Nature and Environmental Book Reviews

Short List of Best Nature and Environmental Books



Classic Nature Writing 19th Century

The last half of the nineteenth century brought the culmination of the great expeditions of exploration into the unmapped West. Many intrepid travelers returned from the Rocky Mountains, California and the West coast, and the great American deserts with interesting descriptions of the flora and fauna they observed . . . learn more about Classic Nature Writing - 19th Century»

The books listed below are the best of 19th century nature writing after Walden, and include reports of explorations, works of natural history, nature essays, and Darwin's great volumes of science.

Recommended Classic Nature Writing by Isabella L. Bird (1831-1903)

A Lady's Life in the Rocky MountainsA Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains
Isabella L. Bird

In 1873, a middle-aged Englishwoman toured the Colorado Rockies on horseback — alone, for the most part. Painting an intimate portrait of the "Wild West," Bird wrote eloquently of flora and fauna, isolated settlers and assorted refugees from civilization, vigilance committees, lynchings, and the manners among the men she encountered in the wilderness. 2003, Dover Publications

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Recommended Classic Nature Writing by William H. Brewer (1828-1910)

Up and Down California in 1860-1864Up and Down California in 1860-1864: the Journal of William H. Brewer
William H. Brewer

In 1860 William Brewer, a young Yale-educated teacher of the natural sciences, eagerly accepted an offer from Josiah Whitney to assist in the first geological survey of the state of California. He traveled more than fourteen thousand miles in the four years he spent in California and spent much of his leisure time writing lively, detailed letters to his brother back East. These warmly affectionate letters, presented here in their entirety, describe the new state in all its spectacular beauty and paint a vivid picture of California in the mid-nineteenth century. 2003, University of California Press

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Recommended Classic Nature Writing by John Burroughs (1837-1921)

John Burroughs was born near the town of Roxbury in the Catskill Mountains. Growing up on his parents' farm, he absorbed much of the nature and country life that he would later write about in his many volumes.

He taught briefly, married, and during the Civil War settled in Washington, D.C. where he obtained a job as a clerk in the Treasury Department. It was during his nine years in Washington that he published his first book, Wake-Robin.

Through his books and magazine articles, written from 1870 to 1920, John Burroughs provided a window to the natural world for countless Americans. From his cabin on the Hudson River in New York, Burroughs wrote about birds and flowers and natural events in a way that inspired people to look at their own surroundings more closely. His famous friendships with such powerful individuals as Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Ford helped popularize nature study.

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

Accepting the UniverseAccepting the Universe
John Burroughs

"A wheel may have many spokes, but can have but one hub. So I may say of this volume of mine that here are many themes and chapter headings, but there is but one central thought into which they all converge, and that is that the universe is good, and that it is our rare good fortune to form a part of it.”
" The various man-made creeds are fictitious, like the constellations -- Orion, Cassiopeia's Chair, the Big Dipper; the only thing real in them is the stars, and the only thing real in the creeds is the soul's aspiration toward the Infinite." 2001, Fredonia Books

The Art of Seeing ThingsThe Art of Seeing Things
John Burroughs

A departure from previous Burroughs anthologies, this volume celebrates the surprising range of the writing of John Burroughs -- religion, philosophy, literature, conservation, and farming. In doing so, it emphasizes the process of the literary naturalist, specifically the lively connection the author makes between perceiving nature and how perception permeates all aspects of life experiences. 2001, Syracuse University Press

In the CatskillsIn the Catskills: Selections from the Writings of John Burroughs
John Burroughs

The eight essays in this volume all deal with the home region of their author; for not only did Mr. Burroughs begin life in the Catskills, and dwell among them until early manhood, but, as he himself declares, he has never taken root anywhere else. Their delectable heights and valleys have engaged his deepest affections as far as locality is concerned, and however widely he journeys and whatever charms he discovers in nature elsewhere, still the loveliness of those pastoral boyhood uplands is unsurpassed. 2007, BiblioBazaar

Locusts and Wild HoneyLocusts and Wild Honey
John Burroughs

Burroughs writes enthusiastically of a week’s camping trip in the Catskills: “I was leg-weary and foot-sore, but a fresh, hardy feeling had taken possession of me that lasted for weeks.” 2001, Adamant Media Corporation

