Waking From the California Dream
By Robert Dawson and Gray Brechin University of California; 233 pages; $60 hardcover, $35 paperback

Long before it appeared on maps, California had a place in the mind.

The image of a glittering land somewhere at the outer edge of the known world was planted two and a half centuries before this side of North America was explored overland by Europeans. The name appears for the first time in ``The Adventures of Esplandian,'' a novel by Garci Ordonez de Montalvo published in Spain in 1510. In his fantastical tale, California is an island filled with gold, ``very close to the side of the Terrestrial Paradise.''

From that day on, the name has had legendary status, conjuring a realm of high expectation and glowing possibilities. But as Robert Dawson and Gray Brechin make clear in their troubling and illuminating work, ``Farewell, Promised Land,'' the notion of a land of promise with endlessly magnetic appeal has finally caught up with us.

After a century and a half of greed and opportunism coupled with relentless population growth, it is looping around to catch us by the throat.

``Farewell, Promised Land'' is the result of a five-year project that began after Dawson and Brechin won the prestigious Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor Prize from Duke University in l992.

Duke's Center for Documentary Studies created the prize to foster collaboration between writers and photographers, in the spirit that moved Lange and Taylor to produce their classic union of text and image, ``American Exodus'' (l94l).

Dawson and Brechin grew up in California, watching the steady alteration of familiar, beloved terrain. Since then, both have become ardent defenders of the state's endangered places.

For this book, they traveled with camera and notebook from the timber country to the southern desert, from Tahoe to the San Fernando Valley, documenting the profound environmental costs of our state's famous prosperity.

The story they tell is not new, but in their hands it makes a fresh and startling impact, thanks to the skillful and complementary blending of prose and pictures.

Dawson is the much-honored photographer who collaborated with Gerald Haslam and Stephen Johnson on the monumental study of California's heartland, ``The Great Central Valley'' (l993).

His photos, sometimes poetic, always penetrating, see a land layered with ironies and telling contradictions. The frontispiece sets the tone. At the Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, a stuffed grizzly stands inside a glass case. Once a symbol of the state's independent spirit but now long gone from this part of the West, the immobile bear makes a stark and silent comment on the words boldly printed across its pedestal: California Republic.

In photo after photo, Dawson's unflinching eye requires us to look again at the world we inhabit. In Madera a new prison, its walls of concrete block topped with barbed wire, stands right across the street from a l9th century courthouse topped with an elegant clock tower.

In Mojave, the smiling face of Colonel Sanders presides over a monument to the terminus of the 20-Mule Team Borax trail. Above the cliffs at Pacifica, curving rows of subdivision houses snake across the San Andreas Fault.

Gary Brechin's text is full of pictures, too. His writing is supple and admirably concise, combining factual knowledge with vividimagery:

``As the sun rose over the San Bernardino, San Gabriel and Santa Monica mountains, torrents of refined petroleum poured into the cities of Southern California, and still others into Sacramento and the rapidly growing cities of the Central Valley. The roads around Lake Tahoe jammed again. All these streams converged in my mind into one collective Niagara of gasoline.''

Trained in history and geography, Brechin co-founded the Mono Lake=20 Committee, which ultimately led to the salvation of that once-doomed Sierra wonder.

During the l980s, while working as a TV producer in San Francisco, he broke the story of the poisoning of the Kesterson Wildlife Refuge. He returns to that catastrophe here as an emblem of destructive water policies in the San Joaquin.

It is part of the complex history he ably summarizes in these pages, the long sequence of environmental assaults that have been chipping away at California's natural endowments since the Gold Rush.

But the news is not all bad. The book's final chapter is devoted to stories of inspirational resistance, paying tribute to groups and individuals who have worked to protect or restore various chunks of this state -- from the Nature Conservancy and the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission to the Urban Garden League and the Mothers of East L.A.

In the end it is a call to action: ``Only by treating the land -- the skin of its soil, the blood of its streams, and the breath of its sea winds -- as worthy of the same love with which we endow those closest to us will California become not simply real estate, but home.''

This is a debate as old as America, as old as the concept of ownership. Do you see your place as commodity or as habitat? There is no doubt about where the authors stand.

A key word in their subtitle is ``Waking.'' Their book is both an indictment and an eloquent plea, reminding us that this legendary region is not a cornucopia of limitless reserves but a bountifully endowed place with very specific limits that have to be acknowledged, honored and attended to.

©1999 San Francisco Chronicle