This is a list of my suggested readings for anyone with an interest in literature about the intersection between humans and the natural environment. It leaves off some of the canonical books in favor of a few that might be a little more obscure. I'm constantly adding to this list and I love taking suggestions. Please contact me to add to this list.
A Pattern Language
A treatise on planning that illustrates one of the most important themes of geography: scale. Alexander and his coauthors travel the world to find good examples of design and planning from the scale of the region to the corner of a room.
The Forest and the Sea
A biologist's reflections on his time spent doing research in two of the planet's most ubiquitous, yet threatened, tropical landscapes: the rainforest and the coral reef.
The idea of modeling technological design after nature's patterns has become so widespread that we tend to forget the innovative character of the idea. Benyus gives examples and makes the case for biomimicry as a way of ensuring sustainability: "Life creates conditions conducive to life."
The Gift of Good Land
Meditations on cooperation between humans and the natural landscape through agriculture, with a bonus argument for sustainability from a Christian moral perspective.
The Sea Around Us
Less well-known than her classic jeremiad, Silent Spring, this book solidifies Carson's scientific mind and her human sense of good writing. I assign sections of this book in many of my classes.
The Case for Reparations
Coates convincingly argues that African Americans have been intentionally disadvantaged by the economic systems underpinning American prosperity from slavery to redlining. The logical response to this is to seek to put things right. Coates has written elsewhere that, plantation-based slave labor, "transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold." The medium through which this transformation took place, of course, was the land. Another author I recommend, Wendell Berry, wrote that, "there is in fact no distinction between the fate of the land and the fate of the people. When one is abused, the other suffers.” We need both reparations for people who have suffered and remediation for land that has suffered if we really want to address the historical wrongs that our present is built upon.
With SCUBA diving today as ubiquitous as any other vacation activity, to be fit into the schedule alongside parasailing or sunbathing, we sometimes forget what a revolution it was when first developed. Cousteau narrates his own history with the underwater world (which is anything but silent) and gives us a view of both the thrill and danger associated with the early days of diving.
The Emerald Mile
This starts off as an adventure book: a daredevil group of river guides decide to float the Grand Canyon during the Colorado River's biggest recorded flood. Fedarko's wide-ranging expertise takes us on tangents through the geology and human history of the American West as we go along for the wild ride.
Traces on the Rhodian Shore
Reading Traces is a commitment, but worth it. Glacken exhaustively outlines the changing Western concepts of geographical determinism, human alteration of landscapes, and teleology from Classical times to the early modern era. Environmental scientists and environmentalists alike would do well to dig into the history of their fields through this book.
The Forest Unseen
David George Haskell
What could an ecologist learn, not from traveling the world comparing ecosystems, but from returning to the same square-meter spot in the forest, over and over, throughout and entire year? Haskell did just that and the result was this expansive, meditative, entertaining "watch" of a small spot on the forest floor. I was privileged to work with David at Sewanee for about five years and am grateful for all I learned from him.
"The Snows of Kilimanjaro"
This short story makes a metaphor of exploration and instead takes the reader on a spiritual journey that serves as a literary ancestor to books such as Lopez's Arctic Dreams and Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard.
Robin Wall Kimmerer
Scholars of the natural environment often describe scientific data and traditional ecological knowledge as "two parallel ways of knowing." But lines that are parallel don't intersect. Kimmerer shows that both can, and do, exist within the same society--indeed within the same mind. In Braiding Sweetgrass she taps into her Native American cultural history as well as her scientific training to explore ways in which humans, specifically North Americans, can live harmoniously with the other elements of the natural environment. In doing so Kimmerer coins a phrase that I use in nearly all my classes that touch on the concept of sustainability: "becoming indigenous."
The Poisonwood Bible
A fundamentalist American family moves to the Congo to become missionaries and encounter both beauty and tragedy. This is their story, told from their perspectives, in the plural. One of the most useful lines for teaching the carbon cycle, "this forest eats itself and lives forever," is contained within.
A Small Place
I first encountered this book through the narrative in the documentary film, Life and Debt. Both are brilliant works that illustrate the impact that economic decisions in large developed countries (like where to vacation or which fruit to eat) can have on the cultures and economies of the Caribbean islands and the rest of the Global South.
A poem about the forgotten pioneers who set out across the landscape to see what's "lost behind the ranges" and waiting to be found.
This book was among the first of the "single commodity" genre that also includes Kurlansky's Salt. By zooming in on a single species of fish (Gadus morhua), Kurlansky explores topics ranging from the European "discovery" of America to the development of plantation agriculture based on the forced labor of enslaved Africans. Kurlansky is one of those authors that I'll read everything by. Other great ones are The Basque History of the World and A Continent of Islands.
