Nature and Environmental Book Reviews

Short List of Best Nature and Environmental Books



Classic American Nature Writing Since 1900
Page 13

Classic American Nature Writing Since 1900

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Recommended Nature Writing Books by Stephen Trimble (1950- )

The Sagebrush OceanThe Sagebrush Ocean, Tenth Anniversary Edition: A Natural History of the Great Basin
Stephen Trimble

The vast arid expanse of the Great Basin Desert, comprising portions of Utah, Nevada, Oregon, California, and Idaho, has never enjoyed the cachet of the Sonoran Desert, chronicled by writers like Ed Abbey and Joseph Wood Krutch. It finds a gifted champion in Stephen Trimble, who recounts the complex and varied natural history of the Basin's ecosystems in a mere 250 oversized pages. He takes us from salt playas to mountain islands, from creosote bush valleys to aspen glens. It's a fine tour, enjoyable from first to last page, and exquisitely well illustrated. 2005, University of Nevada Press

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Recommended Nature Writing Books by Jack Turner (1942- )

The Abstract WildThe Abstract Wild
Jack Turner

These eight provocative essays turn on a common theme: how wildness (once but no longer the essence of wilderness) has been mediated, micromanaged and abstracted nearly out of existence. The essays include rants against the status quo, memoirs of wild places and a tribute to Doug Peacock, who dared to live among grizzlies. Turner is most persuasive when relying on the language of experience: coming upon a wall of prehistoric pictographs in a Utah canyon, tracking a mountain lion in Wyoming, listening to the clacking of soaring white pelicans. The Abstract Wild is a manifesto that defends the wild by passionately restoring its good Thoreauvian name. 1996, University of Arizona Press

TeewinotTeewinot: Climbing and Contemplating the Teton Range
Jack Turner

This is a book about a mountain range, its climbs, its weather, and the glory of the wild. It is also about a small group of climbers-nomads who inhabit the Teton Range each summer, and who know it intimately. Teewinot is a remarkable account of what it is like to live and work in these spectacular mountains. In this series of recollections, one of America's most beautiful national parks comes alive with beauty, mystery, and power – with spellbinding accounts of dangerous and deadly climbs, unbridled awe at the beauty of nature, and an extreme passion for the environmental issues facing America today. 2001, St. Martin's

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Recommended Nature Writing Books by Linda Underhill

The Unequal HoursThe Unequal Hours: Moments of Being in the Natural World
Linda Underhill

In these jewel-like essays, Underhill invites readers to practice the difficult art of stillness. Quiet, small, transcendent moments of illumination that restore us to ourselves and to a sense of connection with all things can occur, she insists, while watching the rain, or sweeping the porch, or sitting and looking at the backyard. To commune with nature, she reassures readers, it's not necessary to emulate Thoreau, to leave home and go live in the woods. Unequal Hours is a series of elegant meditations in the tradition of Wendell Berry, sprinkled with references to poetry, myth, science, Taoism, ecology and ancient customs. 1999, University of Georgia Press

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Recommended Nature Writing Books by John C. Van Dyke (1856-1932)

The DesertThe Desert
John C. Van Dyke

In 1898, John C. Van Dyke, an asthmatic forty-two-year-old art historian and critic, headed into the Colorado desert. With his dog, his guns, and few supplies, he wandered, mostly alone, for nearly three years across the deserts of California, Arizona and Mexico. His exact route is not known; he did not always know where he was himself. He sought both health and beauty in the dry country and wrote that the desert "never had a sacred poet; it has in me only a lover". This extraordinary book, composed "at odd intervals, when I lay against a rock or propped up in the sand", is a masterpiece of personal philosophy, containing precise scientific analyses of diverse phenomena-- from erosion to sky colors-- and prescient ruminations on the nature of civilization. "The desert should never be reclaimed!" Van Dyke wrote. 2011, Gibbs-Smith

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Recommended Nature Writing Books by David Rains Wallace (1945- )

The Klamath KnotThe Klamath Knot: Exporations of Myth and Evolution, Twentieth Anniversary Edition
David Rains Wallace

