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Book Review: Grassland

Book Review Grassland By H. Lee Reviewed by Blake Andrews My favorite marijuana joke is about three guys who walk into a bar. The first man is very tall. He walks over to the bartender and says… No, wait. I'm getting it wrong. The second guy is the tall one because… Let's see. He asks the bartender for a glass of water and… No, hold on… That's not right. Let me start over…

Grassland. By H. Lee.
Kehrer Verlag, 2014.
Reviewed by Blake Andrews

Photographs by H. Lee
Kehrer Verlag, 2014. 112 pp., 80 color illustrations, 9½x11¾".

My favorite marijuana joke is about three guys who walk into a bar. The first man is very tall. He walks over to the bartender and says… No, wait. I'm getting it wrong. The second guy is the tall one because… Let's see. He asks the bartender for a glass of water and… No, hold on… That's not right. Let me start over… How did it go? Something about a priest… And I know the punch line — melting ice! But I can't remember the rest of it exactly. But it was funny. Trust me, hilarious. Um, I guess you had to be there.

Marijuana has been the butt of many jokes. Whether or not its use actually leads to memory loss is arguable. But what's beyond dispute is that marijuana cultivation is a huge industry. It's by far the largest cash crop in the U.S., providing jobs and stability to a wide slice of the American underground economy, often in rural areas with few other resources. In Northern California's marijuana belt, buds are the economic backbone. They pay not only for groceries and gas, but new trucks, property taxes, tuitions, retirements, land — everything. You could say marijuana is to Northern California as oil is to Dallas.

Grassland. By H. LeeKehrer Verlag, 2014.

The culture of marijuana is rich not just economically but visually. It attracts sometimes colorful characters. Combine them with the natural lure of illicit activity and it's a ripe target for curious photographers. In recent years Sarina Finkelstein, Maureen Drennan, David Walter Banks, and others have documented marijuana farming.

The latest is (an alias) H. Lee. Her book Grassland is a photographic profile of marijuana farming in Southern Humboldt County. Located in redwood country about 200 miles north of San Francisco, this region is perhaps the national epicenter of high-grade marijuana production. I spent my childhood here and I know the area well, so I found the scenes in Grassland of particular interest. But I think the book will be worthwhile for readers from other areas too, as marijuana's appeal knows no geographic boundaries.

Grassland. By H. LeeKehrer Verlag, 2014.

Grassland is sequenced to follow the crop's cultivation from seedling to market. The opening photo spreads give a feel for the landscape, with shots of rolling brown hills webbed around coniferous pockets. After a brief introduction by the author we get to the heart of the book: THC production. We see pictures of garden pots, irrigation, greenhouses, and small grow scenes in the woods. If the intention is to show that marijuana farming is just as mundane and orderly as raising tomatoes or corn, H. Lee has succeeded. Mind you, these aren't your neighbor's garden plots, or even their closet pot plants. This is small-scale industrial agriculture, with segmented labor, potent fertilizers, power tools, etc.

Some readers may have their interest piqued by the book's later stages, when we see the harvest, drying, and finally the manicured nuggets being weighed, sorted, and ready for shipment to various dorm rooms, dens, and corporate suites around the country. If only the book were scratch and sniff! But alas, it's not. Readers will have to make due with the smell of printed matter as they follow the kind buds into baggies and hidden storage tubs. The photos are capped with an excellent essay — dense with Bob Marley quotes — by ex-High Times editor Glenn O'Brien.

Grassland. By H. LeeKehrer Verlag, 2014.

All in all it's an affectionate portrait. "I felt a deep respect for the risks these farmers took as they struggled to carve a living out of the landscape," writes Lee, and generally the photos reflect that appreciation. They are pastoral, serene, and reverent, and give an overview of the nuts and bolts of growing pot. The image of sticky hash fingers in particular is one which immediately evokes dear memories and close associations. H. Lee's visual style is honest and staid but not very distinctive.

The one missing component is people, at least those with an identity. H. Lee may express a deep affinity for the farmers but she hasn't translated it into photographs. Some unnamed street characters are shown to give a sense of local flavor. But workers involved in the actual cultivation scene are photographed — through deliberate cropping, shadow, or blur — to be unrecognizable. While I understand the reasoning, the effect is to depersonalize the photos and leave them emotionally removed.

Grassland. By H. LeeKehrer Verlag, 2014.

This is probably by design, as is the use of an alias for authorship. A little mystery enhances any book. But too much can abandon the reader, and there is some risk of that with Grassland. The whole thing has a bit of a spy-novel aura. Emily Brady's Foreword, written in a hushed whisper — "Can I trust you? — leans also in that direction. Yes, the scene is underground. Yes, it is sometimes sketchy. But reporters have been playing that card since People Magazine's exposé in the early 1980s. At this point Humboldt County residents are a bit weary of all the drama. They just want to grow pot and move on already.

Grassland. By H. LeeKehrer Verlag, 2014.

Grassland is well produced, with nice reproductions and smooth subtle cover (no jacket). Judging by the subject it should have wide appeal. I could see it being cross-marketed in both fine art bookstores and underground head shops. Maybe even in marijuana dispensaries?

Another potential market is time capsules, but that may have to wait a few years. With rapidly changing societal attitudes and laws concerning marijuana, this book may become quickly dated. The U.S. seems headed for wider acceptance of pot and some variety of legalization. A decade from now when marijuana is grown openly, taxed, and manufactured into cigarettes, the quiet backwoods secrecy of Grassland may take on a nostalgic haze. Ironically it may be seen as a window back to the glory years before legalization crippled Humboldt County's underground economy.—BLAKE ANDREWS

BLAKE ANDREWS is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at