Celebrations of exceptional places from a host of writers whose prose generally is as lovely as the lands they praise. Editors Barbato and Weinerman are on the staff of the Nature Conservancy, a group that protects special territory by simply going out and buying it for their organization. They managed to corral 30 talented writers to sing the glories of 30 ``last great places'' designated by the conservancy. A sampling of the plums includes David James Duncan on Nevada's Pyramid Lake (``Lake of the Stone Mother''); as well as exploring the lake's reputation as a particularly good fishery for Lahontan cutthroat trout, Duncan happily immerses himself in the intricacies and mysteries of native place names and chronicles the restoration of critical wetlands. Jim Harrison rambles and tumbles through New Mexico's colossal Gray Ranch in ``The Beginner's Mind,'' his thoughts on chaos and fungoid tribalism, hip pain and tendinitis, tortillas and a glass of Bordeaux round the campfire, wolves and midday naps blending together to form a delicious stew. Louise Erdrich's ``Big Grass'' savors the eternal pleasures of bluestem and other original prairie grasses, finding in them her sanctuary and inspiration; even her daughters' hair has ``a scent as undefinable as grass--made up of mood and weather, of curiosity and water.'' Not all of the essays are this good: Rick Bass persists with his artful rube pose in ``On Willow Creek,'' where everyone plays dominoes and drinks iced tea, and little fish listen to the tilt of the planet. But why quibble over a few duds when there are top-notch efforts from Paul Theroux, Peter Matthiessen, and Barbara Kingsolver to choose from? The collection's tone reflects Gary Snyder's take on place: ``If you know what is taught by plants and weather, you are in on the gossip and can truly feel at home.''