The Klamath Knot is a personal vision of wilderness in the Klamath Mountains of northwest California and southwest Oregon, seen through the lens of "evolutionary mythology." David Rains Wallace uses his explorations of the diverse ecosystems in this region to ponder the role of evolution and myth in our culture. The author's new epilogue makes a case for the creation of a new park to safeguard this exceptionally rich storehouse of relict species and evolutionary stories, which has largely been bypassed by conservationists since John Muir.
John Burroughs Medal for Distinguished Nature Writing 1984
2003, University of California Press

Neptune's ArkNeptune's Ark: From Ichthyosaurs to Orcas
David Rains Wallace

The western coastline of North America has never been part of the interior of any continent or supercontinent. It is here that naturalist Wallace bases his survey of marine evolution over the past 500 million years. He examines the fantastical ancestors of today's species, as well as forms that left no direct descendants. Toothed birds flew above or dove below the seas, and fishlike ichthyosaurs patrolled open oceans. And sea cows, now reduced to a few tropical species, colonized the entire coastline. Wallace fills his narrative with stories of the often-quirky paleontologists who found these creatures and cautionary tales about the decimation and later conservation of their modern kin. The addition of coastal Indian creation tales and his own philosophical musings on the vast scope of diversity and time engages the reader in Wallace's voyage of discovery. 2007, University of California Press

The Quetzel and the MacawThe Quetzel and the Macaw
David Rains Wallace

Wallace recounts the comprehensive history of the Costa Rican National Park system, generally considered a global model of ecological preservation. During the past 40 years Costa Rica has lost almost half of its forest cover. Wallace narrates a lively history showing how Costa Rican leaders guided their Third World country into being more prowilderness and biocentric than the US or Europe, principally by acquiring every type of landscape and ecosystem possible in order to create a national repository of biodiversity. Some of the nation's conservation issues, he points out, are duplicated in the US--e.g., the question of how to deflect pressure from miners, loggers, ranchers, and government agencies- -while others particularly afflict Third World countries with limited land and growing populations. An eloquent case study with worldwide lessons. 1992, Sierra Club Books

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Recommended Nature Writing Books by William W. Warner (1920- )

Beautiful SwimmersBeautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs and the Chesapeake Bay
William W. Warner

Warner weaves together the stories of the Bay's watermen and the biology and habits of the blue crabs themselves. Crabbers work in all weather and throughout the Bay; techniques for harvesting crabs vary from month to month according to region, weather and a crabber's preference. While the ways of the watermen are a significant portion of this book, the crab is definitely the central character. Warner writes "the biology of the blue crab is interesting and complex, characterized by season migrations, sophisticated mating practices and a number of less understood phenomena." Of the waterman, he continues, "Correspondingly, the watermen have over the years developed a bewildering array of special gear and techniques trying to outguess and outsmart the crab."
Pulitzer Prize 1977
1994, Back Bay Books

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Recommended Nature Writing Books by Scott Weidensaul

Living on the windLiving on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds
Scott Weidensaul

"At whatever moment you read these words, day or night, there are birds aloft in the skies of the western hemisphere, migrating." With helpful supporting maps, Weidensaul describes the migrating habits of many bird species and considers the intriguing question of how they do it. The heart of this compelling story is a plea for the conservation of habitats to keep these miraculous creatures circling the earth.
Pulitzer Prize Finalist 2000
2000, North Point Press

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Recommended Nature Writing Books by Jonathan Weiner

The Beak of the finchThe Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time
Jonathan Weiner

On a desert island in the heart of the Galapagos archipelago, where Darwin received his first inklings of the theory of evolution, two scientists - Peter and Rosemary Grant - have spent 20 years proving that Darwin did not know the strength of his own theory. For among the finches of Daphne Major, natural selection is neither rare nor slow: it is taking place by the hour and we can watch. In this dramatic story of ground-breaking scientific research, Johathan Weiner follows these scientists as they study Darwin's Finches and come up with a new understanding of life itself. The Beak of the Finch is an elegantly written and compelling masterpiece.
Winner of the Pulitizer Prize for Non-Fiction, 1995
1995, Vintage

Time, Love, MemoryTime, Love, Memory: A Great Biologist and His Quest for the Origins of Behavior
Jonathan Weiner

