An Annotated Bibliography of Baja California in the SDNHM Research Library

Science, Sojourns & Steinbeck:

An Annotated Bibliography of Baja California
in the SDNHM Research Library

"A thousand fantasies
Begin to throng into my memory,
Of calling shapes, and beck'ning shadows dire,
And airy tongues that syllable men's names
On sands and shores and desert wildernesses."

          --John Milton

A place so remote and compelling, full of strangely beautiful species of plants and animals, Baja California from the earliest times has lured adventurers who later told the tales of their adventures to eager listeners. Books about Baja range from painstakingly detailed accounts by naturalists, who examined every new leaf and cactus spine encountered, to those who treat Baja more as a philosophical state of mind rather than a geographic and physical entity. Indeed, writers have spoken of Baja in everything from the most glowing terms, to those of the German Father Jakob Baegert who was stationed in Baja for 18 years and described it scathingly in 1752 as "nothing but a pile of stones full of thorns.....a pathless, waterless thornful rock, sticking up between two oceans." It seems that Baja evokes strong reactions in those who venture there, many of whom are prompted to write about their experiences. This bibliography is by no means comprehensive; indeed there are numerous titles that are omitted in this list. Rather it is a group of books that together may give one a view of some of the physical aspects of Baja, both historically and today, and will also suggest to the reader the cultural, social and psychological impact that either living or traveling in Baja has had on this kaleidoscope of writers.

For further titles on these topics, check our online catalog.

Aschmann, Homer. 1967. The Central Desert of Baja California: Demography and Ecology. Riverside, CA: Manessier Publishing Company.
Originally published by the University of California Press in 1959 as a revised doctoral dissertation, and what an interesting topic for a dissertation it was! The title of the book does little to convey the actual scope. This is a scholarly and engaging summary of the history of the aboriginal peoples of the Vizcaino Desert of Baja California, including a fascinating description of the languages and dialects, birth and death rates, uses of local plants and animals, the effects of the missions on the native people, the disastrous diseases that they suffered as a result of their encounters with Europeans, and many other topics.

Baja California Travels Series. 1965 - 1991. Edwin Carpenter and Glen Dawson, General Editors. Los Angeles: Dawson's Book Shop.
Pirates! Untold riches in pearls! Civil war, castaways, and escape from oppression! These and a multitude of other subjects are covered in this unique series of 51 volumes. All share in common personal narratives of adventures and travel in the peninsula, from earliest historical accounts to recent times. Many had never before been published in English and were unavailable except for scholars who were able to view them in the original manuscript form. Included in the series are descriptions of everything from 16th Century first-hand encounters with some of the indigenous peoples of Baja, to a history of cattle brands and livestock farming, as well as Jesuit missionaries, railways, natural history, whaling, art, and ethnology. Many of the volumes include beautiful reproductions of illustrations, maps, photos, and other graphic elements. Limited numbers printed of this series.

Berger, Bruce. 1998. Almost an Island: Travels in Baja California. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
Bruce Berger does not so much write about the peninsula as a land mass, as about how the locale is defined for him by the amazing people he has encountered while living and traveling over the past 30 years in Baja. Although there are lyrical as well as quirky descriptions that vividly bring to the reader's eye a vision of the land, the environment, and the animals and plants of the area, Berger shines foremost in his capture of the memorable personalities and eccentricities of Baja natives and visitors. His recounting of the tourist invasion of La Paz for the viewing of the 1991 total eclipse is by turns hilarious and moving, including a wild mix of Japanese amateur astronomers, enterprising Mexican nuns, ex-hippies, journalists, and a motley group of hangers-on. Trained as a musician, Berger's writing is as elegant and evocative as an etude by Chopin. He also never fails to see the irony and humor inherent in life in this land that is "almost an island."

Botello, Judy Goldstein. 1998. The Other Side: Journeys in Baja California. San Diego: Sunbelt Publications.
Although the title of this book includes "journeys in Baja", and refers specifically to crossing to "the other side" of the Mexican/California border, it is at least as much about one woman's very personal encounter with another culture, and the complex changes these encounters wrought in her own experience. Covering a period of 15 years in the author's life, it reads more like a novel than a travelogue, full of self-discovery and romance, but at the same time chronicles her growing knowledge of Baja, its towns and natural history, but most particularly, its people.

