Nature and the environment.

Author:Smith, Patrick
Position:Book review

America's history begins in wilderness. It is no surprise, then, that our relationship with nature four centuries later continues to play a large role in our collective consciousness. From the grandeur of the Sierra Nevada and the Rockies to the impenetrable wilderness of Alaska, the rugged landscapes of New England to the murky swamps of the South, writers spend their entire lives getting to know and to comprehend terrain--both exterior and interior. Their work helps us to rediscover values long forgotten, to revel in the beauty we pass over daily in our hectic lives, to recall feeling wonder at something so simple, majestic, and ineffable as nature.


Here we explore some books on classic nature writing and seminal works in the modern environmental movement, both American and global. We also offer suggestions on powerful works of fiction for both adults and young adults that capture the struggle to understand and to preserve a viable environment. Our list, of course, is neither comprehensive nor representative of the environmental problems we face today--from species extinction to global climate change. Rather, we chose works both old and new that entertain and, significantly, that challenge readers to think about the natural world and environment in different ways.


The Outermost House

A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod (1928)

By Henry Beston


After World War I, American naturalist and writer Henry Beston spent a year on Cape Cod in spiritual recovery. "Nature is part of our humanity," he writes, "and without some awareness of that divine mystery man ceases to be man." The Outermost House, now considered a classic of nature writing and a precursor to the literature of the modern environmental movement, captures the landscape's wonders in ways few other works have done. In addition, few other writers have observed the nature of animals as profoundly as Beston: "We patronize [animals] for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. ... They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth."

Desert Solitaire

A Season in the Wilderness (1968)

By Edward Abbey


"I write in a deliberately provocative and outrageous manner because I like to startle people," said Edward Abbey, who was once described as an eco-terrorist for his radical views. What most interested Abbey was the struggle for personal liberty in a techno-industrial complex--with wilderness as the salve for the human soul. Desert Solitaire, which recounts his time as a park ranger at Arches National Monument near Moab, Utah, portrays his love of the desert ("the flaming globe, blazing on the pinnacles and minarets and balanced rocks"), its harsh challenges, and the strength and comfort it provides from mainstream culture. Deeply felt, poetic, philosophical, and notable for its pioneering call for wilderness preservation, Desert Solitaire brought Abbey critical acclaim.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974)

By Annie Dillard




Essayist, poet, critic, and novelist Annie Dillard drew on her personal journals for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which refers to a stream behind her former home near Hollins University and Roanoke, Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. Highly spiritual (Dillard converted to Roman Catholicism) and inspired by Thoreau's Walden, the book, written as a series of internal monologues based on the different seasons, chronicles Dillard's thoughts on life and nature and her metaphorical journey over the course of a year. As for her former home near Tinker Creek? "It holds me at anchor to the rock bottom of the creek itself and keeps me steadied in the current, as a sea anchor does, facing the stream of light pouring down. It's a good place to live; there's a lot to think about."

Coming into the Country (1977)

By John McPhee


John McPhee, a writer at the New Yorker and professor of journalism at Princeton, wrote about Alaska as it was experiencing a cultural and economic shift. He uses a range of voices--those of bush pilots, prospectors, settlers, and businessmen--to explore ideas of wilderness and the controversy over national parks, the decision to move the state capital from Juneau, and the lives of people living along remote parts of the Yukon River. Coming into the Country pays homage to an Alaska that no longer exists, and although somewhat dated, it captures the beauty and hardship of the place like few other books. For other looks at Alaska, see Charles Sheldon's adventure memoir The Wilderness of Denali (1930) and John Haines's The Stars, the Snow, the Fire: Twenty-five Years in the Northern Wilderness (1989).

The Snow Leopard (1978)

By Peter Matthiessen



The Snow Leopard recounts Peter Matthiessen's two-month study of the Himalayan blue sheep and his search for the rare, elusive snow leopard with biologist George Schaller in the remote Tibetan Plateau. Matthiessen's quest soon becomes a spiritual journey; a student of Zen Buddhism, Matthiessen describes the impenetrable mountains as he reflects on life and death and offers insight into Tibetan culture: "Figures dark beneath their loads pass down the far bank of the river, rendered immortal by the streak of sunset upon their shoulders." The Snow Leopard is a multilayered book of inherent beauty and spirituality, crystalline prose, and extraordinary physical and metaphysical travel. See also Matthiessen's Wildlife in America (1959; 1987).

Arctic Dreams

Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape (1986)

By Barry Lopez



Barry Lopez was a landscape photographer when he started writing in the 1960s, and his exploration of the relationship between human culture and the physical landscape reveals an artist's eye. Arctic Dreams, written over fifteen trips to the Canadian far north over five years, celebrates the region's beauty, austerity, mysteries, and "tension between its beauty and...

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