This engrossing scientific biography brings out from the shadows one of the unsung pioneers of molecular biology: brash, eccentric, Brooklyn-born California Institute of Technology physicist-turned-biologist Seymour Benzer. In 1953 Benzer invented a way to use viral DNA to map the interior of a gene, which helped Francis Crick crack the genetic code in the early 1960s. Benzer began tracking tiny genetic mutations in scores of generations of fruit flies that he passed through a maze of test-tube tunnels with a light source to which the flies instinctively gravitated. Since the fly brain and the human brain share nearly identical genetic sequences, scientists today use his techniques to study the genetic coding of memory, learning, courtship, sex assignment, disease and aging in humans.
National Book Critics Circle Award 1999
2000, Vintage

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Recommended Nature Writing Books by Alan Weisman

The World Without Us

Nature Book Review

The World Without Us
Alan Weisman

Teasing out the consequences of a simple thought experiment - what would happen if the human species were suddenly extinguished? - Weisman has written a sort of pop-science ghost story, in which the whole earth is the haunted house. New York City subways would fill with water, forests would retake the buckled streets, and land freed from mankind's environmentally poisonous footprint would quickly reconstitute itself. After thousands of years, the earth might revert to Eden. Thought-provoking.
National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist 2007
2007, Thomas Dunne Books

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Recommended Nature Writing Books by Lew Welch

Selected PoemsSelected Poems
Lew Welch

Lew Welch's life-long discomfort with modern, urban America, and a yearning to find his place as what he referred to as a “Native of the World" is expressed most clearly in Selected Poems, published shortly after his death. One of the lesser-known Beat poets, he worked in the San Francisco salmon fishing fleet where he daily felt the closeness of natural forces, what he called “the real work.” 2001, Grey Fox Press

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Recommended Nature Writing Books by T. H. White

T. H. White was an English novelist best known for his best-selling book The Once and Future King, published in 1958.

The GoshawkThe Goshawk
T. H. White

"Sports such as ferreting and falconry show the extent to which people are prepared to risk pain and injury in order to enter the world of other species. The arduous experience of training a falcon to accept a person as a perch forms the character both of the bird and its keeper. The experience has been vividly described by TH White in The Goshawk and no reader of that book can doubt that country sports are as unlike human games as wine is unlike water. They do not satisfy some ordinary need for exercise and diversion, any more than wine quenches thirst. They answer to a deeper yearning and intoxicate us with the scent of other worlds. They open a door into the natural life of species: not the pretend life that is imposed on the domestic pet, but the real life that was ordained by nature. Hence the ritual and hence the joy. These sports are genuine rites of passage, which guide us into the world of other animals and help us to know it from within, as a world of instinct, awe and miracles." --The Observer 2007, NYRB Classics

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Recommended Nature Writing Books by Terry Tempest Williams (1955- )

Coyote's CanyonCoyote's Canyon
Terry Tempest Williams and John Telford

This collaboration between Utah natives is an intimate meditation on one of the earth's most extraordinary landscapes. Telford 's spectacular color photographs of Utah's desert, canyons, mesas, hidden waterways, arches, Anasazi cliff dwellings, and vistas are rich with the reflected light that elevates rock into sculpture. Terry Tempest Williams' stories celebrate the legend and ritual surrounding this sacred place, creating a compelling new mythology. 2001, Gibbs-Smith

Desert QuartetDesert Quartet: An Erotic Landscape
Terry Tempest Williams and Mary Frank

Beautifully illuminated with drawings and paintings by noted artist Mary Frank, Williams, one of the West's most intense and lyrical writers, invokes the lure and drama of the landscape. This is an incandescent meditation--in word and image--on the physical vastness and beauty of the desert and the spiritual place one woman finds for herself there. 1995, Pantheon

Pieces of White ShellPieces of White Shell
Terry Tempest Williams

This unusual book is an introduction to Navajo culture by a storyteller. Steeped in the lore of the Navajo reservation, where she worked as a teacher, Williams came to see Navajo legend and ritual as touchstones for evaluating her own experience. She presents them here as a means for all people to locate their own history, traditions, and sense of how to live well. “To know the oral tradition of Native American people is to feel the sensitivity and sensuality of language in its clearest motion and light.” - Simon Ortiz 1987, University of New Mexico Press

