My Favorite Natural History Writing

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!

About Andrew Shattuck McBride

I am a writer, editor, writing coach, and consultant. I work in a variety of genres, including poetry, short stories, and creative non-fiction. I also have a couple of novels simmering on back burners. THANK YOU to Nan Macy of Village Books for taking this photo (June 2011).
This entry was posted in Books Authors and Book Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to My Favorite Natural History Writing

  1. C. R. Lanei says:

    These relate to natural history…more or less

    Primate’s Memoir by Robert Sapolsky
    Details Sapolsky’s (he’s a neuroscientist who studies stress) time with his baboon troupes in Kenya as well as his experiences with the human primates of the region. Sapolsky has an amazing sense of humor but also a real heart that makes him instantly accessible to an audience outside academia.

    Monkey Wars by Deborah Blum
    A balanced view of the divide between researchers and animal rights activists. Details the heart breaking history of animal research, outlines the benefits and approaches the very real issue of broken communication on the part of both parties.

    I’ll bug you more if I think of a few of the other primate related books that are just amazing. Love this post but damn it! my reading list is getting pretty packed.

    • Hi C.R., thank you very much for your thoughtful post and your book recommendations.

      I just realized that the books I recommended are largely natural histories of place. Animals and humans (animals, too) are discussed at length, but they are situated within those places: Tinker Creek, the Arctic, Arches National Monument (now Park), the Great Salt Lake and environs, and the Cape Cod seashore.

      Your book recommendations concern the primate family. I believe primate populations around the world provide a vast, rich mine of material and key insights on our survival, even as we work to save primate populations.

      Just thought of Eating Apes by Dale Peterson and Karl Ammann (2003). Painful but essential reading. When I pick it up I almost begin trembling. Now that isn’t going to help at all.

      Yahoo dot com is reporting sighting in Sri Lanka of an extremely rare primate. Have you seen this?

      I love the fact that you love this post! Yaayyy! Reading lists SHOULD get longer and longer!

      All the best, Andy

  2. Pingback: Ivan Doig, Reading in Bellingham | Andrew Shattuck McBride Blogs

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