We, the Navigators
Next time you are looking at a world map, take a while to gaze over the islands of the South Pacific. There are thousands and they're spread over a huge area. By the year 1000CE, Polynesian navigators had found every single one of them. They had no compasses, no world maps, and no method of long-distance communication. What they did have was an encyclopedic knowledge of their environment including the movement of stars, winds, ocean currents, and animals. Lewis not only learns about these navigational techniques during the research for this book, he puts them to use in an instrument-free voyage across the Pacific Ocean.
A meditation on the high latitudes and the people who live there. This is a good book to pair with McPhee's Coming into the Country (mentioned below). Lopez's description of the visceral and multi-sensory experience of watching a successful walrus hunt was inspirational to my own descriptions of whaling.
Man and Nature
George Perkins Marsh
Marsh asks, and sets out to answer what he calls, "the great question: whether man is of nature or above her." His investigations uncover the myriad ways in which humans have transformed their environments, and show that the North American continent, where resources, at Marsh's time, were considered to be inexhaustible, was on course to experience the same environmental degradation that the Mediterranean world had seen in previous generations.
The Control of Nature
Through three vignettes, with no introduction or conclusion, McPhee explores the question of whether or not his title is even a valid concept: can humans control nature? He considers cases of trying to prevent floods in Louisiana, steering lava away from a village in Iceland, and giving California mudslides a place to go. In the end, the answer is up to the reader; my own conclusion, "not really." Also worth reading by McPhee: Basin and Range, Coming into the Country, and literally everything else he has written.
I've tried to read other literary classics and have given up: The Odyssey, Ulysses, War and Peace, Jane Austen's entire bibliography. Moby-Dick is a classic for a reason. There is so much science here--anthropology, geography, marine biology, psychology--and it fits into a gripping narrative that, I like to think, would have captivated me even if I weren't a whaling researcher.
Two families, three continents, about four hundred years, and one occupation: forestry. This epic novel tells the history of exploration and exploitation in North America, with side-trips to Europe and New Zealand, by following the generations of two families descended from French voyageurs. As in most families, many details are lost from one generation to the next, leaving Proulx's reader, in the end, with a better understanding of the story than even the characters have.
The Song of the Dodo
As I write this, in April 2020, during the COVID-19 lockdown, Quammen's book on zoonotic diseases,Spillover, is--deservedly--getting a lot of press. His earlier book on evolution and extinction, though, is just as relevant to an understanding of modern humanity's role in the ongoing struggle for survival.
Wind, Sand, and Stars
Antoine de Saint Exupéry
While he may be better known for Le Petit Prince, I prefer Saint Exupéry's autobiographical book on flying for the French Aéropostale service in Europe, Africa, and South America. During the early days of aviation, with safety standards still being worked out, pilots could often find themselves camped out among the wind, sand, and stars, next to a crashed airplane. These experiences, when survived, gave insight into the vastness of certain mountain and desert landscapes and the relative smallness of human beings within them. This book includes one of my favorite passages in all literature, when the pilot silently judges a fellow passenger on an early morning bus ride:
Old bureaucrat, my comrade, it is not you who are to blame. No one ever helped you to escape. You, like a termite, built your peace by blocking up with cement every chink and cranny through which the light might pierce. You rolled yourself up into a ball in your genteel security, in routine, in the stifling conventions of provincial life, raising a modest rampart against the winds and the tides and the stars. You have chosen not to be perturbed by great problems, having trouble enough to forget your own fate as man. You are not the dweller upon an errant planet and do not ask yourself questions to which there are no answers. You are a petty bourgeois of Toulouse. Nobody grasped you by the shoulder while there was still time. Now the clay of which you were shaped has dried and hardened, and naught in you will ever awaken the sleeping musician, the poet, the astronomer that possibly inhabited you in the beginning.
I've carried my worn and duct-taped copy of Wind, Sand, and Stars to at least four continents and have read it over and over.
"The Rhyme of the Remittance Man"
Robert W. Service
A poem about living out on the land. My favorite lines:
I am one of you no longer; by the trails my feet have broken,
The dizzy peaks I've scaled, the camp-fire's glow;
By the lonely seas I've sailed in,
Yea, the final word is spoken,
I am signed and sealed to nature. Be it so.
See also Amadan's version, set to music.
The Caribbean narrative, as told by one of the region's few Nobel laureates.
The Invention of Nature
In her telling of this biography of the world's first modern, interdisciplinary, environmental scientists, Alexander von Humboldt, Wulf explores concepts of what sense humans make of nature. During graduate school, I visited Humboldt's grave in Tegel, Germany, and took a rubbing of the stone for my Ph.D. advisor, Kent Mathewson, who was, as I had to describe him in order to gain access to the gravesite, ein große Humboldtfreak. Years later, after I had adopted The Invention of Nature as the text for a senior environmental studies capstone I was teaching, I managed to bring Andrea Wulf to campus for a reading and lecture. Her presence captivated the students as much as her writing.