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Great Natural History Reading

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 22, 2011

A while ago, the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment came up with a list of twelve classic nature and environment books.  The ASLE is a professional organization of scholars, teachers, writers, and others focused on teaching literature from environmental perspectives.  I don’t agree with the list; it’s entirely American, heavily Western (Western desert, at that), and surprisingly feminine for a topic long dominated, for better or worse, by male writers.  The idea of an epic poem about “how male-dominated science, religion, and culture has [sic] conspired to subjugate women and nature” makes me want to go to sleep.  (I’d prefer, for instance, Travels in West Africa, in which author Mary Kingsley strode boldly across the White Man’s Grave.)

But people at the conference I’m attending have been talking about putting together a list of great natural history reading.  So here’s how ASLE approached the challenge, with teaching in mind (the descriptions are all theirs):

A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold (1949)  What can be said of Sand County Almanac?  It is simply one of the great works of nature literature and from it has sprung the environmental movement.  It was over 50 years ago that the book was first published, but his words and insights are as fresh as ever.  Another Review   Amazon.com: More Information or Purchase

Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams (1994)  Refuge is a very different kind of nature writing.  Williams visits to Utah’s Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge are counterpoised against a far more personal theme: the slow death of her mother from cancer. Amazon.com:  More Information or Purchase

Land of Little Rain by Mary Hunter Austin, 1903.  A series of poetic writings about the desert Southwestern desert, including observations about the flora, fauna, towns and Native American life.  Amazon.com: More Information or Purchase

Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey (1968)  Edward Abbey is the undisputed the voice of the remote canyonland country of southern Utah and Northern Arizona.  No book describes this harsh landscape better and with more hard-nose poignancy than Desert Solitare. More Extensive Review | Amazon.com: More Information or Purchase

Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko, 1977   This is a beautifully written, though complex, stream-of-consciousness, novel about a young Indian who returns to his New Mexico home after being imprisoned by Japanese during World War II.   Deeply scarred by his war experiences, he seeks refuge on the reservation, but instead finds a world turned upside down with his father and best friend now dead.   Racked by hopeless and despair, he eventually find his way by embracing his people’s ancient ceremonies.  Amazon.com: More Information or Purchase

Walden by Henry David Thoreau (1862)  In 1845, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great American essayist and transcendentalist, gave Henry David Thoreau the use of a piece of property that he owned along Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts.  On the Emerson property, Thoreau built a small cabin, planning to use it as a quiet place to finish work on a book that he was writing about a boat trip he and his brother had taken on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.  But he had something else in mind, an experiment of sorts.  Having lived with Emerson, and thoroughly steeped in transcendentalism, he wanted to see if he could apply transcendental principles to his life along the pond, working one day and spending the remaining six other days reading, contemplating and developing his consciousness.  His expeniences gradually evolved into his most famous work Waldenee More Extensive Review | Amazon.com: More Information or Purchase

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard (1978) Annie Dillard’s 20th century version of Walden: meditative, insightful, and edgy.  Amazon.com: More Information or Purchase

Practice of the Wild by Gary Snyder, 1990.  A series of contemplative and insightful essays on the concept of wildness, nature, humanity and humility.  Amazon.com: More Information or Purchase

Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her by Susan Griffin, 1978.  Griffin’s early work of ecofeminism uses the structure of an epic poem to explore how male-dominated science, religion, and culture has conspired to subjugate women and nature.   Amazon.com: More Information or Purchase

Arctic Dreams Barry Lopez (1986)  Barry Lopez (also the author of Of Wolves and Men) based this book on his years of experience in the Arctic.  The book is vast in scope covering geography, weather, natural history, and anthropology.  Amazon.com: More Information or Purchase

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962)  Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is clearly one of the most important environmental books ever published.  Using scientific research and persuasive logic, Carson warned of the consequences of careless use of pesticides.  Amazon.com: More Information or Purchase

The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich 1985.  Gretel finds solace and a new life in Wyoming after the death of a friend, and in this small collection of essays, paints for us an engaging portrait of the rural west and its people:  ranchers, sheepherders, cowboys, and Native Americans.   Amazon.com: More Information or Purchase

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