Nature and Environmental Book Reviews

Short List of Best Nature and Environmental Books



Classic American Nature Writing Since 1900
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Classic American Nature Writing Since 1900

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Recommended Nature Writing Books by Peter Matthiessen(1927- )

Peter Matthiessen is a novelist, life-long naturalist, environmental activist, and wilderness traveler who has won the National Book Award, the Gold Medal in Natural History from the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences; the Heinz, John Hay, and Society of Conservation Biology awards; and the John Burroughs and Christopher medals. He is one of only a few American writers who have been nominated for the National Book Award in both fiction and non-fiction categories.

African SilencesAfrican Silences
Peter Matthiessen

Matthiessen reports on the almost total devastation of wildlife in Senegal, Gambia, and the Ivory Coast and describes an expedition searching for the rare Congo peacock and gorillas in the Virunga Mountains of Zaire. He accompanied ecologist David (Jonah) Western to the Central African Republic, Gabon, and Zaire to survey populations of the forest elephant and visit the Mbuti Pygmies of the Ituri Forest. Matthiessen's delight in the Mbuti and his cautious optimism about the effects of the recent ban on ivory trafficking somewhat softens his otherwise grim message about the fate of the people and wildlife of Africa. 1992, Vintage

BaikalBaikal: Sacred Sea of Siberia
Peter Matthiessen

The largest, deepest, and oldest freshwater lake in the world is also unique in much of its ecosystem. Long a spiritual center for the natives of Siberia and Mongolia, Baikal has recently become a focus for an emerging Soviet conservation movement. Noted author and traveler Matthiessen visited Baikal in August 1990 and kept a journal from which this work evolved. Enriched by color photos on nearly half the pages, plus numerous historical sidebars, this short work calls for the environmental defense of a treasure already damaged by industrial pollution. 1995, Sierra Club Books

The Birds of Heaven
Short List of Best of nature and environmental books

The Birds of Heaven: Travels with Cranes
Peter Matthiessen

National Book Award winner Peter Matthiessen, a self-professed "craniac," has been studying birds most of his life, but his pursuit of cranes is closer to a spiritual quest than a naturalist's exercise. These majestic, mythic and notoriously shy birds, capable of soaring at heights of 20,000 feet, are often fond of remote and rugged places. Matthiessen's search for cranes has taken him to hidden corners of Siberia, China, Mongolia, Tibet, Sudan, and Australia. Matthiessen observes that the cranes serve as an ecological warning: "Perhaps more than any other living creatures, they evoke the retreating wilderness, the vanishing horizons of clean water, earth, and air upon which their species - and ours too - must ultimately depend for survival." 2001, North Point Press


Blue MeridianBlue Meridian: The Search for the Great white Shark
Peter Mattiessen

In this classic book of nature writing, naturalist Matthiessen tells of his experiences as a crew member while filming the feature-length documentary, "Blue Water, White Death." The film's crew searched from the whaling grounds off South Africa to the Great Barrier Reef of Australia before they caught a glimpse of the ocean's most feared creature. One of the great stories of underwater adventure and exploration. 1997, Penguin

Cloud ForestCloud Forest
Peter Matthiessen

Peter Matthiessen crisscrossed 10,000 miles of the South American wilderness, from the Amazon rain forests to Machu Picchu, high in the Andes, down to Tierra del Fuego and back. He followed the trails of old explorers, encountered river bandits, wild tribesmen, and the evidence of ancient ruins, and discovered fossils in the depths of the Peruvian jungle. The Cloud Forest is his incisive, wry report of his expedition into this vast world to the south. 1987, Penguin

Courage for the EarthCourage for the Earth: Writers, Scientists, and Activists Celebrate the Life and Writing of Rachel Carson
Peter Matthiessen, editor

Rachel Carson is remembered as a hero for raising the alarm over ocean pollution and pesticides, and she is cherished for the sheer beauty of her writing. Courage for the Earth gathers 13 essays from leading writers, activists, and scientists such as biographer Linda Lear, biologist Edward O. Wilson, Vice President Al Gore, and nature writer Terry Tempest Williams. These and more tell how their lives have been changed by Rachel Carson's pioneering Silent Spring and by her earlier, lyrical nature writing on the sea. 2007, Mariner Books

