Art Cullen is 25% of the news staff of The Storm Lake Times, a family-owned Iowa twice-weekly that won the Pulitzer Prize last year for taking corporate polluters to task for poisoning the local lake and rivers. In his first book, Cullen introduces the world to the remarkable people who call his small town home. The prairie is changing, as is its human population: unlike agricultural communities that have vanished elsewhere in America, Storm Lake is growing, thanks to immigrants from nations like Laos and Mexico who have built new lives there (more than 30 languages are now spoken in town). Cullen has seen more than his share of crises, but his message is stubbornly optimistic—and timely.
The Wondrous Workings of Planet Earth
Rachel Ignotofsky puts the world in the palms of her adolescent readers’ hands, both literally and figuratively: her illustrated guide to the Earth’s ecosystems explains how they work and how each of us can work to protect them. Through stunning art, maps, and infographics, she offers clear and compelling breakdowns of everything from the carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and water cycles to how every human impacts nature. It’s a fascinating and empowering look at our shared home: “The big world we live in,” she writes, “is smaller than you think.”
Scott Harrison had been a high-flying, hard-living nightclub promoter for a decade when he realized he didn’t have it all. He felt empty, in fact, and asked himself, “What would the exact opposite of my life look like?” As it happened, it looked like 16 months on a hospital ship in West Africa—and, with no resources beyond a newfound conviction to effect change, he established charity: water, an organization that’s raised more than $300 million to bring potable water to more than 8.2 million people since 2006. Thirst is the story of how Harrison built one of the best-regarded nonprofits in the world out of nothing—and how each of us can learn to recognize our inner resources.
Commander Scott Kelly is the only American astronaut in history who’s lived an entire year in space, 250 miles above the surface of the planet. He’s also a damn fine lensman: after mastering the art of microgravity photography, he began generating glorious images of the Earth’s topography, the Milky Way, the aurora borealis, spacewalks, and a few next-level selfies, of course. This collection of photos from the International Space Station offers glimpses of our planet with what he calls “the orbital perspective, a feeling that we are all connected, part of a team that needs to work together to solve our common problems.”
The White Darkness
Henry Worsley had a historical connection to the legendary explorer Ernest Shackleton: he was a descendant of Frank Worsley, who captained Shackleton’s ship on his ill-fated Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, and joined him on his final expedition in 1922. In November 2015, Henry Worsley set out to walk across the continent alone, and his family never saw him alive again. With more than 50 photographs from both Shackleton’s and Worsley’s journeys, The White Darkness plunges into the heart of the white continent to illuminate the extraordinary courage and fateful obsession that can push us past the limits of human endurance.
Where the Crawdads Sing
Abandoned by her parents and left to raise herself in the wilderness of coastal North Carolina, Kya is known—mostly by rumor—as the Marsh Girl. In 1969, two boys riding their bikes find the body of the town heartthrob in the marshland, and Kya is instantly the subject of suspicion—but what little the locals know of her is far from the truth, and she yearns for encounters of a different kind. Enliven a tender coming-of-age story with a whodunit and suffuse the results with the wordless, mysterious poetry of the natural world, and you’ve got Where the Crawdads Sing.
The Songs of Trees
David George Haskell
Pulitzer Prize finalist David George Haskell calls trees “nature’s great connectors,” and he offers meticulous portraits of a dozen of them. From the concrete jungle of Manhattan to the verdant jungles of the Amazon, he makes a lyrical case for their positions at the hearts of biological networks: microbes, fungi, other plants, animals, and even humans all depend on trees for their well-being. The Songs of Trees is a kind of ecological poetry, and it will change the way you think about your relationship with—and responsibility to—the life around you.
Though earthquake drills have been long part of the curriculum in California schools, most of the country doesn’t spend too much time thinking about when The Big One might hit. As Kathryn Miles argues, that shouldn’t be the case: humans have been causing earthquakes since 1962, and what we do to the ground beneath our feet can have just as much seismological impact as the fault lines that were there long before us. She crisscrosses the country to interview scientists, structural engineers, and emergency management specialists, and the landscape that comes together in her findings isn’t anywhere near as stable as we believe it to be.
Holly FitzGerald and her husband had been married for less than two years when they set out on a year-long backpacking adventure that promised to be the honeymoon of a lifetime. After five months, disaster struck: their plane crashed in Peru, in a penal colony surrounded by impenetrable jungle. The only thing between them and the Madre de Dios river they navigated for hundreds of miles was a rudimentary raft—and when it went to pieces, they were forced to swim. If their survival story sounds like an epic film to you, you’re not alone: the Oscar-nominated screenwriter who penned Bridge of Spies has optioned FitzGerald’s harrowing tale for the silver screen.
“I could not be a poet without the natural world,” the celebrated poet Mary Oliver writes. “Someone else could. But not me. For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple.” For Upstream, her bestselling collection of personal essays, Oliver retraces her steps through the personal and topographical wilderness of her girlhood, as well as her adult relationship with the natural world—and encourages the rest of us to get out and get moving: our creativity depends upon it.
“If you can’t be in awe of Mother Nature,” the usually diplomatic Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek once noted, “there’s something wrong with you.” Strong words, but he has a point: we share a fantastic planet, and it forces us time and time again to reimagine what’s possible. Beguile the outdoorsy folks in your life with tales of bold environmental activism, dispatches from far corners of the globe, and intensely personal meditations on the fragility and significance of our natural world—for even the most dedicated forest-bather can’t resist curling up in a comfortable chair with a good book.
Editor: Eliza Smith; Featured Image: Matt McCarty