We’ve been writing and thinking about the natural world for a long time in this country, at least since Thoreau sojourned in the Massachusetts woods. The genre matured further when John Muir took his famous walks in the Sierra Nevadas in the 19th century and eloquently shared his observations in several books and essays. Since then nature writing has taken on many faces from the mild to the wild.
Many recent books of nature writing take their cues from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring or Bill McKibbon’s The End of Nature; they are cautionary tales about the impact that humans are having on the planet. I like many of these books, and I find that they serve their purpose of warning us about our behavior. For me though, I find the books that best help to raise my awareness about the environment are not cautionary tales of human impact on the climate, but ones that celebrate nature’s tranquil beauty and (especially) its frightening power. I particularly like a good adventure yarn about surviving the horrors that nature can unleash.
If you’re like me and like a good survival tale, you can do no better than the 1998 Alex Award Winner Into Thin Air by John Krakauer. The book is an account of a terrifying climb up Mt. Everest by a pack of climbers of mismatched abilities and personalities. The weaknesses of the group become serious liabilities when a storm blasts them near the peak. Krakauer is great at sucking you into the story until you can hear the hurricane force winds start to blow outside your window. A skill he exhibits in his earlier book Into the Wild about a young man who gives away his belongings and tries to survive alone in the Alaskan wilderness. Into the Wild is a nominee for 2012 YALSA popular paperbacks.
Another favorite that captures all of those sensory details while telling a great story is The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean. It is the true story of John Laroche an obsessed Florida plant dealer who runs afoul of the legal system when he is hired by a native tribe and steals orchids on their land in a scheme to clone these rare, endangered plants and make a fortune in the process. Laroche and the cast of oddball Floridians could have walked out of a Carl Hiaasen novel.
If you’re looking for a fun and funny nature book A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson is excellent. Bryson sets out to walk the length of the Appalachian Trail with his ill-suited companion Stephen Katz, with whom he was a roommate in college. This adventure/misadventure is equal parts hilarious and inspiring.
The best nature writing rips us out of our seats and our humdrum lives and transports us to other places and vistas and makes us realize that these far-flung locales, that we may never visit, are worth protecting. They must be protected so that we can read about the people who risk it all to go there.
Happy Earth Day.
–Joel Brun, Currently reading The Alchemy of Air by Thomas Hager, The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Young Readers Edition) by Michael Pollan, and Deus Ex Machina by Andrew Foster Altschul.
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