Do you find yourself longing for the desert in the midst of New England’s cold winter or damp spring? Or thirsting for the rain forest? Or wondering what it’s like in Alaska in summertime? You may enjoy the natural places our region has to offer, but perhaps you’d like to be transported – at least in your mind — to another climate, another environment entirely. There are a number of books out there that will do just that.
In celebration of the end of winter, this month I offer a list of some of my favorite works in the Nature Writing genre. The list focuses on the more accessible, less technical writers – authors who are more poets than scientists. Most are available through the Old Colony Library System, and most are still in print and ready to be ordered via your local bookshop. Check ‘em out.
Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness (1968) – by Edward Abbey. A classic in the genre — if you are unfamiliar with Edward Abbey, this is a terrific place to start. Immersing himself in Canyonlands National Park in Utah, where he served as a park ranger for three seasons, Abbey alternates between beautifully descriptive thoughts about this desert wilderness and cleverly barbed perspectives on those who wish to develop (or destroy) it. The New York Times Book Review describes this as “a ride on a bucking bronco…rough, tough, combative,” but also “deeply poetic.”
Down the River (1982) – by Edward Abbey. If you already enjoy Abbey, here’s another recommendation. This is a collection of essays, most of which involve a river in one way or another, some more philosophical or political than others. My favorite piece is the one about rafting the Colorado through Glen Canyon before the dam was built, before Lake Powell rose to flood some of the southwest’s most pristine canyonlands. Beware: Abbey’s vivid descriptions may send you to the phone or Internet to book a whitewater rafting trip (That’s what happened in our family! If that’s the case, and you end up on the Colorado, please steer clear of high water season unless you truly enjoy the adrenaline rush of placing your fate in the hands of a wild river and a guide who may or may not have the skills to steer you around a deadly whirlpool.)
Upstream: A Voyage on the Connecticut River (1985)– by Ben Bachman
This book is out of print, but there are copies in the library system , and since it was published locally, it’s not unusual to find a copy in one of our local used bookstores or consignment shops. The author set out in a canoe to travel the full course of the Connecticut River, from its outlet in Long Island Sound to its source on the New Hampshire-Quebec border. Along the way, he passes through beautiful, undeveloped country, as well as ravaged industrial wastelands. With insight into the history of the communities that grew up around the river in the last few centuries, this is a fascinating capsule history of central New England.
Heart of the Land: Essays on Last Great Places (1995) – edited by Joseph Barbato and Lisa Weinerman. This collection of 30 essays features prominent writers such as Barbara Kingsolver and Bill McKibben sharing their reflections on the Nature Conservancy’s “Last Great Places” of the Americas and the Pacific Basin. You’ll visit the Snake River with Thomas McGuane, the prairies of North Dakota with Louise Erdrich, and fishing grounds of the Florida Keys with Carl Hiassen, and learn about some of the most beautiful, most endangered lands on the planet.
A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail (1999) – by Bill Bryson. Bryson is funny. He is also a great storyteller, and this book will lead you, laughing and smiling, over the 2100 miles of the Appalachian Trail, from northern Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. This is no “fabulously fit” mountaineer’s journey. It’s an account of two not-so-rugged, middle-aged men with a penchant for Snickers bars, exploring the American wilderness, and encountering all sort of characters and stories along the way.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974) – by Annie Dillard. My introduction to Nature Writing, and still one of my favorites. This Pulitzer Prize-winning work includes scientific observation, spiritual musings, and vividly descriptive prose that transforms the ordinary planes of the natural world into the extraordinary. A journey of the mind from Tinker Creek in rural Virginia to the Arctic, and around the globe via the Bible, the Koran, and other major and minor religious and philosophical thinkers.
A Book of Bees (1988) & A Country Year (1986) – by Sue Hubbell. Hubbell is a rural Missouri beekeeper turned New Yorker magazine diarist. In these early works, she writes about her day to day life on a 100-acre honey farm in the Ozarks, and the pains and pleasures of beekeeping. Working with the bees and the land, Hubbell offers delightful insights into her trade, while sharing the challenges of being a woman alone in the country, with moving musings on loneliness and solitude.
Desert Notes/River Notes (1976/1979) – by Barry Lopez. Lopez is an acquired taste. In the right mood, I enjoy his somewhat obtuse, somewhat mystical writings, while other people I know can’t stand them. A prolific nature writer, here Lopez focuses his eye on the river and desert environments, and man’s place within them. This book isn’t easy to find. His more widely available “Arctic Dreams” is well –acclaimed but I have yet to read it myself.
Coming into the Country (1977) – by John McPhee
What do you know about Alaska? Snow, igloos, oil drilling, Eskimos . . . it turns out there is much, much more to learn. Our largest and least inhabited state is complex in all realms – including culture, ecology, geography, and politics. Here you will learn about the people who live there, the cities, the history, and the remote wilderness that comprises much of the state. A prolific essayist, McPhee draws it all together beautifully.
Words from the Land: Encounters with Natural History Writing (1988) – edited by Stephen Trimble. Some of the best nature writing from the 1980s. This is an ideal introduction to the genre. Many of the authors featured here in this article also appear in this volume. Most of them have a background in literature, as opposed to science, so they see the natural world in a distinctly colorful way. Consider this a sampler from which to select your next armchair travel in nature.
By Kezia Bacon-Bernstein, Correspondent
Kezia Bacon-Bernstein’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168.