Today is Earth Day! Not only is today Earth Day, it’s the 50th anniversary of its founding. I’ve always loved being outside and travelling to the National Parks in the US. Along the way, I’ve also found some books that continue to spark my love of nature. Most of these books I first read for a Modern American Environmental Literature course during my time as an undergraduate. They were impactful and many changed the way I thought about the world and humanity’s role in it. So, I decided to make a list to share with all of you. Without further ado, let’s get into it.
Environmental Literature Recommendations
“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”John Muir
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
Silent Spring was one of the first books I read for the environmental literature course, and it remains one of the most important to this day. Rachel Carson called for the banning of DDT – a farming chemical – and forced legal changes in governance of the environment through her writing in Silent Spring. It remains an important influence on the world we live in today and her passionate cry for environmental activism continues to inspire generations after its publication. I would also recommend Carson’s The Edge of the Sea, and I have The Sea Around Us on my TBR this summer.
Our National Parks by John Muir
John Muir is another influential activist and author in my life. I’ve listed Our National Parks on this list, but I would suggest any Muir writing for the environmental enthusiast. His essays and other works are some of the most formative in my life, and I would recommend any of them. Our National Parks in particular though, showcases Muir’s love of the natural world. His detailed description of the environment he worked to protect (he was a fundamental influence in the establishment of the National Park Service in America) are both inspiring and calming.
Mary Oliver’s Poetry
Mary Oliver was the poet that made me realize I genuinely liked poetry. Of course, I’d had to read poetry all throughout my school life. Some of it I liked; most of it I didn’t. However, when I first read Oliver’s poetry, I felt like I connected to it in a way that I hadn’t with other poets. This is likely due to how accessible her writing is, and my love of her subject matter. She focuses on the natural world and her relationship to it, creating such beautiful lines as: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
The View From Lazy Point: A Natural Year in an Unnatural World by Carl Safina
The View From Lazy Point is a book I admittedly need to re-read. For my undergrad course, I read the majority of it, but I’m not sure I actually finished it. Carl Safina writes about a year spent in nature in this work – from his home to the far reaches of the globe. He chronicles the seasons and the changes he sees around him. I remember fascinating and minute description of the natural world in this book, and I remember enjoying Safina’s outlook. If I remember correctly, he did have a tendency to wax a little poetic on some issues, but I’ll have to re-read to find if that’s still true.
Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness by Edward Abbey
Desert Solitaire was one of my favorite books I read in all of undergraduate. First, it follows Abbey during his time spent as a National Park Ranger in Arches National Park. He lived and worked around Moab, Utah, which has been one of my favorite places to visit in all my travels. Second, Abbey has a very no-nonsense understanding of the world. In essence, he tell it like it is – even if it’s difficult. He talks about the practical need for preservation and the more passionate side of maintaining wilderness for all. I’d also recommend The Monkey Wrench Gang by Abbey.
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
Into the Wild was one of the first books I read that really made me think about what nature meant to me. The story of Christopher McCandless has stuck with me – both as a beautiful story of a search for nature and purpose and a tragedy. Krakauer became one of my favorite writers after reading this, and I’ve read all but one of his stories. His reverence for nature is evident in his writing and his life, and I appreciate the way he weaves together this story of a young man in search of something more.
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
Most people have heard of Wild. Either you’ve read the book or maybe you’ve seen the movie adaptation with Reese Witherspoon (I recommend both!). This is another search for purpose story. After her divorce, Strayed decides to hike the PCT with minimal experience. While going into this epic hike with a distinct lack of experience is not advisable, it worked out for Strayed. I really enjoyed reading about her time spent on the trail and the everyday struggles with and against the environment.
A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson
Bill Bryson likely needs no introduction. He is a prolific writer and focuses on nature in much of his works. A Walk in the Woods is Bryson’s story of hiking the Appalachian Trail during what you might call his midlife crisis. It’s a story of discovery and reaffirmation of love of wilderness. It’s also a story that chronicles the people he meets along the way and includes some interesting history of the AT. I really enjoyed this hiking memoir and have several of Bryson’s other works on my TBR list.
Big Sur by Jack Kerouac
I don’t think I’ve talked about Kerouac on the blog yet, which is somewhat surprising. I went through a Kerouac phase (not a Beat phase, just Kerouac). I read Big Sur, On the Road and The Dharma Bums in quick succession. These are all books I’d like to re-read to see if I still feel the same way about them. I remember being able to picture the landscape so perfectly in my mind throughout this work of fiction. Though I do think I’ve forgotten most of the general premise and events of the books and likely blocked out its emphasis on alcoholism.
American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon by Steven Rinella
American Buffalo is another book I’d like to re-read. This one was yet another on the environmental literature course syllabus, and I remember it focusing not just on the buffalo as an animal but a symbol of a bygone America. The emphasis on Americans’ history with the buffalo was fascinating to read and something I’d like to revisit, especially now that I’ve traveled to locales where buffalo still roam.
A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold
I’ll be honest – I don’t remember much of A Sand County Almanac (noticing a theme with some of these?). I remember reading Leopold and really connecting with his thoughts and writing styles, so this will definitely need to be added to my re-read list. However, even without remembering much, I can still recommend this classic work. Leopold’s nature writing is serene and informative and set the basis for many important works to come later, including books on this list like Desert Solitaire.
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
Now, this book is a little different than the others on this list. For starters, it’s fiction. It’s also not necessarily an environmental book. In fact, it’s a mystery, coming-of-age story about a girl who lives alone in the marshes of South Carolina. So why do I recommend this for Earth Day? Well, the book may not focus specifically on nature, but it is about nature. The environment plays a huge role in this novel and shapes the main character’s life in fundamental ways. If you love nature writing and natural description, I would recommend picking this up.
Well, there you have it folks. These are my reading recommendations to commemorate Earth Day 2020. There are more I can include and of course would recommend the absolute classics like Emerson and Thoreau, but I hope this list serves as a starting place. What are some of your favorite environmental literature books or works with a strong sense of nature? Let me know in comments!