Signs and SeasonsSigns and Seasons
John Burroughs

In these engaging nature essays Burroughs is curious about how birds and small animals manage to survive through difficult winters, and he observes nesting birds and the strategies they use to ensure the survival of their young. Throughout he underscores the pleasures and satisfaction of close observation of the natural world. 2001, Adamant Media Corporation

Time and ChangeTime and Change
John Burroughs

Burroughs describes his intellectual grappling with Darwin’s great theory of evolution: “I am sure I was an evolutionist in the abstract, or by the quality and complexion of my mind, before I read Darwin, but to become an evolutionist in the concrete, and accept the doctrine of the animal origin of man, has not for me been an easy manner.” 2001, Adamant Media Corporation

John Burroughs

Wake-Robin was the first published collection of Burroughs’ nature essays. His congenial voice and his enthusiasm for the natural world around him began to gather a wide readership for his writing. 2007, BiblioBazaar

Ways of NatureWays of Nature
John Burroughs

In Ways of Nature Burroughs muses upon the instincts and consciousness of animals as they live in the world. He emphasizes the power of careful scientific observation of nature. 2001, Adamant Media Corporation

Winter SunshineWinter Sunshine
John Burroughs

In this early collection of essays Burroughs focuses on the world close at hand, including observations of the winter sky, the weather of Washington, D.C., the lives of foxes and skunks. Later chapters focus on a trip to England and Ireland and sharpen the author’s appreciation for American nature. 2001, Adamant Media Corporation

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Recommended Classic Nature Writing by and about Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

The Descent of ManThe Descent of Man
Charles Darwin

In his second major work, published in 1871, Darwin applies his theory of evolution to humans, and details his theory of sexual selection: “The sole object of this work is to consider, firstly, whether man, like every other species, is descended from some pre-existing form; secondly, the manner of his development; and thirdly, the value of the differences between the so-called races of man.” The ideas he puts forth are still reverberating through Western culture, as creationists oppose the notion that humans are the result of an evolutionary process. Darwin’s theory of sexual selection attempted to expain attributes that appear to have no utility, e.g. the magnificent tails that male peacocks display. Darwin hypothesized that such characteristics serve to convey a reproductive advantage to the most favored individual, thus ensuring that his genes would be passed on. Darwin’s view of race was that the differences between human races were superficial – skin color, hair style – and he attempted to refute the notion that there were fundamental differences that separated humans into higher or lower forms. This blockbuster book, while certainly rooted in the mid-nineteenth century, continues to shape our ideas about nature and ourselves. 2004, Penguin

The Origin of Species by Means of Natural SelectionThe Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection: The Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life
Charles Darwin

The Origin of Species, originally published in 1859 is the foundational work in evolutionary biology. Darwin here introduced his theory that populations of organisms evolve over the course of generations through a process of natural selection. The book was controversial when first published, and remains controversial today because it contradicted religious beliefs that held that life forms were created and did not evolve. Nevertheless, the theory of evolution and natural selection remains today the most widely accepted scientific model of how species develop and evolve. Darwin’s groundbreaking book is readable even for the non-specialist and provides useful background for understanding the development of modern writing about nature. 1998, Modern Library

The Voyage of the BeagleThe Voyage of the Beagle: Darwin's Five-Year Circumnavigation
Charles Darwin

Voyage of the Beagle, first published in 1839, describes the second survey expedition of the ship HMS Beagle in 1831-1836. Expedition naturalist Darwin spent most of this time exploring on land in different areas around the globe, most famously in the Galapagos Islands, where he made the crucial observation that the mockingbird species had subtle variations on each of the islands. The book is a vivid and exciting travel memoir as well as a detailed scientific field journal. Darwin’s keen powers of observation are in evidence on every page. The theory of evolution presented in The Origin of Species was based on the observations made on this expedition. 2001, Stackpole Books

Charles Davwin: the Power of PlaceCharles Darwin: The Power of Place
E. Janet Browne

This volume concludes a magisterial biography. The first volume, Charles Darwin: Voyaging, examined how the young Darwin formed his ideas. Now Browne, a zoologist and historian of science, offers a frank, comprehensive, and detailed account of the last half of Darwin's life (l858-82), focusing on both his major contributions to natural history and his pioneering researches into many biological subjects, ranging from orchids and insectivorous plants to earthworms and the inheritance of characteristics. In this very impressive volume, Darwin emerges as a modest and private genius consumed with the need to understand the complexities of life forms through critical observation and persistent experimentation.
National Book Critics Circle Award 2002
2003, Princeton University Press