Bowen, Thomas. 2000. Unknown Island: Seri Indians, Europeans, and San Esteban Island in the Gulf of California. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
Did they exist? An ethnohistorical look at whether a strange, legendary group of Seri Indians once existed on San Esteban Island, distinct from the Seris of Tiburon. The book explores the history of the Midriff Islands, the coming of the Europeans and their activities in the Gulf from the 16th to the 20th century, the oral history of modern Seris and archaeological evidence found on San Esteban Island. Who were these San Esteban Seris? Why did the Europeans not detect them? Similar to Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, perhaps; a hefty but readable volume.

Cannon, Ray. 1966. The Sea of Cortez: A Sunset Book. Menlo Park, CA: Lane Magazine Book Company.
The majority of this book is a collection of black and white as well as color photos, although there is some accompanying text. The book is divided into sections covering each region of Baja. Many of the descriptions reflect Ray Cannon's personal and colorful adventures while fishing or hunting with friends, including hair-raising descriptions of being caught in the Sea of Cortez during chubascos, and having bobcats leap over his sleeping bag one night near Bahia Escondido. Although the information about accommodations and transportation to Baja is obviously out-of-date, the photographs are enjoyable in their own right, and the text follows a conversational, easy-to-read style. A classic Baja "picture book."

Case, Ted J., Martin L. Cody and Exequiel Ezcurra, eds. 2002. A New Island Biogeography in the Sea of Cortés. New York: Oxford University Press.
A collection of studies and surveys of the physical and biological aspects of the islands in the Gulf of California, including a few articles on the history of scientific exploration, human impact and ecological conservation in the area. Edited by SDNHM's former Director of the Biodiversity Research Center of the Californias Exequiel Ezcurra, the emphasis is on the biological data, with articles on plants, insects, fish, reptiles, birds, mammals and food webs. One quarter of the book consists of appendices—tables of species distribution and census data. This is a completely revised version of the 1983 volume Island Biogeography in the Sea of Cortez, also held in the library.

Crosby, Harry. 1997. The Cave Paintings of Baja California: Discovering the Great Murals of an Unknown People. San Diego: Sunbelt Publications.
A beautiful book about the "thousands of brilliant cave paintings" still to be found in central Baja California. Crosby takes us on a journey through the caves and canyons, with detailed descriptions, travelogue, and large photo illustrations. Explore the art of the Great Murals of Sierra de San Francisco, Sierra de Guadalupe, Sierra de San Juan, Sierra de San Borja, dating back 500 to 2000 years.

Cummings, Joe. 1994. Baja Handbook: Mexico's Western Peninsula, including Cabo San Lucas. Chico, CA: Moon Publications, Inc.
There are numerous guides to Baja, designed specifically for the occasional tourist, of which this is as good a representative as any. Although this guide has the typical listings of restaurants and accommodations by specific towns, about a third of the text features background information on everything from Baja's flora and fauna, history, language, customs, food, to immigration and customs. Of a small, compact size that can fit easily in a backpack or suitcase, this book is nevertheless quite comprehensive as a brief introduction to Baja for visitors.

Dedina, Serge. 2000. Saving the Gray Whale: People, Politics and Conservation in Baja California. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
From devil-fish to tourist attraction. This slim volume traces the history and politics of gray whale conservation in Mexico, with a particular focus on San Ignacio Lagoon and Magdalena Bay. Dedina argues that "in Mexico, gray whale conservation is a microcosm of national, regional and local politics" and provides an interesting perspective on the unusually successful effort to revive a once-threatened and now well-beloved species