End of the EarthEnd of the Earth: Expeditions to South Georgia and Antarctica
Peter Matthiessen

Brilliantly attuned to the transience of nature and painfully aware of the precariousness of a polar environment facing global warming, literary naturalist Peter Matthiessen provides an exquisite account of his voyage through the islands surrounding Antarctica. In lyrical prose, he describes the wildlife he encounters along with historical tales about the greatest pioneers and adventurers who preceded him. Matthiessen brings to life the waters of the richest whale feeding grounds in the world; the wandering albatross with its 11-foot wingspan arching through the sky; and the habits of every variety of seal, walrus, petrel, and penguin in the area. 2004, National Geographic

The Peter Matthiessen ReaderThe Peter Matthiessen Reader
Peter Matthiessen and McKay Jenkins

In the Reader, Jenkins's careful selections highlight Matthiessen's many strengths as a lyrical interpreter of nature who has joined a poetic appreciation for nature to a hard-edged, fact-based style of reportage. The reader of this book will visit episodes of life and death in highland New Guinea and arid South Dakota, learn about the astounding migration patterns of Eskimo curlews and the feeding habits of great white sharks, and be transported to mountain summits and jungle rivers. Matthiessen’s writing "is marked above all by an unblinking gaze at the world's subtle beauty, and at its fragility when set against humankind's blundering self-interest." 2000, Vintage

Sand RiversSand Rivers
Peter Matthiessen

Sand Rivers is based on a safari into the Selous Game Reserve in southern Tanzania, one of the last great wildernesses left on Earth. Selous is a ''reserve,'' not to be confused with such famous game parks as the Serengeti or Ngorongoro. It is an area of some 22,000 square miles, approximately the size of Maryland. The reserve has an estimated mammal population of 750,000 creatures, an incredible density of animal life. Matthiessen’s prose has a glistening, sculpted character: “At dark a hyena whoops and another answers, for the clan is gathering, but their ululations are soon lost in a vast staccato racket, an unearthly din that sweeps in rhythmic waves up and down the river bars, rising and falling like the breath of earth - then silence, a shocked ringing silence, as if the night hunters have all turned to hear this noise.” As with most of Mr. Matthiessen's work, the sense of beauty and mystery is indelible.
John Burroughs Medal for Distinguished Nature Writing 1982
African Wildlife Leadership Foundation Award

1982, Bantam Dell

The Shorebirds of North AmericaThe Shorebirds of North America
Peter Matthiessen

Matthiessen, a self-taught naturalist, produced this authoritative compendium of these interesting birds early in his career. Chapters covering the history, physiology, and habits of the “wind birds” are written in his customary elegant and precise prose. Illustrated with paintings by Robert Clem. 1967, Viking

The Snow LeopardThe Snow Leopard
Peter Matthiessen

First published in 1978, The Snow Leopard recounts writer Matthiessen's journey with zoologist George Schaller to the heart of the Himalayan region of Dolpo, "the last enclave of pure Tibetan culture on earth." They were in search of one of the world's most elusive big cats, the snow leopard of high Asia, a creature so rarely spotted as to be nearly mythical. Guiding his readers through steep-walled canyons and over tall mountains, Matthiessen offers a narrative that is shot through with metaphor and mysticism as the arduous search for the snow leopard becomes a vehicle for his reflections on all manner of matters of life and death. Thus The Snow Leopard evolves from an exquisite book of natural history and travel into a grand, Buddhist-tinged parable of our search for meaning. After all their searching, they never found the snow leopard. At the end, Schaller muses, "We've seen so much, maybe its better if there's some things we don't see."
National Book Award 1979 and 1980
National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist 1978