Charles Darwin: Voyaging
Short List of Best Nature and Environmental Books

Charles Darwin: Voyaging
E. Janet Brown

The centerpiece of this vivid portrait of Darwin’s early life is an account of his five-year expedition on the Beagle (1831-36), which transformed a seasick, Cambridge-educated science apprentice into a keen observer of nature and an amateur geologist. In the book we glimpse many facets of Darwin: the failed medical student; the laid-back undergraduate; the impassioned abolitionist; the explorer roping cattle; the chronically ill country squire, the patriarchal husband and reluctant atheist with a devout Anglican wife. Browne captures the spirit of a quietly revolutionary scientist whose ingrained Victorian prejudices were at odds with his radical ideas. 1996, Princeton University Press

The Reluctant Mr. DarwinThe Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution
David Quammen

Charles Darwin took 20 years to write his theory of natural selection: he produced On the Origin of Species only on learning that he was about to be scooped. During those two decades, Darwin was busy conducting scientific research that would bolster his scientific observations. Quammen commences his portrait with Darwin's homecoming from his five-year trip on the Beagle and then focuses on how he gained enough confidence and evidence to publish the book that would displace humankind from its privileged position as a special creation. 2007, W. W. Norton

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Recommended Classic Nature Writing by George Perkins Marsh (1801-1882)

George Perkins Marsh, an American diplomat and philologist, is considered by many to be America’s first environmentalist.

Man and NatureMan and Nature
George P. Marsh

This book was one of the first to document the effects of human actions on the environment and helped to launch the modern conservation movement. Marsh believed that many ancient civilizations collapsed through environmental degradation, with deforestation leading to erosion and to decreased soil productivity. This book was instrumental in the creation of Adirondack National Park and the U.S. National Forest. 2003, University of Washington Press

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Recommended Classic Nature Writing by and about John Muir (1838-1914)

John Muir, self-taught naturalist, writer and environmentalist, loved nothing more than to vanish into the wilderness at every opportunity.
He became infatuated with California's Yosemite Valley and the surrounding mountains, and this fascination inspired him to conduct -- with the aid of Century magazine's editor, Robert Underwood Johnson -- a publicity and legislative campaign that helped establish Yosemite National Park in 1890. (Another such campaign added the valley itself to the park in 1905.) In 1892 Muir, Johnson, and a San Francisco attorney named William Colby founded the Sierra Club, to "enlist the support and cooperation of the people and the government in preserving the forests and other natural features of the Sierra Nevada Mountains."

In 1903 Muir spent a night under Yosemite's stars with President Theodore Roosevelt, and it is likely that his incessant proselytizing then and later helped persuade Roosevelt to establish the U.S. Forest Service in 1905 -- and before leaving office, to add 148 million acres to the national forest system. Because of the passion of his convictions -- as well as the durability of the organization he helped create -- Muir remains the spiritual father of the wilderness-preservation movement.

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

The Cruise of the CorwinThe Cruise of the Corwin
John Muir

John Muir took a voyage in 1881 on the steamer Thomas Corwin, which set sail from San Francisco for arctic waters off the coast of Alaska in search of the Jeannette, a ship tragically lost two years before. The Jeannette was never found, but Muir's account of his voyage conveys the excitement of far and little-known horizons. Here we find Muir sketching glaciers and examining rare flora; discovering Wrangell Island off the coast of Siberia and claiming it for the United States; observing seal, walrus, whale, and reindeer; exploring the wind-swept islands of the Bering sea; and investigating a "village of the dead," where whole clans perished of starvation in the unforgiving landscape. 2008, Dodo Press

My First Summer in the SierraMy First Summer in the Sierra
John Muir

John Muir, a young Scottish immigrant, had not yet become a famed conservationist when he first trekked into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, not long after the Civil War. He was so captivated by what he saw that he decided to devote his life to the glorification and preservation of this magnificent wilderness. My First Summer in the Sierra, whose heart is the diary Muir kept while tending sheep in Yosemite country, resounds with Muir's regard for the "divine, enduring, unwasteable wealth" of the natural world. A classic of environmental literature. 2004, Dover Publications

