Within the past several days, I’ve finished two books (one on the craft of writing and one about combat) and have started on another addition to my nature writing collection, A River Runs Through It. As a self–proclaimed nature writer, I am prone to study the work of the nature writing masters. Although I read from a wide assortment of literature, I always find myself returning to the nature genre. If you are interested in reading about how different authors perceive the natural world and their relationship to it, here is a list of my top five favorite nature writing books.
5. What Are People For?: Essays, Wendell Berry. With keen insight and practical experience, Berry provides a beautifully–written collection of essays concerning the effects of industrialism on our farms, our environment, and our psychology as well as real–world recommendations and thoughts on how and why we should live a simpler life. Although not especially entertaining (there is little story found within these essays), Berry’s essays force you to think deeply about your existence and how you influence the world around you.
4. The Call of the Wild, Jack London. London provides a detailed look into the frozen environment of the Yukon. Although this is a fictional story, nature – especially the desire to live a wild and primal life – are central to the book. This is a recurrent selection on many high school and college reading lists (rightfully so) and many of you have probably already read it. Even so, I highly recommend returning to London’s writing any time you feel a need for adventure. As a side note, I also recommend London’s short story, “To Build a Fire.” I listened to it on a recent drive and found it quite enjoyable.
3. Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey. I’ve never been to the desert and until reading Abbey’s writing, I had no desire to go to the desert, but after reading Desert Solitaire, I felt as if I had experienced the crystal clear starry nights and the sweltering days along with Abbey and couldn’t wait to return. Anti–establishment. Entertaining. Thought–Provoking. Spectacular.
2. The Journal 1837–1861, Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau’s journals provide a day–to–day look into the life of THE nature writing master. With insights into Thoreau’s life, his unique philosophies, and his exquisite attention to detail, these journals are a beautiful example of the capabilities of the human mind. Due to it’s format, this is a slow–reading book. I found that instead of reading it like a genre–fiction novel, these journal entries should be read slowly, allowing the reader to recognize Thoreau’s genius, think deeply about how it relates to modern life, and then apply Thoreau’s wisdom to your own philosophy and actions.
1. Walden and Civil Disobedience, Henry David Thoreau. I cannot fathom a “best of” nature writing list that didn’t conclude with Walden (and to a lesser degree, Thoreau’s essay, “Civil Disobedience.” Pure genius. Masterfully–written, Walden details Thoreau’s two–year, two–month, and two–day adventure at Walden Pond in Massachusetts. This is THE book for nature lovers. I have read it at least twenty times. In fact, my wife purchased me a new copy this past Christmas because my old copy was falling apart. My new copy already has copious red underlines and arrows indicating favorite sentences and passages. I’ll not go into much more detail about the book (or Thoreau) for this post. I studied him and his writing for three terms of my masters’ program and may use that experience to provide a detailed post about Thoreau and/or Walden in the future. Until then, I’ll just express my highest recommendation that if you haven’t already, you should read Walden. If you have read it, read it again!
Honorary Mention: Woodcraft and Camping, George Washington Sears. Although not typically regarded as nature writing, I often find myself returning to the Old Woodsman’s writing for inspiration and for the pure enjoyment of his prose. I’ve written ad nauseam about Sears and his writing so I’ll not delve into the details of Woodcraft and Camping. I will, however, express that I enjoy this book because it puts me, the reader, into the backcountry. As Sears describes his camping trips or details his fishing methods, I can always imagine myself trekking through the Adirondacks with him, building a lean–to shelter or reeling a trout from a frigid stream. If you’ve yet to read Woodcraft and Camping, you can download it here for free.
For the Little Ones: If you have children and you want to start them reading nature writing early, I have two recommendations. First off, you can read “If You Spent a Day with Thoreau at Walden Pond” by Robert Burleigh. This book teaches children about Walden Pond and Henry’s adventures there. Turtle, my three–year–old, loves reading this one with me. Additionally, you can read “We’re Going to the Mountains” by Steve Kemp. I’ve been reading this one to the children for over five years and Turtle can now quote it word for word. It provides a glimpse into the natural wonders a young man (or young lady) may see, hear, smell, taste, or feel when visiting the mountains. Both are excellent books for children, and both offer a starting point for teaching children to love nature and nature writing.
What are your thoughts? Have you read any of these books and have an opinion on them? Or better yet, do you have any other nature writing books to recommend? I’d love to read your opinions, questions, or recommendations!