2008, Penguin Classics

Tigers in the SnowTigers in the Snow
Peter Matthiessen

Working with the noted wildlife biologist and photographer Maurice Hornocker, Matthiessen recounts his travels into the Russian Far East and Manchuria in search of one of the rarest of the big cats, Panthera tigris altaica, the Siberian tiger. Once shielded by Communist policies that restricted travel in and development of its wilderness habitat, the Siberian tiger is increasingly threatened throughout much of its range as the dense old-growth forests of the Pacific seaboard fall to Japanese logging companies; at the same time, the tiger is still hunted for parts used by Chinese apothecaries. Matthiessen is able to report a few success stories, as Russian, Chinese, and American biologists work to conserve habitat in the wild country where these tigers make their home. 2001, North Point Press

The Tree Where Man Was BornThe Tree Where Man Was Born
Peter Matthiessen

On the great East African plain it is the human who feels himself the intruder. Here, and perhaps only here, the world is that of the animals. It is they who belong, as humans do not. In the more sensitive traveler this evokes a feeling of being privileged to observe ancient forms, settings and behavior that have survived intact from pre-history.

"Matthiessen has the language to express this feeling of awe...Matthiessen also goes into the relationships between humans past and present in East Africa's great fauna with many a flash of insight into the instincts each has bred in the other...This is the Africa book par excellence." - Saturday Review 2010, Penguin Classics

Tree Where Man Was Born and African ExperienceTree Where Man Was Born and the African Experience
Peter Matthiessen and Eliot Porter

Eliot Porter’s matchless photographs perfectly complement Matthiessen’s text in this version of these classic works.
National Book Award 1973 Finalist
1998, Harvill Press

Under the Mountain WallUnder the Mountain Wall: A Chronicle of Two Seasons in Stone Age New Guinea
Peter Matthiessen

Under the Mountain Wall reports on the 1961 Peabody-Harvard Expedition to Central New Guinea whose members -Matthiessen was one - were the first white men ever to establish close contact with the Kurelu people and live among them. The Kurelu of Central New Guinea, dwelling in the mile-high Baliem Valley, could truly be called "stone age" in the sense of being completely untouched by the larger world beyond their borders. Matthiessen describes in beautiful and poignant writing the way of the Korelu--savages without history, who fight with spears over stolen pigs and women-- savages who must perpetually guard their lands and working women from watch towers lest enemies fall upon them unaware. There is, however, a powerful observation which Matthiessen does not mention, but which lies hidden in his book: these people are another proof that all mankind is the same. They live in huts, not skyscrapers. Their weapons are bows and spears; nevertheless they are ourselves in miniature. 1987, Penguin

Recommended Nature Writing Books by Gavin Maxwell (1914-1969)

Ring of Bright Water TrilogyThe Ring of Bright Water Trilogy
Gavin Maxwell

Fifty years ago Gavin Maxwell moved to the west coast of Scotland. With its small bay and islands, magical waterfall and encircling stream of vivid water, his remote home was a haven for wildlife. He named it Camusfearna and settled there with the otters Mij, Edal and Teko. Ring of Bright Water, the story of Gavin Maxwell's first ten years with the otters in this idyllic setting, touched the hearts of readers the world over, brilliantly evoking life with these playful animals in this natural paradise. Two further volumes followed - The Rocks Remain and Raven Seek Thy Brother - bringing the story full circle and telling of the difficult last years and final abandonment of the settlement. Here, Gavin Maxwell's poignant and often comic memoir of his life with the otters has been collected into one volume so that at last it can be read as a single unbroken narrative. 2001, Penguin

Recommended Nature Writing Books by Bill McKibben

American Earth
Short List of Best Nature and Environmental Books

American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau
Bill McKibben

In his introduction to this superb anthology, editor McKibben proposes that "environmental writing is America's most distinctive contribution to the world's literature." The collected pieces amply prove the point. Arranged chronologically, McKibben's selection of more than 100 writers includes great early conservationists, the early exponents of national parks and wilderness areas, writers who have borne witness to environmental degradation, visionaries, contemporary activist/writers, and many other eloquent nature writers. McKibben's trenchant introductions to the pieces sum up each writer's thoughts and form a running commentary on the progress of the conservation movement. The book can be read as a survey of the literature of American environmentalism, but above all, it should be enjoyed for the sheer beauty of the writing. 2008, Library of America