The Mountains of CaliforniaThe Mountains of California
John Muir

John Muir's ebullient spirit and love of nature infuse these accounts of visiting Yosemite Valley, Kings Canyon, sequoia groves, Mount Shasta, Mount St. Helens and Mount Whitney. Blending keen observations of flora, geology, the changing seasons and the natural forces that shape the landscape, Muir paints a timeless portrait of the wilderness he called “the Range of Light, the most divinely beautiful of all the mountain chains I have ever seen.” 2007, BiblioBazaar

John Muir: Nature Writings
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Nature Writings: The Story of My Boyhood and Youth; My First Summer in the Sierra; The Mountains of California; Stickeen; Essays
John Muir

This volume is virtually an entire library of Muir. It combines The Story of My Boyhood and Youth, My First Summer in the Sierra, The Mountains of California, Stickeen, and a number of his essays along with illustrations, a chronology of his life, and scholarly notes. 1997, Library of America



A Thousand-Mile Walk to the GulfA Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf
John Muir

In 1867, John Muir, age 28, was blinded in an industrial accident. When his sight miraculously returned, he resolved to devote all his time to the great passion of his life — studying plants. He quit his job, said good-bye to his family, and set out alone to walk from Indiana to the Gulf of Mexico, sketching tropical plants along the way. This book, based on his journal, is a wonderful portrait of a young man in search of himself and a particularly vivid portrait of the post-war American South. After he reached the Gulf he sailed to San Francisco, and promptly set out for Yosemite Valley — 200 miles away. There Muir found his destiny — and a mountain range to test his apparently inexhaustible capacity for walking. 1998, Mariner Books

Travels in AlaskaTravels in Alaska
John Muir

Take a trip to last century's Alaska through Muir's clean, easy-going, enthusiastic prose. He wrote the way he took pictures, with insight, attention, care and genuine feeling. It's a lovely look into a beautiful land and its inhabitants the way it used to be, told in a flowing narrative that is far less rushed than contemporary travel tales. 2002, Modern Library

The YosemiteThe Yosemite
John Muir

Sierra Club founder Muir, pioneering conservationist who a century ago fought to establish Yosemite National Park, wrote timelessly of his travels through this High Sierra wilderness. In a new edition of Muir's classic, photographer Galen Rowell offers a complementary vision in color photographs of this monumental region. An ideal accompaniment to Muir's verbal tour, the photographs, like the prose, verify that "everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike." 2006, BiblioBazaar

John MuirJohn Muir: Nature's Visionary
Gretel Ehrlich

"Everybody needs beauty as well as bread," wrote Muir who walked away from the hubub of humanity and immersed himself in the wild until an "evangelistic urge" induced him to come down from his beloved Sierras and share his belief in the sanctity of wilderness. By focusing on Muir's unquenchable appetite for life and learning and quoting with great discernment from his works, including unpublished journals, nature writer Ehrlich beautifully captures Muir's essence and clearly defines the ongoing significance of his accomplishments. 2000, National Geographic

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Recommended Classic Nature Writing by and about John Wesley Powell (1834-1902)

The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its CanyonsThe Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons
John Wesley Powell

One of the great works of American exploration literature, this account of a scientific expedition forced to survive famine, attacks, mutiny, and some of the most dangerous rapids known to man remains as fresh and exciting today as it was in 1874. 2003, Penguin

Seeing Things WholeSeeing Things Whole: The Essential
John Wesley Powell

John Wesley Powell was the last of the nation's great continental explorers. His work and life reveal an enduringly valuable way of thinking about land, water, and society as parts of an interconnected whole; he was America's first great bioregional thinker. Seeing Things Whole brings together in a single volume writings ranging from his gripping account of exploring the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon to his views on the evolution of civilization, along with the seminal writings in which he sets forth his ideas on western settlement and the allocation and management of western resources. 2004, Island Press

Beyond the Hundredth Meridian
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Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West
Wallace Stegner

Wallace Stegner recounts the sucesses and frustrations of John Wesley Powell, the distinguished ethnologist and geologist who explored the Colorado River, the Grand Canyon, and the homeland of Indian tribes of the American Southwest. A prophet without honor who had a profound understanding of the American West, Powell warned long ago of the dangers economic exploitation would pose to the West and spent a good deal of his life overcoming Washington politics in getting his message across. Only now, we may recognize just how accurate a prophet he was.
National Book Award Finalist 1955
1992, Penguin