Gardner, Erle Stanley. 1960. Hunting the Desert Whale: Personal Adventures in Baja California. New York: William Morrow & Company.
Gardner, the prolific lawyer-turned-writer of Perry Mason fame, lived in southern California and in 1947 was able to do what few Americans before him had done: he drove down the entire Baja peninsula and recorded his experiences in his book, The Land of Shorter Shadows. From that time on, Gardner, along with various friends and fellow-adventurers explored Baja, using all kinds of vehicles-including airplane, helicopter, boat and even a type of hybrid motorcycle. Gardner's books on Baja, written in typical "tough-guy," fast-paced style, show how most "gringos" exploring the peninsula during this time viewed Baja, as a place of escape and high adventure, with perhaps less regard for the fragility of the landscape and associated biota or for the intrinsic value of its natural history. Hunting the Desert Whale describes his adventures in Scammon's Lagoon where he ventured with 7 or 8 others, including a reporter from Newsweek magazine, to photograph whales. Illustrated with black and white photos of the trip.

Grismer, L. Lee. 2002. Amphibians and Reptiles of Baja California. Including its Pacific Islands and the Islands in the Sea of Cortés. Berkeley: University of California Press.
A beautiful volume with many color photos by the author, divided into six major sections—salamanders, frogs and toads, turtles and tortoises, lizards, worm lizards and snakes—organized by family, genus, and species. For each species, information on identification, relationships and taxonomy, distribution, physical description, and natural history is provided, along with other remarks, an image, and often a distribution map. Handy reference.

Hodgson, Wendy. 2001. Food Plants of the Sonoran Desert. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press.
A catalogue of edible plants, documenting their historic usage, cultural significance, and current status, illustrated with black-and-white photography. Sources include "current research, herbarium vouchers, ethnographies, personal narratives, and historic documents." The plants are organized into gymnosperms and angiosperms (monocot and dicot), and entries are written for each plant family. An ethnobotany reference.

Janovy, John Jr. 1992. Vermilion Sea: A Naturalist's Journey in Baja California. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
A more accurate subtitle would be "a biologist's journey in Baja California". John Janovy is a parasitologist and academic who teaches biology at the University of Nebraska. His view of Baja, gained from a succession of trips with college students visiting Mulege and Bahia de los Angeles, is told with the somewhat weighty and intellectual voice of the scientist/philosopher. Although his education in biology and geology can lead him-literally--to an examination of the gravel beneath his hiking boots, using a hand lens to study the rocks and minerals there, his focus can also be grandiose. In fact, in the preface he states straight out that the book is "intended to be a sort of cosmology, an example of one way to see the universe." A thought-provoking and intense book.

Krutch, Joseph Wood. 1961. The Forgotten Peninsula. New York: William Morrow & Company.
J.W. Krutch was one of our most distinguished literary naturalists, in addition to enjoying a successful career as a drama critic, biographer, editor, and professor of drama at Columbia University. After retiring from New York City to the Southwest for his health, Krutch fell in love with the Sonoran desert and wrote such masterpieces as The Voice of the Desert and The Desert Year. In The Forgotten Peninsula, his lucid description of his fascination and joy in learning about the boojum tree, ocotillo, gray whale, and many other things in Baja, is given an added dimension by his passionate and eloquent argument for the protection of the area from the ravages of development. Although Krutch was not a scientist, he spent a lot of time traveling in Baja with scientists and gained a wonderful insight into the work of taxonomists and conservationists working there.

Mackintosh, Graham. 1995. Into a Desert Place: A 3000-Mile Walk around the Coast of Baja California. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
An absorbing tale of an ambitiously wild plan to walk around Baja, this book keeps you wanting to turn the page to discover what adventure awaits the author next. Mackintosh was an unlikely candidate for undertaking such a trip-a red-haired Scotsman, no outdoorsman, and with no experience in deserts of any kind. Yet he decided on a whim to see if he could walk the entire coast of Baja, living off the land, and survive to tell the tale. Of course, he meets many friendly people in the course of his journey, so the times when he had to subsist on cactus and seaweed are interspersed with encounters with generous campers and Mexicans, who stuff him with everything from lobster to fresh fruit, not to mention plenty of beer, tequila and other spirits. His most difficult challenges include securing a constant supply of freshwater, and managing to stick to the coastline, even when the cliffs are sheer and steep, but he is able to complete his trip after two years. This story gives the reader a particularly intimate, day-to-day feel for trekking by foot in Baja.