Deep EconomyDeep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future
Bill McKibben

Challenging the prevailing wisdom that the goal of economies should be unlimited growth, McKibben argues that the world doesn't have enough natural resources to sustain endless economic expansion. He thinks we should concentrate on creating localized economies: community-scale power systems instead of huge centralized power plants; cohousing communities instead of sprawling suburbs. He gives examples of promising ventures of this type, such as a community-supported farm in Vermont and a community biosphere reserve in Himalayan India. McKibben's proposals for new, less growth-centered ways of thinking about economics and offer hope that change is possible. 2008, Holt

The End of NatureThe End of Nature: Tenth Anniversary Edition
Bill McKibben

This seminal offering was first published over a decade ago when the phenomenon of global warming was a hotly argued and angrily debated issue. The publication of this new 10th Anniversay Edition arrives in the world in which the author's basic thesis has been validated by over a decade of data regarding climate change. 2006, Random House Trade Paperbacks

Hope, Human and WildHope, Human and Wild: True Stories of Living Lightly on the Earth
Bill McKibben

McKibben here joins other nature writers expressing a cautious optimism about the possibility of saving the global environment from further devastation. Close to home, he writes of the wildlife returning to upstate New York and New England. In Curitika, Brazil, he finds an urban planner who has designed a city that works on a human scale, caring for the less fortunate while providing the means for commerce to flourish. And in Kerala, India, he tells of a state that has made enormous progress with a per capita income 1/17th the American average. McKibben concludes by calling for a new local politics, coupled with devolution of the global economy. 2007, Milkweed Editions

Wandering HomeWandering Home: A Long Walk Across America's Most Hopeful Landscape: Vermont's Champlain Valley and New York's Adirondacks
Bill McKibben

As McKibben hikes from tidy Vermont into the wilds of New York's Adirondack Mountains, he rhapsodizes about gorgeous mountain vistas, pristine lakes, and deep woods. He isn't only communing with nature but also visiting individuals committed to living "green," including organic farmers, a vintner, a beekeeper, environmental studies students, philanthropists, and writers. Thanks to their efforts, this once hard-used land is now restored and rebounding. As McKibben considers nature's "lessons in flux and resiliency," he holds out the possibility of our foregoing "hyperindividualism" and unbridled materialism to achieve a balance between the wild and the cultivated, and a sense of community that embraces the entire web of life. 2005, Crown

Recommended Nature Writing Books by Thomas McNamee (1947- )

Grizzly BearGrizzly Bear
Thomas McNamee

Veteran nature writer McNamee took on Ursus arctos horribilis in Grizzly Bear, which blends a wealth of scientific fact with a fine literary style. Rather than providing a simple portrait of the bear, McNamee follows the lives of a fictitious mother bear and her cubs from April to October, including facts about their growth, behavior, diet, and development based on the observations of grizzly specialists. This book can stand with the classic treatises on grizzlies and with the lyric nature writing of Carson and Dillard. 1997, The Lyons Press

The Return of the Wolf to YellowstoneThe Return of the Wolf to Yellowstone
Thomas McNamee

The recent reintroduction of the gray wolf to Yellowstone Park after an absence of 70 years is considered by many to be one of the true conservation highlights of this century. This richly detailed and colorful account of the restoration project covers all the bases: the history, the politics, the characters (both human and animal), and the events including the trapping in Canada, the problematic release, and the illegal shooting of Wolf Number Ten near the town of Red Lodge, Montana, and the subsequent manhunt. 1998, Owl Books

Recommended Nature Writing Books by John McPhee (1931- )

Annals of the Former WorldAnnals of the Former World
John McPhee

Like the terrain it covers, Annals of the Former World tells a many-layered tale. Read sequentially, the book is an organic succession of set pieces, flashbacks, biographical sketches, and histories of the human and lithic kind; approached systematically, it can be a North American geology primer, an exploration of plate tectonics, or a study of geologic time and the development of the time scale. As clearly and succinctly written as it is profoundly informed, this is our finest popular survey of geology, and a masterpiece of modern nonfiction writing.
Pulitzer Prize 1999
2000, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Assembling CaliforniaAssembling California
John McPhee