RedRed: Passion and Patience in the Desert
Terry Tempest Williams

Red traces Williams’s lifelong love of and commitment to the desert, as she explores what draws us to a place and keeps us there. It brings together the lyrical evocations of Coyote’s Canyon and Desert Quartet with new essays of great power and originality, essays that range from a family discussion on the desert tortoise to an investigation of slowness to startling encounters with Anasazi artifacts (including a ceremonial sash made of scarlet macaw feathers). Williams shows how this harshest and most fragile of landscapes inspires a soulful return to “wild mercy.” The preservation of wildness is not simply a political process but a spiritual one. 2002, Vintage

RefugeRefuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place
Terry Tempest Williams

In the spring of 1983 Terry Tempest Williams learned that her mother was dying of cancer. That same season, The Great Salt Lake began to rise to record heights, threatening the herons, owls, and snowy egrets that Williams, a poet and naturalist, had come to gauge her life by. One event was nature at its most random, the other a by-product of rogue technology: Terry's mother, and Terry herself, had been exposed to the fallout of atomic bomb tests in the 1950s. As it interweaves these narratives of dying and accommodation, Refuge transforms tragedy into a document of renewal and spiritual grace, resulting in a work that has become a classic. 1992, Vintage

An Unspoken HungerAn Unspoken Hunger: Stories from the Field
Terry Tempest Williams

Williams makes it clear that we lose an essential part of ourselves when we neglect the Earth. She writes, "There is no defense against an open heart and a supple body in dialogue with wildness. Internal strength is an absorption of the external landscape. We are informed by beauty, raw and sensual. Through an erotics of place our sensitivity becomes our sensibility." 1995, Vintage

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Recommended Nature Writing Books by Edward O. Wilson (1929- )

A professor emeritus at Harvard University, Wilson is best known among environmentalists as one of the world's most credible advocates of protecting the planet's biodiversity. Among his fellow biologists, he is also known as an eclectic and influential theorist. And among an even smaller group of specialists, he is renowned as an authority on a single family of insects: ants.

In the 1960s Wilson and ecologist Robert MacArthur articulated what they called the theory of island biogeography. Based on studies of species extinction on islands, the theory proposed that smaller islands support a dramatically lesser diversity of species than larger ones. That work led directly to a growing realization among biologists that national parks, refuges, and other wild habitats were increasingly becoming isolated "islands" and that true conservation required larger, less fragmented parcels of wild habitat. In the 1970s, in his book Sociobiology, Wilson offered ideas about the relationship between evolution and behavior -- and found himself embroiled in controversy for proposing that human behavior (including gender roles) was influenced more by genes than by culture.

Even as a boy, Wilson felt driven to study nature. He might have turned to ornithology, but he had been blinded in one eye by the dorsal spine of a small fish he had taken from the water. As he was also a bit hard of hearing, he proved to be, as he said, "a wretched birdwatcher." And so he turned to insects -- "not by any touch of idiosyncratic genius but by a fortuitous constriction of physiological ability."

In the 1980s Wilson focused his attention on the protection of biological diversity. Winner of the  Audubon Medal for his service to conservation, and the Orion Society John Hay Award, he has written and spoken out vigorously for the preservation of nature. An optimist even in the face of crisis, he predicts that a day will come when "the flora and fauna of a country will be thought part of the national heritage as important as its art, its language, and that astonishing blend of achievement and farce that has always defined our species."

Wilson is listed in "100 Champions of Conservation in the 20th Century" by the Audubon Society.

The AntsThe Ants
Bert Hölldobler and E.O. Wilson

This beautifully written and accessible scientific study of one of the most diverse animal groups on earth won the Pulitizer Prize in 1991. From the Arctic to South Africa, making up nearly 15% of the entire terrestrial animal biomass, ants fascinate by their highly organized and complex social system. Their caste system, the division of labor, the origin of altruistic behavior, and their complex forms of chemical communication makes them the most interesting group of social organisms. Ants are the premier soil turners, channelers of energy and dominatrices of the insect fauna.
Pulitzer Prize 1991
1990, Belknap Press

