Would you, too, like to study environmental literature? Here are a dozen classics.
A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold, 1949
Half a century ago, this book introduced the idea that wolves are good and a "land
ethic" is essential. Its graceful prose still helps crystallize thoughts for nature
lovers today. "I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young
in," Leopold says. "Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the
Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams, 1991
A keen-eyed naturalist embraces adversity in this moving account of her mother's battle
with cancer and the Bear River Refuge's struggle against the rising waters of the Great
Salt Lake. Even after losing what she loves, Williams writes, "There is no place on
earth I would rather be."
Land of Little Rain by Mary Hunter Austin, 1903
"To understand the fashion of any life, one must know the land it is lived in and the
procession of the year." A hardy early feminist makes a harsh landscape on the
eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada come alive through spare, powerful prose.
Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey, 1968
With humor, reckless ranting, and loving descriptions of the desert, "Cactus Ed"
chronicles his stint as a seasonal ranger in Arches National Park and makes a strong case
for the preservation of all wild places: "We have agreed not to drive our automobiles
into cathedrals, concert halls, art museums, legislative assemblies, private bedrooms, and
other sanctums of our culture; we should treat our national parks with the same deference,
for they, too, are holy places."
Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko, 1977
Tayo, a fictional World War II veteran, finds his home on the Laguna Indian Reservation in
New Mexico ravaged by alcohol and rage. Ancient ceremonies, deeply rooted to the land,
help him navigate the chaos. Tayo's uncle Josiah tells him, "This is where we come
from, see. This sand, this stone, these trees, the vines, all the wildflowers. This earth
keeps us going."
Walden by Henry David Thoreau, 1854
The current crop of nature writing is all rooted in this quirky personal story about
simple living, close to nature. "I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, 1974
A young woman in 20th century Virginia tries to live like Thoreau, with revelatory
results: "In nature I find grace tangled in a rapture with violence; I find an
intricate landscape whose forms are fringed in death; I find mystery, newness, and a kind
of exuberant, spendthrift energy."
Woman and Nature by Susan Griffin, 1978
An edgy feminist classic argues that Western religion and philosophy have promoted the
power of men over both women and nature. "These words are written for those of us
whose language is not heard, whose words have been stolen or erased, those robbed of
language, who are called voiceless or mute, even the earthworms, even the shellfish and
the sponges, for those of us who speak our own language."
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, 1962
This book inspired a U.S. ban on DDT and added pollution to the environmental agenda. Its
lucid scientific lessons on the dangers of pesticides conclude with a warning worth
heeding today: "It is our alarming misfortune that so primitive a science has armed
itself with the most modern and terrible weapons, and that in turning them against the
insects it has also turned them against the earth."
Practice of the Wild by Gary Snyder, 1990
With Sierra Nevada dust on his boots, one of America's finest poets of nature uses the
essay form to explore how people learn to feel at home in the places they inhabit. Though
full of wisdom from around the world, the book is at times as pleasantly personal as a
good conversation. "Do you really believe you are an animal? We are now taught this
in school. It is a wonderful piece of information: I have been enjoying it all my life and
I come back to it over and over again, as something to investigate and test."
Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez, 1986
This learned history of the Far North probes the lives of narwhals, belugas, polar bears,
humans, and other life forms that have eked out a living in this dazzling, difficult land.
Of the Eskimos, Lopez says, "They have a quality of nuannaarpoq, of taking
extravagant pleasure in being alive; and they delight in finding it in other people.
Facing as we do our various Armageddons, they are a good people to know."
The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich, 1985
Nature moodily takes center stage when a filmmaker from Los Angeles--the author
herself--tries herding sheep on the windswept plains of Wyoming. "Keenly observed,
the world is transformed," Ehrlich says. "The landscape is engorged with detail,
every movement on it chillingly sharp. The air between people is charged. Days unfold,
bathed in their own music. Nights become hallucinatory; dreams prescient."