping adventures. As a young reporter for the San Diego Evening Tribune, Cowan’s attachment to the area grew deeper. He became one of the founders of the Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association and still serves on the Board of Trustees of Anza-Borrego Foundation. The present volume grew out of a series of articles that first appeared in the North County Times.

Today an acknowledged Borrego expert, the author’s original wonder is undimmed. Once asked what draws him to the desert, Cowan replied, “It is a lonely place where I never feel alone! There is timeless solitude as you sit on a high point looking across the vastness of the landscape. Views like this have not been altered by man and allow the mind to see what others have seen for thousands of years.”

A distillation of countless hours in the field, the book takes readers through the park in all seasons, in all weather, dawn to dusk. Surprises and insights abound, from grand vistas to the murmur of beetles and bees on about their unending business. Cowan pays homage to the park’s signature wildlife, the wary bighorn and the road runner at full throttle.

Cowan’s sparing text orients the reader, but never interferes. Confident that the quiet splendor of the land will reach his audience directly, he resists the temptation to litter the landscape with unwelcome language.

To the delight of many, Cowan has a photographer’s soft spot for the glories of spring blooms. His affectionate portraits sprinkle the book with bright, colorful accents. The author does not admit to favorites; but on the evidence, this reviewer suspects the dune primrose may be first among equals.

Desert season in the southwest is now well underway and the arrival of rain reminds us that fields of wild flowers will soon beckon. With nearly 650,000 acres, the Anza-Borrego Desert Park contains close to 90 per cent of the California state wilderness system within its boundaries. Even long-time residents of East County may be surprised at the variety of habitats found there.

From mountain pine and oak stands to the scorched rock of the desert floor, there are over 500 miles of dirt roads to explore. Cowan’s camera makes them irresistible. Mindful of the romance of the desert – Indian artifacts, lost gold mines, stage coach trails and tall tales – the author opens the door to days of enchantment.

Cowan’s love affair with the desert remains as incandescent as when he first ventured into Palm Canyon some 40 years ago. But the desert yields its mysteries slowly. Cowan recommends that first-time visitors to Anza-Borrego make the park’s Visitor Center at the western edge of Borrego Springs their first stop. Before setting out, check for maps, ideas and safety information to make it a rewarding trip.

Anza-Borrego garnered first place laurels in the photography category at the San Diego Book Awards this past May. For its craftsmanship, for its timeless message and for its bountiful heart, this book is a perfect companion for both armchair explorers and those with sand in their boots.

A limited number of autographed copies of Anza-Borrego are available at the Sunbelt Publications showroom on Fayette Street in El Cajon. For information on this and other California natural history titles visit

Walter Hall is the pseudonym of a La Mesa-based writer and national security analyst. He is a principal at Black Swan Advisors, a communications consultancy.

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