There is perhaps no better way to fine tune one’s mind to the endless intricacies and astounding magnitude of the natural world than by delving into the incredible library of human reflection and celebration our planet has inspired.
Nature is humanity’s perpetual muse, which even as we punish and abuse the world, keeps giving, keeps providing, and despite our worst excesses, has maintained its capacity to stun us with simple beauty.
Since they were first paired up, the natural world and the written word have become an enormously successful partnership, each working to enhance the other where possible.
As humanity faces its gravest crisis in the form of the climate emergency, it is not only to scientific papers and policy makers to which we must now turn, but to the pages of the books which remind us that what we’ve got is worth saving while we still can.
So in absolutely no order, chosen largely by me, but with a few suggestions from colleagues, here is a selection of books which either deal directly with the natural world and the environment, or are works in which celebration of the Earth is a fundamental aspect. It’s pretty loose. Enjoy:
Dart by Alice Oswald 2002
Poet Alice Oswald takes us on a rich and magical journey down the River Dart in Devon. Shifting in voice, perspective and form, it is a dense lyrical work brimming with overpowering vocabulary and imagery, and exploring the hinterland where the human world and the natural world converge.
The Practice of the Wild by Gary Snyder 1990
This collection of essays by US author Gary Snyder, who has been described as “the poet laureate of Deep Ecology”, might be thought of a philosophical map to appreciating the world around us, and the threat it has come under through mechanisation, capitalism and urbanisation.
Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard 2021
Today, Suzanne Simard’s work is regarded as scientific orthodoxy, but when she first published papers suggesting trees were capable of communicating with each other, her work was publicly scorned - a story fictionalised in part of Richard Powers’ book The Overstory (see below). Simard’s latest book, Finding the Mother Tree, tells that story of that discovery and the research which has revolutionised how we understand trees and forests, right up to her latest research revealing how trees utilise mycorrhizal fungi networks in the soil to help each other survive.
The Overstory by Richard Powers 2018
A book which won the 2019 Pulitzer prize for fiction, The Overstory is a landscape-stature American novel which draws together very different narratives through the characters’ connection with trees. Structured much like a tree itself – from these disparate roots, the story coalesces and then branches out again in wild and unexpected directions.
The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wollebehn 2017
This best selling book by German forester Peter Wollebehn has been credited with changing the way people regard trees and their relationship with one another. Describing the forest as a kind of natural social network, the book examines the science of trees, but also imparts Wollebehn’s deep love of the woods and the processes of life, death and regeneration in the forest.
Human, Nature by Ian Carter 2021
How does our species now see itself in relation to the natural world? And do we need to reassess that viewpoint? Former Natural England conservationist Ian Carter writes about the joy and the necessity of recalibrating our relationship with the wild.
Cider With Rosie by Laurie Lee 1959
Flowers, sisters, gardens, school, seasons, illnesses, passion and confusion. Laurie Lee’s memoir recounts what feels like an ancient version of England - a land before electricity and motor cars, on the cusp of change during the interwar period. Despite gaining a reputation for sentimentality and quaintness, it is a beautifully written piece of rural reality.
“Waking up in the morning I saw squirrels nibbling at the moist red berries. Between the trees and the window hung a cloud of gold air composed of floating seeds and spiders. Farmers called to their cows on the other side of the valley and moorhens piped from the ponds. Brother Jack, as always, was the first to move, while I pulled on my boots in bed.”
Season Songs by Ted Hughes 1975
Arranged to take the reader through the four seasons, these poems were originally aimed at children, but it seems Hughes kept putting quite a lot of death, brutality and occasional sexual references into the poems.
Wilding by Isabella Tree 2018
This is the true story of how the author and her husband converted their sprawling farm which was struggling to turn a profit, into one of the UK’s most celebrated rewilding projects. It takes aim at our preconceptions of what the countryside and farms “should” be like, and reimagines a better, wilder future.
English Pastoral by James Rebanks 2020
Already hailed as a modern masterpiece, farmer and author James Rebanks movingly grapples with how over the course of three generations of farming the net result is a landscape increasingly devoid of life and increasingly difficult to farm. It explains how through returning to lost principles he has begun to successfully salvage both the land and what it could mean to farm in the 21st century.
Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer 2020
The science laboratories of the world may have yielded miraculous results in the modern era, but the place where science meets culture and tradition is little explored. This beautifully written book examines how ancient and indigenous knowledge of the natural world can enrich and deepen our understanding of what it means to exist on this planet.
This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein 2014
It’s capitalism that is fuelling the destruction of our planet, and the climate crisis is the klaxon letting us know the system is very broken, Naomi Klein writes in her exploration of the climate emergency. But even as carbon emissions keep on rising, the underlying structures are already beginning to see change.
Desiderata by Max Ehrmann 1920s
“Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence,” begins Max Ehrmann’s 1920s prose poem Desiderata. A meditation on navigating modern life, it nurtures the values we must accrue to work together and maintain our sense of purpose. It is highly relevant as our society confronts the spectre of the climate crisis.
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson 1962
With such a damning title and clear-sighted warning, it is horrifying to look at how so many damaging pesticides are still routinely and liberally used today, in the knowledge that this book was first published 60 years ago.
It is still completely relevant – highlighting what happens if environmental pollution spirals out of control.
The book accused chemical manufacturers of spreading misinformation and it led to a US-wide ban on DDT for agricultural uses.
The Good Ancestor by Roman Krznaric 2021
We live in a world of instant news, instant internet shopping and instant noodles - it’s all very fast, but how nourishing is it?
Philosopher Roman Krznaric looks at how this culture of instant gratification feeds into the climate and ecological crises (amongst others) and examines how we can start to think long term about the human project and take the action required to have a positive impact which resonates through the coming decades and centuries.
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