A Canyon VoyageA Canyon Voyage: Narrative of the Second Powell Expedition Down the Colorado River from Wyoming
Frederick S. Dellenbaugh

Frederick Dellenbaugh, then 19, accompanied John Wesley Powell on Powell’s second trip down the Colorado River. This voyage was less exploration and more science; the crew included a professional geographer. With several boats and men of widely varying experience, the expedition travelled the Colorado as far as the middle of the Grand Canyon. Swirling rapids, maggotty food, blistering heat, and sudden blizzards beset the adventurers, who still through it all made their geographical, geological, and ethnographical observations which resulted in the first maps of the Four Corners region and the Grand Canyon. Dellenbaugh wrote the book based on his journals of the trip many years later.
John Burroughs Medal for Distinguished Nature Writing 1932
1984, University of Arizona Press

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Recommended Classic Nature Writing by and about Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919)

The conservation of our natural resources and their proper use constitute the fundamental problem which underlies almost every other problem of our National life," Theodore Roosevelt declared to Congress in 1907. As president for the first eight years of this century, Roosevelt did not just talk about conservation from his bully pulpit. He threw the full weight of his office behind conservation, and he put the issue at the top of the country's agenda.

Beginning with Pelican Island in eastern Florida, T. R. created the national wildlife refuge system, which included 51 biologically significant sites by the time he left office. He expanded the national forests from 42 million acres to 172 million and preserved 18 areas as national monuments, including the Grand Canyon and the Petrified Forest. It gave him immense satisfaction to know that "these bits of the old wilderness scenery and the old wilderness life [were] to be kept unspoiled for the benefit of our children's children."

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

Theodore Roosevelt: Wilderness WritingTheodore Roosevelt: Wilderness Writing
Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt was not only the most famous hunter of his generation of Americans, he was among its best informed and popular outdoor writers. The former president, an avid bibliophile, was the world's foremost authority on large mammals and had what may have been the finest big-game library in North America in the early 1900s. He communicated with authorities-- both sportsmen and scientists-- in all parts of the world. From this lifelong study and enthusiasm for outdoor adventure came a host of durable writings, gathered together here in a collection which celebrates the natural world. 1986, Peregrine Smith Books

The River of Doubt

Nature and Environmental Book Review

The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey
Candice Millard

A year after Roosevelt lost a third-party bid for the White House in 1912, he decided to chase away his blues by accepting an invitation for a South American trip that quickly evolved into an ill-prepared journey down an unexplored tributary of the Amazon known as the River of Doubt. The small group, including T.R.'s son Kermit, was hampered by the failure to pack enough supplies and the absence of canoes sturdy enough for the river's rapids. An injury Roosevelt sustained became infected and left the ex-president so weak that, at his lowest moment, he told Kermit to leave him to die in the rainforest. Millard nails the suspense element of this story perfectly, but equally important to her success is the marvelous amount of detail she provides on the wildlife that Roosevelt and his fellow explorers encountered on their journey, as well as the cannibalistic indigenous tribe that stalked them much of the way. 2006, Broadway

Recommended Classic Nature Writing by Joshua Slocum (1844-1909)

Sailing Alone Around the World
Short List of Best Nature and Environmental Books

Sailing Alone Around the World
Joshua Slocum

Sir Joshua Slocum’s spellbinding account of his 46,000 mile, three-year-long solo journey around the world—the first ever made—has inspired generations of readers. "I had resolved on a voyage around the world, and as the wind on the morning of April 24, 1895 was fair, at noon I weighed anchor, set sail, and filled away from Boston…” Sailing Alone, a compelling statement of self-reliance, is the “nautical equivalent” to Thoreau’s Walden. Slocum said afterwards that he had been “in touch with nature as few have ever been”, and described his entrance to the stormy Strait of Magellan: “…the scene was again real and gloomy; the wind, northeast, and blowing a gale, sent feather-white spume along the coast; such a sea ran as would swamp an ill-appointed ship . . . I observed that two great tide-races made ahead, one very close to the point of land and one farther offshore. Between the two . . . went the Spray with close-reefed sails.” This is a gripping adventure story suffused with the salty tang of sea air and a palpable sense of the powers of Nature. 2005, Shambhala

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