Steinbeck, John and Edward F. Ricketts. 1941. Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research. New York: Viking Press.
The Nobel Prize winning author's record of his six month trip collecting marine life in the Gulf of California with his biologist friend, Ed Ricketts, whom he immortalized as "Doc" in his novel Cannery Row. Almost half of the book consists of a large appendix, listing scientific names and collecting data for Gulf of California marine invertebrates and vertebrates. The log itself gives natural history information colored with Steinbeck's unique voice; describing the mangroves near La Paz, he states, "We suppose it is the combination of foul odor and the impenetrable quality of the mangrove roots which gives one a feeling of dislike for these salt-water-eating bushes...It seemed to us that there was stealthy murder everywhere. On the surf-swept rocks it was a fierce and hungry and joyous killing, committed with energy and ferocity. But here it was like stalking, quiet murder. No one likes the mangroves." Given the luxury of telling the story of a collecting trip whose sole purpose was to satisfy an intense curiosity about the natural world of this rich environment, Steinbeck mixes science, opinion, philosophy and anything else that comes to mind with a master's touch.

Williams, Jack. 1994. Baja Boaters' Guide Vol. I : The Pacific Coast and Vol. II : Sea of Cortez. Sausalito, CA: H. J. Williams Publications.
While this book has sections that would be of interest only to mariners exploring the Baja coast, including navigation and anchorage guides, it remains a wonderful resource because of its abundance of richly detailed maps and photos of the entire peninsula, particularly for the many islands scattered on both coasts. In addition, there are interesting descriptive and historical notes scattered throughout the text. These books have facts and details about Baja's waters learned first hand and not available in any other source.

Zwinger, Ann. 1983. A Desert Country Near the Sea: A Natural History of the Cape Region of Baja California. New York: Harper & Row.
A sparkling gem of a book. The author's lyrical descriptions of her adventures in the Cape area are greatly enhanced by her delightful drawings of the local plants, insects, shells, and fossils. Zwinger recounts her family's adventures over a period of many years during which she fell in love with this unique section of Baja, south of the Tropic of Cancer. Although her study is limited to the Cabo San Lucas region, she investigates that area in depth. In addition to her narratives which focus on various aspects of the Cape, such as the mountains, the back country, and the tidepools of the Sea of Cortes, she includes checklists of plants, birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians; an historical chronology, a bibliography, and a wonderfully rich notes section with further references.


Additional Recommended Titles on Specialized Topics:

Brown, John W., Herman G. Real and David K. Faulkner. 1992. Butterflies of Baja California: Faunal Survey, Natural History, Conservation Biology. Beverly Hills, CA: Lepidoptera Research Foundation, Inc

Gotshall, Daniel W. 1998. Sea of Cortez Marine Animals: A Guide to the Common Fishes and Invertebrates Baja California to Panama. Monterey, CA: Sea Challengers.

Gould, Frank W. and Reid Moran. 1981. Grasses of Baja California, Mexico. San Diego: San Diego Society of Natural History Memoir 12.

Kira, Gene. 1999. Unforgettable Sea of Cortez: Baja California's Golden Age, 1947 - 1977: The Life and Writings of Ray Cannon. Torrance,CA: Cortez Publishing.

Krutch, Joseph W. and Eliot Porter. 1967. Baja California and the Geography of Hope. San Francisco: Sierra Club.

McPeak, Ron H. 2000. Amphibians and Reptiles of Baja California. Monterey, CA: Sea Challengers.

Minch, John, Edwin Minch, and Jason Minch. 1998. Roadside Geology and Biology of Baja California. Mission Viejo, CA: John Minch and Associates, Inc.

Roberts, Norman C. 1989. Baja California Plant Field Guide. La Jolla, CA: Natural History Publishing Company.

Thomson, Donald A., Lloyd T. Findley, and Alex N. Kerstitch. 2000. Reef Fishes of the Sea of Cortez: The Rocky-Shore Fishes of the Gulf of California. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Wiggins, Ira L. 1980. Flora of Baja California. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Wilbur, Sanford R. 1987. Birds of Baja California. Berkeley: University of California Press.