I’m generally not very useful when it comes to this book-recommending business. That’s what I get for having my nose stuck in a field guide most of the time. I’m more of a specialist, I guess, so if you’re ever in need of a nature-y sort of book suggestion, I’m your girl. In fact, I’ll do you one better. Right here, in no particular order: my top four favorite nature writers for your reading pleasure. Leave your own suggestions in the comments! I’m always looking for good reads.
Writer: Aldo Leopold
My Favorite Work: A Sand County Almanac
“To arrive too early in the marsh is an adventure in pure listening: the ear roams at will among the noises of the night, without let or hindrance from hand or eye. When you hear a mallard being audibly enthusiastic about his soup, you are free to picture a score guzzling among the duckweeds.”
— A Sand County Almanac
A Sand County Almanac is a book of essays illuminating each month of Aldo’s year on his “Sand Farm” in southwestern Wisconsin. Aldo is considered one of the original American conservation writers, but that’s not why I love him. What I love is how he writes with such a loving familiarity that he relocates me in my imagination to the sandy pine forests of Wisconsin. He writes as if he’s on intimate terms with all the creatures and creepers in his essays — including enough biographical details that you may as well have met the little weasel in question yourself.
Writer: Rachel Carson
My Favorite Work: Under the Sea Wind
“The island lay in shadows only a little deeper than those that were swiftly stealing across the sound from the east. On its western shore the wet sand of the narrow beach caught the same reflection of palely gleaming sky that laid a bright path across the water from island beach to horizon. Both water and sand were the color of steel overlaid with the sheen of silver, so that it was hard to say where water ended and land began.”
— Under the Sea Wind
Rachel is known primarily these days for her book, Silent Spring, a prophetic warning about the overuse of pesticides in the 1960s that, in essence, sparked a movement that ultimately saved dozens of species of animals, and probably thousands of people. Before Silent Spring, Rachel wrote eloquent explorations of the coast and ocean that illuminated these worlds for millions of readers years before Jacques Cousteau carried his lights and cameras into the deep. While Cousteau’s writing and filmography is full of ego and braggadocio, Rachel writes with humble awe and genuine delight at the power and process of the ocean. Read Under the Sea Wind for a birds’ (and fish’s) eye view of the saltwater world.
Writer: John McPhee
My Favorite Work: All of them. I will read anything he writes. But notably, Annals of the Former World, and Founding Fish.
“I used to sit in class and listen to the terms come floating down the room like paper airplanes. Geology was called a descriptive science, and with its pitted outwash plains and drowned rivers, its hanging tributaries and starved coastlines, it was nothing if not descriptive. It was a fountain of metaphor…”
— Annals of the Former World
John won a Pulitzer for a book about rocks. He’s written about, oh, just about everything, including a dam in Mississippi, for the New Yorker. And I spent almost all my down time on jury duty engrossed in his book about fish. Never would have predicted it, actually. Now I know more about American Shad than any other fish on the planet — and I liked it. His Pulitzer winner, Annals of the Former World is a literary geology of the lower 48 of the United States, and while you’d think geology would be rather dusty (har har), I’ve seldom been more engrossed in a tome of its size. It’s a compilation of five books that investigate the deep history of the geologic regions of our continent from coast to coast. I like to re-read certain sections when I travel, for example Basin and Range when I visited Death Valley. John’s voice, — amused, amusing, and astonished by turns — in my mind kept reminding me there was more to those mountains and valleys than rocks. I couldn’t stop thinking about the time.
Poet: Mary Oliver
Favorite Work: I can’t pick just one!
held my breath
as we do
to stop time
when something wonderful
has touched us
as with a match
which is lit, and bright,
but does not hurt
in the common way,
as if delight
were the most serious thing
you ever felt.”
— From the poem, “Snow Geese,” in the collection,
Why I Wake Early
Once, I was reading another poet, Wendell Berry, at an airport gate waiting to board. A motherly woman seated next to me asked me who Wendell was, what kind of poetry he wrote, and whether I liked him. Then she told me, with much conviction, “If you like this kind of poetry, you should read Mary Oliver.” Of course, when I got home I checked out a collection of Mary’s poems from the library right away. Reading her poems was like finding the North Star. She’s had a home on my bedside table ever since. She writes with joy and tenderness about being in love with the world around her — the fierce, violent world of the owls and the bears, the thrilling world of the spring thrushes, the wholly relatable world of the foxes and the flowers, and of course the people and the words that fill her life — and generally says all the things I ever want to say about everything. Her poems always leave me silent, but so full, in the best way.
Photo: Mine, of Mary Oliver’s Poem, “Everything,” from New and Collected Poems, Volume II.