Nature and Environmental Book Reviews

Short List of Best Nature and Environmental Books



American Nature Writing Before Walden

The European discovery of the New World loosed a torrent of wondering description of its natural riches . . . learn more about American Nature Writing Before Walden»

The books in this section are a delightful sampling of early American nature writing.

Recommended American Nature Writing by and about John James Audubon (1785-1851)

Audubon's Birds of AmericaAudubon's Birds of America: The Audubon Society Baby Elephant Folio
John James Audubon

This marvelous edition of Audubon's Birds of America displays all 435 of Audubon's brilliant handcolored engravings in exquisite reproductions taken from the original plates of the Audubon Society's archival copy of the rare Double Elephant Folio. Peterson's fascinating introduction places Audubon in the context of the history of American ornithological art and also reproduces a wide sampling of the work of Audubon's notable predecessors and disciples, including Peterson's own justly famous paintings. 2003, Abbeville Press

Writings and DrawingsWritings and Drawings
John James Audubon

Less well known than his breathtaking art is Audubon's literary legacy: the magnificent volumes of natural history he published during his lifetime, as well as the remarkable journals, memoirs, and letters left behind at his death. The "Mississippi River Journal," the foremost record of an American artist's progress, details Audubon's first wilderness bird hunts. The vivid and intimate portraits of the habits and habitats of American birds in Ornithological Biography changed American nature writing forever. In the "Missouri River Journals," Audubon evokes the vanishing American Indian and the hardships of frontier life. Letters, essays on artistic technique and a brief memoir round out the volume. 1999, Library of America

John James Audubon: The Making of an AmericanJohn James Audubon: The Making of an American
Richard Rhodes

Born in Haiti, the bastard son of a French naval officer and a chambermaid, Audubon was taken to France by his father and then sent to America in 1803 to escape conscription into Napoleon's army. He began drawing birds as a child, and in America this passion grew into an obsession. Pulitzer Prize winner Rhodes chronicles every aspect of Audubon’s life in this thoroughly researched biography. Perhaps most important, Rhodes succeeds in shedding light on how Audubon perfected his ability to capture in his depictions of birds so much life and emotion that they transcend traditional wildlife painting. 2006, Vintage

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Recommended American Nature Writing by and about William Bartram (1738-1823)

Travels and Other WritingsTravels and Other Writings
William Bartram

Artist, writer, botanist, gardener, naturalist, and intrepid wilderness explorer, William Bartram was an extraordinary figure. The first American to devote himself to what we would now call the environment, Bartram was the most significant writer before Thoreau and a nature artist who rivals Audubon. Bartram's Travels (1791) recounts his journeys through the wilderness in prose famous for its celebratory intensity and lyrical profusion. Whether watching a roaring alligator emerging from a lake, spending the night on an uninhabited island, exuberantly cataloguing the flora of the wilderness, or enjoying the hospitality of Indian tribes, Bartram presents a moving, detailed vision of living in harmony with nature. 1996, Library of America

Art and Science of William BartramArt and Science of William Bartram
Judith Magee

William Bartram explored the American Southeast where he collected plants and seeds, kept a journal of his observations of nature, and made drawings of the plants and animals he encountered. The completed drawings were sent to his patron in London. The Art and Science of William Bartram brings together, for the first time, all sixty-eight drawings by Bartram held at the Natural History Museum. This volume explores Bartram’s writings and artwork and reveals how influential he was in American science of the period. 2007, Pennsylvania State University Press

The Natures of John and William BartramThe Natures of John And William Bartram
Thomas P. Slaughter

Pioneer American naturalists John Bartram and his son William emerge as precursors of Thoreau, Emerson and modern environmentalism in this intense, beautifully written dual portrait. John was Royal Botanist to King George III for the North American colonies. His son, nature artist/botanist William, a lifelong depressive unable to fulfill his father's expectations, fled from creditors to devote himself entirely to nature. Travels, his classic account of his expedition through the South in 1773-1777, inspired the poetry of Coleridge and Wordsworth. Rutgers historian Slaughter uses the Bartrams' journals and letters to fashion a stunning meditation on how we reconstruct the natural world. 2005, University of Pennsylvania Press

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Recommended American Nature Writing by and about Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (1490-1558)

The Journey and Ordeal of Cabeza de VacaThe Journey and Ordeal of Cabeza de Vaca: His Account of the Disastrous First European Exploration of the American Southwest
Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca

Of the 300 Spanish explorers who set out to discover North America, only four returned. Cabeza de Vaca's account of the 1528-1536 expedition crackles with excitement, relating the survivors' journey across treacherous territory, rhapsodizing over the beauty of the American wilderness, and offering information on American Indian life before European influence. This report of the 1528 to 1536 "journey" of Cabeza de Vaca is in his own words. The translation is easy to read and contains parenthetical additions to allow the reader to easily follow the journey on the modern map that is included. 2004, Dover Publications

We Came Naked and BarefootWe Came Naked and Barefoot: The Journey of Cabeza de Vaca Across North America
Alex D. Krieger

Perhaps no one has ever been such a survivor as Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. He survived a failed exploration of Florida, an open-boat crossing of the Gulf of Mexico, shipwreck on the Texas coast, six years of captivity among native peoples, and an arduous, overland journey in which he and three companions walked 1,500 miles from the central Texas coast to the Gulf of California, then another 1,300 miles to Mexico City. The route taken by Cabeza de Vaca and his companions remains the subject of enduring controversy. In this book, Krieger correlates the accounts in the two primary sources with his own extensive knowledge of the geography, archaeology, and anthropology of southern Texas and northern Mexico to plot out stage by stage the most probable route of the 2,800-mile journey of Cabeza de Vaca. This book is rich in information about the native groups, vegetation, geography, and material culture that the expedition encountered. 2002, University of Texas Press

