There are so many good books, yet so little time to read them - a thought I have often lamented, until recent developments. With the rise of Covid-19, many people have found themselves quarantined and in need of restful ways to spend some time each day.
One way I have found stillness in the midst of chaos is through books.
Reading is a fantastic way to relax and find solace. Reading books about nature, perhaps even more so - which is why I have compiled this list of my favorite nature books with short reviews.
You do not have to be an ecologist to enjoy these stories. Just dive in and prepare to be fascinated by the rich history and unparalleled beauty of the world we live in.
A Sand County Almanac
A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There by Aldo Leopold (Author), Charles W. Schwartz (Illustrator), Amazon.com
There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot.
- Aldo Leopold, foreword from A Sand County Almanac
I am beginning with a classic, written by Aldo Leopold, first published in 1949. Leopold is an environmentalist whose work is equated with that of Thoreau and John Muir; this book is his ode to the land he loved and his challenge to future generations to protect it.
The Sand County Almanac is divided into four sections, beginning with an extensive and beautifully written description of the seasons. Starting in January, Leopold walks the reader through each month telling stories and personal anecdotes taken from his life experiences, occasionally reaching into the overarching topics of history and philosophy.
In part two, the author recounts the natural beauty of North America, from Wisconsin to Manitoba, and much more in between. He paints a vivid picture of the sacredness of nature and implores the reader to be mindful of the dangerous changes that are occurring by human hand.
Part two leads gracefully into part three - a collection of separate essays centered around the importance of conservation. It is hard to believe this book was written seventy-one years ago. Leopold's ideas and supplications are still remarkably relevant today, perhaps even more so.
These essays are followed by the fourth and final section. Here, the book is concluded with Leopold’s idea of Land Ethic - where he discusses ways in which we can have an ethical relationship with the land through, “love, respect, and admiration… and high regard for its value.” (pg. 261).
In the Shadow of Man
The least I can do is speak out for those who cannot speak for themselves.
― Jane Goodall, In the Shadow of Man
My second suggestion is a book very near and dear to my heart, written by one of my personal heroes - world-renowned primatologist, Dr. Jane Goodall. In the Shadow of Man is the captivating tale of the authors work among the chimpanzees of Gombe.
Jane Goodall writes as if she were regaling you with her story over a cup of tea.
She delights the reader with tales from her childhood; growing up in the English countryside, spending every ounce of free time studying animals and reading books - Tarzan and Dr. Dolittle were personal favorites. Reading these personal stories, you see how Dr. Goodall seemed destined to become one of the most impactful researchers of animal behavior.
Before diving deep into her research, she reveals the most fascinating detail in the story of how she came to Africa in the first place. The future primatologist was accepted to work under the late Louis Leakey before she had even been to college, making her early accomplishments even more admirable.
Amidst the stories which laid the path that eventually led Goodall to Africa, are the wonders of her time with the chimpanzees. She describes the early days of her research, the hard work that went into winning the trust of her primate friends, and the life-altering findings that came from the important relationships she built.
This book is an important read for anyone, but I believe women will find it especially inspiring. Once you pick it up, I promise you will have a hard time putting it back down.
In some Native languages the term for plants translates to ‘those who take care of us.’
-Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass
Braiding Sweetgrass, written by botanist and professor Robin Wall Kimmerer, is a book I could read many times over. It is both poetic and illuminating.
Through this collection of nature writings, Kimmerer combines the long disregarded cultural knowledge of Native Americans with the rigors of scientific research creating an enlightening compilation that is as much a celebration of heritage as it is a scientific study.
Kimmerer lays the foundation for her writing in the first chapter with an indigenous creation story - the story of Skywoman. This ancient narrative emphasizes the importance of living in harmony with the earth and ties together the three pillars of this book - Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge, and the teachings of plants.
From her own relationship to the natural world and through countless lessons from indigenous people, the author shows us how ancient wisdom can and should coexist with scientific research. The often emotionally removed etiquette of science has much to learn and benefit from the knowledge of and profound connection to the land Native Americans hold.
In combining factual knowledge with instinctual knowing and respect for all living things, as Kimmerer demonstrates throughout her book with the ongoing anecdotes of sweetgrass, she reveals how a deeper understanding of the earth creates a connection between human and land that is not only about loving a place but healing it as well.
Changes in the Land
The people of plenty were a people of waste.
― William Cronon, Changes in the Land
This final book, written by author and professor William Cronon, combines the fields of ecology and history to look at the changes in New England’s landscape throughout colonial America.
Cronon provides a fascinating and eloquently written account of what plant and animal life in New England looked like under the sole care of Native Americans, pre settlement.
He describes the way indigenous people shaped the land they lived on by planting, hunting and burning, not in an attempt to master it but to coexist. Their small numbers and frequent rotation between areas of use - separate seasons for fishing, planting and hunting - gave plant and animal populations time to replenish.
Settlers had a drastically different way of living off the land.
As Cronon reports, the settlers were baffled at the vast swaths of untamed wilderness. They saw nature as a force to control, a spirit to tame and harness. A man who was not “improving” his land, was wasting it. Thus, settlers set out cutting large patches of forest, displacing plant and animal communities.
They introduced species from Europe, which outcompeted native species. They created loopholes to take more land from the native Indians. All of which brought irreversible changes to the land.
This story - the amalgamation of a brilliant mind and information gleaned from history books, court and survey records, and salvaged journal entries - will transport you back in time. You will wonder over the descriptions of the flora and fauna that once existed here and take away an important lesson - our relationship with the land now will shape the future for generations to come.
Now grab a cup of tea, kick back in your favorite chair, and get lost in the wonders of nature through these delightful and thought-provoking works. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.