Edward O. Wilson

"A fine memoir by one of America's foremost evolutionary biologists. E. O. Wilson defines biophilia as 'the innate tendency [in human beings] to focus on life and lifelike process. To an extent still undervalued in philosophy and religion, our existence depends on this propensity, our spirit is woven from it, hopes rise on its currents.' Scientifically demonstrating this human propensity would be a task beyond the scope of today's biology, and Wilson wisely eschews that course. Instead, he relies on his own experiences and feelings as a field biologist, cleverly interweaving them with the facts, history, and philosophy of evolutionary biology and an eclectic set of cultural observations." - Natural History 1986, Harvard University Press

The CreationThe Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth
Edward O. Wilson

Addressing a hypothetical "Dear Pastor," Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist issues a forthright call for unity between religion and science in order to save the creation - living nature which is in deep trouble. Forget about arguing over life's origins, Wilson suggests, and focus on the fact that while nature achieves sustainability through complexity, human activities are driving myriad species into extinction, thus depleting the biosphere and jeopardizing civilization. Wilson celebrates individual species, each a masterpiece of biology, and acutely analyzes the nexus between nature and the human psyche. He refutes fantasies about humanity's ability to recreate nature's intricate web, and deplores the use of religious belief (God will take care of it) as an impediment to conservation. 2007, W. W. Norton

The Diversity of Life
short List of best nature and environmental books

The Diversity of Life
Edward O. Wilson

In this book a master scientist tells the story of how life on earth evolved. Pulitzer Prize winner Wilson eloquently describes how the species of the world became diverse and why that diversity is threatened today as never before. "The most important scientific book of the year." The Boston Globe
National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist 1992
2010, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press


The Future of LifeThe Future of Life
Edward O. Wilson

Eminent naturalist and Pulitzer Prize winner Edward Wilson issues an impassioned call to ensure the future of life. Beginning with an imagined conversation with Thoreau at Walden Pond, Wilson combines lyrical descriptions of the natural world with dire warnings and remarkable stories of flora and fauna on the edge of extinction with hard economics. An eloquent plea for a global land ethic. 2003, Vintage

On Human NatureOn Human Nature
Edward O. Wilson

Professor Wilson challenges old prejudices and current misconceptions about the nature-nurture debate. He shows how evolution has left its traces on the most distinctively human activities, how patterns of generosity, self-sacrifice, and worship, as well as sexuality and aggression, reveal their deep roots in the life histories of primate bands that hunted big game in the last Ice Age. His goal is nothing less than the completion of the Darwinian revolution by bringing biological thought into the center of the social sciences and the humanities.
Pulitzer Prize 1979
2004, Harvard University Press

Edward O. Wilson

"Most children have a bug period," writes the author. "I never grew out of mine." Winner of two Pulitzer prizes, pioneer in sociobiology, distinguished entomologist and teacher, Wilson has written an absorbing memoir that charts his development as a scientist. From the age of seven, he wanted to be a naturalist; an accident that left him blind in one eye determined his field, and he settled on ants. Noting that he has been "blessed with brilliant enemies," he gives a lively account of academic infighting between molecular (James Watson of DNA fame) and evolutionary biologists during the 1960s. Wilson discusses his collaboration with Bert Holldobler and the controversy that arose from the publication of Sociobiology: The New Synthesis in 1975. Wilson's memoir gives a rare glimpse into the evolution of scientific theory.
National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist 1994
2006, Island Press

In Search of NatureIn Search of Nature
Edward O. Wilson

Biologist Edward O. Wilson has been observing humans and nature in a career in biology that spans more than four decades. For the last 10 years or so, he has labored to alert us to the dangers we face due to the decline in the "diversity of life, which we are so recklessly diminishing through species extinction." The essays in In Search of Nature range widely. He gives us tales of nature's boundless variety with creatures like the reservoir ant and the cookie cutter shark and with a discussion of the importance of taxonomy. In the final essay, "Is Humanity Suicidal?" he returns to the topic that seems to be most on his mind: mankind's assault on the world of nature. 1997, Island Press

SociobiologySociobiology: The New Synthesis, Twenty-fifth Anniversary Edition
Edward O. Wilson

Sociobiology attempts to explain biologically why groups of animals behave the way they do when finding food or shelter, confronting enemies, or getting along with one another. Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist Wilson explains how group selection, altruism, hierarchies, and sexual selection work in populations of animals and identifies evolutionary trends and sociobiological characteristics of all animal groups, up to and including man. A classic work. 2000, Belknap Press


Classic American Nature Writing Since 1900

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