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Recommended American Nature Writing by and about Mark Catesby (1682-1749)

Catesby's Birds of Colonial AmericaCatesby's Birds of Colonial America
Alan Feduccia and Russell W. Peterson

English naturalist Mark Catesby presented Europeans with their first comprehensive view of American flora and fauna. He had traveled extensively in the southern colonies gathering seeds, drawing wildlife and observing their habits. Here are all the bird illustrations and the entire text of his book. Catesby used native plants as a background for his birds; his descriptions, made before the era of systematic nomenclature, are augmented by Feduccia and compared to those of other early naturalists. 1999, The University of North Carolina Press

Mark Catesby's Natural History of AmericaMark Catesby's Natural History Of America
Henrietta McBurney

Catesby’s Natural History (1729-49) was the first comprehensive study of the flora and fauna of the eastern coast of North America. Published here for the first time are the original watercolors, having undergone recent conservation. Each plate includes quotations drawn from Catesby's Natural History text, artist's name, titles of drawings, modern common and scientific names, and numbering and colors. 1997, Ingram

Empire's NatureEmpire's Nature: Mark Catesby's New World Vision
Amy R. W. Meyers

Completed in 1747, Mark Catesby's Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands was the first major illustrated publication on the flora and fauna of Britain's American colonies. It exerted an important influence on the development of art, natural history, and scientific observation in the eighteenth century. This collection of interdisciplinary essays considers Catesby's endeavors as a naturalist-artist, scientific explorer, experimental horticulturist, ornamental gardener, and early environmental thinker. 1999, The University of North Carolina Press

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Recommended American Nature Writing by J. Hector St. John De Crevecoeur (1735-1813)

Letters from an American Farmer and Sketches of Eighteenth-Century AmericaLetters from an American Farmer and Sketches of Eighteenth-Century America
J. Hector St. John De Crevecoeur

America’s physical and cultural landscape is captured in these two classics of American history. Letters provides an invaluable view of the pre-Revolutionary and Revolutionary eras; Sketches details in vivid prose the physical setting in which American settlers created their history. 1981, Penguin

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Recommended American Nature Writing by Susan Fenimore Cooper (1813-1894)

Rural HoursRural Hours
Susan Fenimore Cooper

In Rural Hours, Susan Fenimore Cooper, daughter of the famed novelist James Fenimore Cooper, records a year in the life of the fields and woods surrounding her home in Cooperstown, New York. She writes with a keen eye for detail, noting, for example, the disappearance of local species as their habitat is given over to farmland and keeping track of changes in the weather, fluctuations in animal populations, and like matters. Rural Hours is considered to be the first extended piece of nature writing by an American woman. 1998, University of Georgia Press

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Recommended American Nature Writing by William Dunbar (1750-1810)

The Forgotten Expedition, 1804-1805The Forgotten Expedition, 1804-1805: The Louisiana Purchase Journals of Dunbar And Hunter
William Dunbar and George Hunter

President Thomas Jefferson commissioned George Hunter and William Dunbar, both renowned scientists, to explore the southern unmapped regions of the Louisiana Purchase. From October 16, 1804, to January 26, 1805, they made their way through what is now northern Louisiana and southern Arkansas. Their journals include descriptions of flora and fauna, geology, weather, landscapes, and native peoples and European settlers. The Forgotten Expedition completes the picture of the Louisiana Purchase presented through the journals of explorers Lewis and Clark. It is a treasure of the early natural history of North America and the first depiction of this new U.S. southern frontier. 2006, Louisiana State University Press

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Recommended American Nature Writing by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

Nature and Selected Essays
Short List of Best Nature and Environmental Books

Nature and Selected Essays
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Through his writing and his own personal philosophy, Ralph Waldo Emerson showed Americans how to be creators of their own circumstances. His mandate, which called for harmony with, rather than domestication of nature, and for a reliance on individual integrity, rather than on materialistic institutions, is echoed in many of the great American philosophical and literary works of his time. 2003, Penguin Classics

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Recommended American Nature Writing by and about John Charles Fremont (1813-1890)

Report of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains and to Oregon and North CaliforniaReport of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains and to Oregon and North California
John Charles Fremont

Fremont, the legendary Pathfinder who became a national hero for his trailblazing exploits in the Far West, made this report of his expedition to the Rocky Mountains in 1842 and to Oregon and North California in 1843-1844. The volume also includes a catalogue of plants collected by Fremont during his expeditions. 2005, Kessinger Publishing

PathfinderPathfinder: John Charles Fremont and the Course of American Empire
Tom Chaffin

Chaffin here examines the life of John Charles Fremont, one of the great figures in the American expansion throughout the West. With good storytelling sense, the author weaves together Fremont's work surveying the vast unmapped expanses of the trans-Mississippi region. Chaffin also reveals his subject's involvement with some of the major political issues of his time-e.g., relations with Indian tribes and with Mexico. Ultimately, the author sees his subject as tragic, used and ultimately pushed aside by a nation that had become larger than this larger-than-life man. 2004, Hill and Wang

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Recommended American Nature Writing by Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)

Notes on the State of VirginiaNotes on the State of Virginia
Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson’s chronicle of the natural, social, and political history of Virginia is at once a scientific discourse, an attempt to define America, and a brilliant examination of the idea of freedom. 1998, Penguin