“A blank place on a map is the most valuable part”: my favorite nature writing

I’ve always celebrated the coming of spring by reading books about nature, trying to defrost from long winters and appreciate the warmer months ahead. The best nature writing helps us connect to the natural world, and better understand the active role we play in its survival.

Today, I’m giving you nine of my favorite pieces of nature writing that inspire me to be a better steward of the world around me.

A Sand County Almanac / Aldo Leopold

As an alumnus of the University of Wisconsin’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, I was surrounded by constant reminders of Aldo Leopold throughout my four years there. One of the university’s most famous former faculty members, Leopold is the grandfather of American conservation, and his A Sand County Almanac is still one of the most influential pieces of nature writing, informing modern thought around the ethics of nature and wildlife preservation even now. The book describes the land surrounding Leopold’s home in Sauk County, Wisconsin, just outside of Madison, and is part natural history, part philosophy, and part tone poem. It’s a straightforward book, accessible and enjoyable for all readers, never once feeling like a textbook or oppressively didactic. It’s a remarkable book that will help open your eyes to the world around you and what you *should* do to save it.

Silent Spring / Rachel Carson

David Attenborough, the most prominent naturalist of our time, said that two books have changed the scientific world the most: The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, and Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, and it’s hard to argue against that point. Detailing the harmful effects of overuse of pesticides on the environment, and chronicling the ways that the chemical industry covered up these facts over the years, Carson’s book had a mammoth impact, spurring a nationwide conversation about humankind’s role in the natural world. The book led to a large-scale public outcry that brought about numerous changes, including the banning of DDT in agricultural pesticides, and even the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. This lightning rod work has always been in the crosshairs of many corporations, and debates surrounding it continue to this day, but much of what Carson details in this book has come to pass. Carson was never able to experience her book’s legacy, having died two years after its publication, but she continues to live in the heads of corporate entities rent-free all these years later.

Desert Solitaire / Edward Abbey

We need to get something out of the way: Edward Abbey is not for everyone, and you will know quickly whether or not he is for you. Desert Solitaire is the greatest work by our country’s great chronicler of the American Southwest. The book is filled with essays about Abbey’s time as a park ranger at Arches National Park in Utah, and his writing is equal parts combative and poetic, rude and compassionate, angry and peaceful. Desert Solitaire is Abbey’s quest to experience nature in its purest form, savoring the overwhelming beauty of our world. This is also Abbey’s battle cry against the exploitation of our land, not only by oil and mining industries, but also by tourism. It’s a delicate line that he walks with his writing, but the force of his words should resonate within all of us.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek / Annie Dillard

Annie Dillard won a Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, her recounting of the four seasons surrounding her home in Roanoke, Virginia. Dillard has long rejected being classified as a “nature writer,” especially with Pilgrim, a book she considers to be a work of theology. Even so, Dillard’s observations about the natural world around her have inspired many for decades, and drawn comparisons to Henry David Thoreau. Dillard uses the world outside her window to come to terms with the “seemingly horrid mortality” of the natural world, and uses this as a jumping off point to examine god and faith in relation to the cruelty and death she sees all around, most memorably among insects: “Fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly … insects, it seems, gotta do one horrible thing after another.” Dillard’s omniscient narration is the only human in this story, a showcase for the natural world that we don’t often get.

Into the Wild / Jon Kraukauer

As a freshman in high school, I wanted to be Christopher McCandless. I’m not sure whether to credit that to a complete misunderstanding of the horrors of his story, or to the strength of Jon Krakauer’s biography of McCandless, Into the Wild. After graduating from college in 1990, McCandless ceased all contact with his family and gave away all of his money and most of his material possessions to begin traveling across the country. His journey eventually took him to the Alaskan wilderness, where his life would end in 1992. Krakauer’s portrait allows the reader to fully understand McCandless’s desire to find enlightenment among nature, and to reject the privileges of his life growing up in a well-off suburban family. Krakauer also doesn’t shy away from showcasing McCandless’s hubris, something that would play a role in the end of his life. For a moment there, I wanted to be McCandless, striving for some larger meaning of my place in this world. Into the Wild continues to be a tome of inspiration, and a warning of nature’s all-consuming power.

Prodigal Summer / Barbara Kingsolver

For this list’s first work of fiction, I had to go with the modern master of integrating the natural world into fictional stories. I could have chosen any number of Barbara Kingsolver’s books, but settled on Prodigal Summer, one of her best loved novels. Taking place over the course of a single, humid summer in an Appalachian town, Kingsolver tells three interweaving stories about family, love, and loss, while using the mountain wilderness as a backdrop for her characters. Kingsolver holds a Masters degree in evolutionary biology, and her knowledge of the natural world is on display in this novel, as well as many of her other works. What is so remarkable about Kingsolver’s fiction is her utilization of nature as a character in her stories, brought to life with her lyrical writing. The natural world is never just a backdrop, it is an active participant in the plot, fully realizing the connections humans have to nature. I’m due for a reread very soon.

Hoot / Carl Hiaasen

Carl Hiaasen first exposed me to what practical applications of conservation looked like in the world. That’s a remarkable thing to say about a relatively fluffy piece of middle grade fiction, and yet Hoot (and its spiritual successors) had a major impact on me and many other children. Hoot, Hiaasen’s first work for young readers, brings together an eccentric cast of characters, lets them loose in Hiaasen’s Florida, and weaves a story about a group of children trying to save a burrowing owl habitat from destruction. Growing up in the early-aughts, I was learning all about the large scale implications of pollution and climate change on a daily basis, but these problems felt so out of my control. Hoot was the first book that showed me and other children how we can fight the destruction of our planet, helping to inspire and educate Millennials about climate change and land preservation.

Upstream / Mary Oliver

Renowned poet Mary Oliver’s last published work was her 2016 essay collection, Upstream, and it serves as a fitting coda to her career, bringing together her lyrical prose and the natural world that so often inspired her. In this short collection Oliver details her lifelong love of nature, and her continued wonder and appreciation for all of its parts, large and small. With reflections on spiders, fish, and the art of writing a poem, Oliver is a guide for the reader, inspiring within them the same wonder she is experiencing when she steps outside. Upstream is a book to enjoy outdoors, letting it wash over you, and showing you how to be a better observer of everything around you. No one has ever made getting lost in the woods sound more appealing than Oliver.

The Death and Life of the Great Lakes / Dan Egan

Growing up in Wisconsin, I have always been in awe of the Great Lakes, and was fortunate to read this book while living in a Milwaukee apartment that overlooked Lake Michigan. These five bodies of water make life possible for many people in this country, but their delicate ecosystems have been under attack for decades by invasive species. In The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, Milwaukee-based journalist Dan Egan provides a meticulously researched natural history of these lakes, and what we can do to preserve them for future generations. Egan manages to translate the difficult science at play here and make it come alive for the reader, and illustrates the broad impacts these five lakes have on our country, and the catastrophic implications their deaths would bring. We should all care about the Great Lakes, and no one has done a better job than Egan at explaining why.