McPhee takes readers on an intensive geological tour of California, from the Sierra Nevada through wine country to the San Andreas fault system. He introduces the reader to current geological controversies, and surveys global plate tectonics--the collision and rearrangement of land masses ever since the breakup of the supercontinent of Pangaea eons ago. McPhee looks at the conjectural science of earthquake prediction and gives an account of a recent San Francisco quake. His leisurely excavation meanders from Mexican explorer Juan Bautista de Anza's settlement of San Francisco in 1776 to 1850s gold-mining camps to the summit of Mount Everest, made of marine limestone lifted from a shelf that once divided India and Tibet. 1994, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Basin and RangeBasin and Range
John McPhee

One of the most valuable tools for the advancement of geological science has been the humble road cut. Interstate 80 crosses the entire North American continent, in the process exposing hundreds of millions of years of geological history. In Basin and Range, McPhee demonstrates how the contorted and tilted rocks seen in these road cuts reveal islands of the earth's crust that have floated across the earth's surface, crashing and folding to form basin and range. This is a masterful and sometimes even poetic volume of popular scientific writing.
Pulitzer Prize Finalist 1982
1982, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Coming into the CountryComing into the Country
John McPhee

Residents of the Lower 48 sometimes imagine Alaska as a snow-covered land of igloos, oil pipelines, and polar bears. But Alaska is far more complex geographically, culturally, ecologically, and politically than most Americans know. In Coming into the Country, McPhee describes his travels through much of the state with bush pilots, prospectors, and settlers, as well as politicians and businesspeople who have their eyes set on a very different future for the state.
National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist 1977
1991, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

The Control of NatureThe Control of Nature
John McPhee

In The Control of Nature McPhee explores the human struggle against nature. In one sketch, he describes an unrealized plan to divert the flow of the Mississippi River into a tributary for flood control; in another, he looks at the ingenious ways in which an Icelandic engineer saved a harbor from being destroyed by a lava flow; in a third, he examines a complex scheme to protect Los Angeles from boulders ejected from the mountains by compression and tectonic movement. McPhee’s accessible narrative approach leads the reader to a passionate concern in earthquakes and flood control.
John Burroughs Medal for Distinguished Nature Writing 1990
1990, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Encounters with the ArchdruidEncounters with the Archdruid
John McPhee

Born in 1915, the mountaineer and outdoorsman David Brower has arguably been the single most influential American environmentalist in the last half of the 20th century; even his erstwhile foes at the Department of the Interior grudgingly credit him with having nearly single-handedly halted the construction of a dam in the heart of the Grand Canyon. McPhee offers up an engaging portrait of Brower, a man unafraid of a good fight in the service of the Earth, making Encounters an important contribution to the history of the modern environmental movement.
National Book Award Finalist 1972
1977, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

The Pine BarrensThe Pine Barrens
John McPhee

The largest essentially untouched wilderness east of the Mississippi comprises nearly half of New Jersey: the Pine Barrens. This more than 1,000-square-mile region has only a few thousand inhabitants--the Pineys, whose way of life has remained essentially unchanged since the 17th century. McPhee has written an extraordinarily compelling, informative, and insightful book about the botanical, cultural, hydrological, and historical peculiarities of this region. He also details the efforts to save it from the creeping urbanization of nearby Philadelphia and New York City. 1978, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Rising from the PlainsRising From The Plains
John McPhee

The central theme of this book is the geology of an area near Interstate 80, this time the Rocky Mountains and adjacent terrain in Wyoming. McPhee skillfully weaves together the personal history of Rocky Mountain geologist David Love and his family with the geological history of the region, chronicling both the story of pioneering homesteaders and that of ancient seas, volcanoes, and episodes of mountain building. He also details the search for resources and the environmental effect of their discovery, as well as the inner workings of geology.
Pulitzer Prize Finalist 1987
1987, Farrar, Straus and Giroux


Classic American Nature Writing Since 1900

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