Last July I listed my favorite works of nature writing from the first half of the year. Here are my favorites from the second half.
Like that first list, this one is filled with books that expand the traditional notion of nature writing to include some works that veer closer to poetry than prose, and address the darker realities of humanity’s relationship with nature: climate change, ecological destruction, and illegal poaching. That’s not to say this list is entirely depressing. On the contrary, these are books that inspire as well as reveal truths.
The Lost Words
By Robert MacFarlane, Jackie Morris (Illustrator)
From Anansi International: “In 2007, when a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary — widely used in schools around the world — was published, a sharp-eyed reader soon noticed that around forty common words concerning nature had been dropped. Apparently they were no longer being used enough by children to merit their place in the dictionary.
Ten years later, Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris set out to make a “spell book” that will conjure back twenty of these lost words, and the beings they name, from acorn to wren. By the magic of word and paint, they sought to summon these words again into the voices, stories, and dreams of children and adults alike, and to celebrate the wonder and importance of everyday nature.”
Counting Sheep: Reflections and Observations of a Swedish Shepherd
By Axel Lindén
From Atria Books: “When Axel Lindén leaves his literary life in the city for the farm he unexpectedly inherits—along with the ever-escaping flock of sheep that comes with it—he has a fairly naïve notion of what farm life will be: pure drudgery. But as time passes and Axel slowly settles into the rhythms of the farm and shepherding, his naiveté fades away and is gradually replaced with a new appreciation of the spiritual and emotional value of manual labor, caring for other living things, and staying connected to the earth.”
A Year with Nature: An Almanac
By Marty Crump
University of Chicago Press
From University of Chicago Press: “A Year with Nature is an almanac like none you’ve ever seen: combining science and aesthetics, it is a daily affirmation of the extraordinary richness of biodiversity and our enduring beguilement by its beauty. With a text by herpetologist and natural history writer Marty Crump and a cornucopia of original illustrations by Bronwyn McIvor, this quirky quotidian reverie gazes across the globe, media, and time as it celebrates date-appropriate natural topics ranging from the founding of the National Park Service to annual strawberry, garlic, shrimp, hummingbird, and black bear festivals.”
The Way of Coyote: Shared Journeys in the Urban Wilds
By Gavin Van Horn
University of Chicago Press
From University of Chicago Press: “A hiking trail through majestic mountains. A raw, unpeopled wilderness stretching as far as the eye can see. These are the settings we associate with our most famous books about nature. But Gavin Van Horn isn’t most nature writers. He lives and works not in some perfectly remote cabin in the woods but in a city—a big city. And that city has offered him something even more valuable than solitude: a window onto the surprising attractiveness of cities to animals. What was once in his mind essentially a nature-free blank slate turns out to actually be a bustling place where millions of wild things roam. He came to realize that our own paths are crisscrossed by the tracks and flyways of endangered black-crowned night herons, Cooper’s hawks, brown bats, coyotes, opossums, white-tailed deer, and many others who thread their lives ably through our own.”
Poached: Inside the Dark World of Wildlife Trafficking
By Rachel Love Nuwer
Da Capo Press
From Da Capo Press: “Journalist Rachel Nuwer plunges the reader into the underground of global wildlife trafficking, a topic she has been investigating for nearly a decade. Our insatiable demand for animals–for jewelry, pets, medicine, meat, trophies, and fur–is driving a worldwide poaching epidemic, threatening the continued existence of countless species. Illegal wildlife trade now ranks among the largest contraband industries in the world, yet compared to drug, arms, or human trafficking, the wildlife crisis has received scant attention and support, leaving it up to passionate individuals fighting on the ground to try to ensure that elephants, tigers, rhinos, and more are still around for future generations.”
How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals
By Sy Montgomery, Rebecca Green (Illustrated by)
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
From Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: “Understanding someone who belongs to another species can be transformative. No one knows this better than author, naturalist, and adventurer Sy Montgomery. To research her books, Sy has traveled the world and encountered some of the planet’s rarest and most beautiful animals. From tarantulas to tigers, Sy’s life continually intersects with and is informed by the creatures she meets. This restorative memoir reflects on the personalities and quirks of thirteen animals—Sy’s friends—and the truths revealed by their grace.”
Bad Environmentalism: Irony and Irreverence in the Ecological Age
By Nicole Seymour
University of Minnesota Press
From University of Minnesota Press: “Activists today strive to educate the public about climate change, but sociologists have found that the more we know about alarming issues, the less likely we are to act. Meanwhile, environmentalists have acquired a reputation as gloom-and-doom killjoys. Bad Environmentalism identifies contemporary texts that respond to these absurdities and ironies through absurdity and irony—as well as camp, frivolity, irreverence, perversity, and playfulness. From drag performance to Indigenous comedy, Seymour expands our understanding of how environmental art and activism can be pleasurable, even in a time of undeniable crisis.”
In Search of the Canary Tree: The Story of a Scientist, a Cypress, and a Changing World
By Lauren E. Oakes
From Basic Books: “Several years ago, ecologist Lauren E. Oakes set out from California for Alaska’s old-growth forests to hunt for a dying tree: the yellow-cedar. With climate change as the culprit, the death of this species meant loss for many Alaskans. Oakes and her research team wanted to chronicle how plants and people could cope with their rapidly changing world. Amidst the standing dead, she discovered the resiliency of forgotten forests, flourishing again in the wake of destruction, and a diverse community of people who persevered to create new relationships with the emerging environment. Eloquent, insightful, and deeply heartening, In Search of the Canary Tree is a case for hope in a warming world.”
The Weather Detective: Rediscovering Nature’s Secret Signs
By Peter Wohlleben
From Dutton: “In this first-ever English translation of The Weather Detective, Peter Wohlleben uses his long experience and deep love of nature to help decipher the weather and our local environments in a completely new and compelling way. Analyzing the explanations for everyday questions and mysteries surrounding weather and natural phenomena, he delves into a new and intriguing world of scientific investigation.”
Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter
By Ben Goldfarb
Chelsea Green Publishing
From Chelsea Green Publishing: “In Eager, environmental journalist Ben Goldfarb reveals that our modern idea of what a healthy landscape looks like and how it functions is wrong, distorted by the fur trade that once trapped out millions of beavers from North America’s lakes and rivers. The consequences of losing beavers were profound: streams eroded, wetlands dried up, and species from salmon to swans lost vital habitat. Today, a growing coalition of “Beaver Believers”—including scientists, ranchers, and passionate citizens—recognizes that ecosystems with beavers are far healthier, for humans and non-humans alike, than those without them. Ultimately, it’s about how we can learn to coexist, harmoniously and even beneficially, with our fellow travelers on this planet.”
Amy Brady is the Editor-in-Chief of the Chicago Review of Books and Deputy Publisher of Guernica Magazine. Her writing has appeared in Oprah, The Village Voice, Pacific Standard, The New Republic, McSweeney's, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.
Dear Amy: Thanks so much for your perceptive insights into nature writing and writers. Thinking of what constitutes nature writing, I wonder if a work of commercial fiction with an backstory environmental theme would qualify. Could this be a legitimate way to inspire a larger number of readers to be more sensitive to, say protecting wildlife? Your thoughts? Tom Berquist.