Nature and Environmental Book Reviews

Short List of Best Nature and Environmental Books

 

 

Best of Nature Writing

About Nature Writing

In a website such as SavingTheEarth.net, which is devoted to providing accurate and useful information about our planet’s plight and pointing the way towards strategic interventions to restore the health and functioning of our ecosystem – why include writing about Nature?

Nature writing aims - as does the nature photography contained in Planet Earth: Photography and DVDs, and the books and DVDs on animal life in Wild Animals - to reconnect us experientially to the Earth as a whole. Sections on Global Warming and Climate Change, Renewable Energy, Water Resources and Water Conservation, and Population Growth, for example are focused upon systemic vulnerabilities within the biosphere and identify problems and propose solutions. Nature writing and photography engage us emotionally, aesthetically and cognitively and enlist us in the great cause of caring for the Earth. While every section contains passionate and heartfelt expressions of the challenges facing the Earth, it is the art of nature writing and photography that are the heart and soul of SavingTheEarth.net.

The charts, numbers and formulas of science are vital, but often not particularly compelling to the woman or man on the street. On the other hand, a picture or description of a drowned sea turtle or dolphin in a fishing net begins to engage us emotionally in the larger questions about conservation and fishing policies. Thoreau’s lyrical Walden takes us somewhere emotionally that offers an alternate universe to daily life, with rush hour traffic, pollution and a crowded urban environment. Nature writing contains important information, but also has aesthetic, emotional and philosophical components which touch the heart and soul as well as the mind.

Thomas J. Lyon, in his This Incomparable Land: A Guide to American Nature Writing, proposes a taxonomy of nature writing (naturalists would certainly be interested in taxonomy . . . ). He notes that “the literature of nature has three main dimensions to it: natural history information, personal responses to nature, and philosophical interpretation of nature.”

The relative admixture of these dimensions differentiates different sub-genres, as, for example, a primary focus on natural history information yields a scientific research paper, or a field guide (example: Peterson’s Field Guide to Western Birds). These works seldom aspire to literature, nor does the author communicate very much that is personal about his emotional experience of what is being observed and described.

When natural history information is joined with a literary approach that communicates some meaning or a particular interpretation, the natural history essay is the result, in which facts may be artfully arranged to engage the reader and point to an overarching and holistic view of nature (example: Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us).

When more of a personal perspective is added to the “facts” of nature being described, the reader is accompanying the naturalist-author on a ramble, learning along the way as the author shares a sense of pleasure in the observation of nature, or a sense of revelation. Examples are Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creekand Richard Nelson’s The Island Within.

As the balance between the facts of nature and the writer’s experience shifts in the direction of experience, the natural history essay becomes an essay of experience, where the author’s firsthand contact with nature is the frame for the writing. Thoreau’s Walden, and Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams exemplify this type of nature writing. In Walden, solitude and escape from the city form the prism through which Thoreau’s experience of nature is seen. In Arctic Dreams Lopez describes his travel and adventure in the wild, with movement, solitude and wildness giving a mythic pattern of departure, initiation, and return.

When philosophical interpretation is primary, the writing is an analytic and comprehensive work that addresses the relationship of humans with nature. Natural history and personal experience are secondary, providing the backdrop for the author’s preoccupation with grasping a larger picture. Examples of this form are Joseph Wood Krutch’s The Great Chain of Life, and Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature.

These subtypes weave the vibrant tapestry of American nature writing, and all are represented on SavingTheEarth.net. The chronological division we have chosen represents natural eras in American nature writing.

The publication, in 1854, of Thoreau’s Walden is a hinging point between the works of natural history that preceded him, and the more modern, increasingly introspective and philosophical works that were to follow. Thoreau is the father of modern American nature writing; his genius and passion shine brightly over the years, inspiring successive generations of nature writers and nature lovers.

David Yarian Ph.D.

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Contents of Best of Nature Writing

There are four main divisions within the Best of Nature Writing section:

1. American Classics:

These are works that have stood (and will stand) the test of time. Many of these books have won major literary prizes, including the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the John Burroughs Medal for Distinguished Nature Writing, the Orion Society John Hay Award, the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment Best Book Award, the Bollingen Prize for Poetry, and others.

Titles in this section are arranged alphabetically by author, rather than by title as in the other sections of SavingTheEarth.net. This makes it possible to see at a glance the focal interests of an author and the breadth of his or her published work.

These nature classics are divided into four chronological eras:

2. Nature Writing Anthologies. These collections of nature writing bring together selections from a number of authors, and may be organized around a particular theme, region or period of time.

3. Nature Writing Ecocriticism. These works focus on the relationship between literature and the natural environment and explore how nature writing can be more self-critically conscious of its values; its class, race and gender presuppositions; its fundamental assumptions about landscape, nature and time; and its responsibility to further ecological goals and concerns.

4. How to Write About Nature.

Books in this section address “how to” questions in two general areas: keeping a nature journal of the writer’s experiences in nature, and how to do “nature writing” – where one writes in a creative way about the interaction between nature and self.

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Resources for Best of Nature Writing

Two books have been of great value in understanding the field of nature writing, and in developing SavingTheEarth.net.

They are Thomas J. Lyon’s This Incomparable Land: A Guide to American Nature Writing and Frank Stewart’s A Natural History of Nature Writing.

This Incomparable LandThis Incomparable Land: A Guide to American Nature Writing
Thomas J. Lyon

Nature writing has flourished in America, steadily extending its scope in direct proportion to the complexity of the environmental issues that arise as technology magnifies our species' effect on the planet. A form of communion with the natural world and expression of the "ecological way of seeing," that is, the perception of pattern and interconnection that makes life on Earth possible, nature writing combines science and philosophy, romanticism and spirituality, ethics and autobiography. Lyon covers it all in his succinct yet specific and enlightening survey, offering a unique and revealing naturalist's chronology of American history, a taxonomy of nature writing that identifies an array of subgenres from field guides to "rambles" and accounts of "solitude and backcountry living," and a vital discussion of the evolution of environmental thought. 2001, Milkweed Editions


A Natural History of Nature WritingA Natural History of Nature Writing
Frank Stewart

In this well-documented and well-written volume essayist and poet Stewart has attempted to capture the mystery as well as the history of nature writing. Without transgressing biographical or historical certainties, Stewart has created full-bodied characters in his interwoven portraits of the genre's most important practitioners. In doing so, the reader approaches an empirical understanding of that ephemeral "in-betweenness" with nature that is often left behind when reading the work of such disparate figures as Gilbert White, John Muir or Edward Abbey. It is, however, the towering figure of Henry David Thoreau to whom Stewart repeatedly returns as a touchstone for his historical understanding of the genre's ceaseless appeal. Interweaving biography, history, and literary criticism, his book is a highly readable summary of the nature writing genre. 1994, Island Press

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