If you enjoy reading natural history like I do, you likely have a number of favorites you’ve read and returned to over the years.
In no particular order, here are a few of my favorites:
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974) by Annie Dillard. Dillard is a splendid observer of the natural world. Recommended. Note: for those readers who live in Bellingham or Whatcom County, Washington, Dillard wrote an excellent historical novel of this area titled The Living (1992). It covers the time period circa 1850 to 1900. I recommend it highly.
Arctic Dreams (1986) by Barry Lopez. Lopez wrote Arctic Dreams nearly 25 years ago. I am certain that it is as relevant now as it was then. As we watch transformation occurring in the Arctic, it may be even more important and essential to read now.
Desert Solitaire (1968) by Edward Abbey. I may have read The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975) before I read Desert Solitaire, but one of the two books made me realize that Abbey was a new favorite of mine and that I wanted to read all of his books. Desert Solitaire contains exquisite descriptions of a spare, beautiful desert environment (Arches National Monument near Moab, Utah – before the dirt bikes arrived with their riders). Please read it if only for his account of two snakes intertwined in intimacy and how he had to beat a hasty retreat suddenly! Recommended.
Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place (1991) by Terry Tempest Williams. Refuge is a beautiful, painful, and fierce book. Williams, from a family of “down-winders” from the atomic and nuclear bomb tests in Utah and Nevada, wrote of the women of her family and their history of breast cancer. She weaves this tragic narrative in with the periodic rise and fall of the Great Salt Lake and of bird populations in the area. It is masterful. A must read; most highly recommended.
The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod (1928) by Henry Beston. Beston intended to spend a couple of weeks on Cape Cod, and ended up staying a year. Beston’s prose isn’t as engaging as say, Terry Tempest Williams’ prose, but as I read it I was continuously amazed by an author writing in 1927 in great detail about bird populations and other animals of Cape Cod. He wrote of the aftereffects of an oil spill off Cape Cod – some 83 years ago. His description of “animals as other nations” is fine. Please see “The Quotidian, July 12, 2010” for a long quotation from this passage. Recommended.
What do these books have in common, other than marvelous and close observations of the natural world? In writing about place, and of deep knowledge of place, these authors are writing of something we called “love of the land” in Hawai’i when I was growing up there.
These authors situate us within the natural world, are unflinching in their observations, and fierce in their defense of protecting our landscapes and wild places. They engage us and make us care even more deeply. Many of the above books are political in nature because they note widespread despoliation and destruction and argue urgently against allowing the status quo to continue. In these books, the idea of pilgrimage to and residence in special places is present, too.
Mom gave me a paperback copy of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek when I was a teenager. Dillard became one of my favorite authors immediately. I told Mom about Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, and she began reading Abbey too. I told Dad about Abbey’s critique of “industrial tourism” and the “national parking service.” Dad had been a National Park Service Ranger for many years; I don’t believe he ever met Abbey. I remember Dad listening with great interest as I tried to sum up Abbey’s critique.
I just read that Terry Tempest Williams attended and spoke at Ed Abbey’s wake in 1989. She is a marvelous and gifted speaker. With Dillard and Lopez, I consider her to be one of our finest writers. She is also a wise and kind person.
I have had the privilege and great honor of meeting Barry Lopez and Terry Tempest Williams and chatting briefly with each of them. If you have a chance to attend a reading by Lopez or Williams, please do! They are fine writers and fine speakers. I am hoping to meet Annie Dillard someday.
I would add Walden (Henry David Thoreau) and A Sand Country Almanac (Aldo Leopold) immediately, but want to reread each before I do! The World Without Us (2007) by Alan Weisman is a marvelous, thought provoking book. Does it belong on this list?
Quick note: what would I like to see? I would love for Majora Carter (Sustainable South Bronx) to write a natural history of The Bronx.
Please write and tell me about your favorite books of natural history and about your favorite authors in this genre!