Spying on Whales
As the curator of fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian Museum’s National Museum of Natural History and an accomplished marine paleobiologist, Nick Pyenson is fantastically equipped to guide readers on a deep dive (sorry) into how whales evolved into such spectacular creatures—and how they might fare in the turbulent times ahead. He’s also a master storyteller, and the research he discusses coalesces into a “paleological howdunnit,” as a dazzled reviewer at Nature put it. Spying on Whales is so moving that it’s been known to migrate from passenger to passenger in the middle of offshore whale watching trips (“I just finished this and you need to read it RIGHT NOW!”). True story.
The Conservation Revolution
Fair warning: The Conservation Revolution is not the sort of book that will make you feel good about the eco-friendly moves you’re already making. It is a green manifesto that argues for post-capitalist, convivial conservation—that is, a radical shift to principles of governance that drastically rebalance human and nonhuman rights. It gets under your skin and leaves you with a permanent itch to pursue environmental justice. That doesn’t sound pleasant, and it isn’t; if you’re comfortable with the state of the world, as political ecologists Bram Büscher and Robert Fletcher would say, you’re not paying attention.
The Living Wisdom of Trees
Think of The Living Wisdom of Trees as a much-needed revision to Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree; in this version, the rotten boy who can’t stop taking is swapped out for Fred Hageneder, cofounder of The Ancient Yew Group (a collective that identifies and lavishes care and protection on trees all over the world). A member of the Ecocentric Alliance, Hageneder also “composes music for various tree species.” He capital-L Loves trees, is what we’re saying, and his collection—illustrated with Lizzie Harper’s delicate drawings—explores and honors 55 trees’ contributions to human civilizations. From Alnus (alder) to Quercus (oak), these thank-you notes are long, long overdue.
The Snow Leopard
In the 40-odd years since the naturalist and Zen Buddhist Peter Matthiessen plunged into the Himalayas in hopes of seeing one of the world’s most mysterious big cats, we…haven’t learned all that much more about snow leopards, to be honest. Those cats cultivate pro-level mystique. Matthiessen’s account of his journey and the cats he (spoiler) did not see, on the other hand, was and is a classic account of escaping into the wild from the prison of one’s own mind. As M.R. O’Connor wrote two years ago, “it’s become a prescient exploration of how we might confront the dire reality of climate change without shying away from either nature’s profound beauty or our own sadness.”
George R.R. Martin might enjoy notoriety as the most lethal writer around by virtue of the body count in A Song of Ice and Fire, but the bloodthirstiest writer? That would be zoologist Bill Schutt, whose Dark Banquet zeroes in on all things sanguivorous. From the bed bugs who prey on us to the vampire finches who prey on Nazca boobies on the Galápagos Islands, his portraits are both wildly educational—you’ll be a goth trivia pro after Dark Banquet—and bloody good fun.
A five-mile bus ride from New York City, New Jersey’s 32 acres of Meadowlands were once inspiration for landscape painters; if their contemporary neighbors think of them now at all, they think of them in the context of sporting events, outlet malls, Mafia hits, and garbage (so, so much garbage—the Meadowlands were once the largest dump in the world). For Robert Sullivan, they’re “America’s first West”—what he calls “already explored land that has become, through negligence, though exploitation, and often through its own chaotic persistence, explorable again.” Sullivan’s a master of depicting and even celebrating subjects others might find repugnant—he’s also written a fascinating book about rats—and in The Meadowlands, he reconsiders what we mean when we talk about wilderness.
The Ocean of Life
Callum Roberts’s The Ocean of Life has been called a marine version of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (the 1962 pesticide-use exposé that launched the modern environmental movement), which means, in part, that it’s full of alarming information about how poor human stewardship has harmed our oceans. Though Roberts has a great deal of tragedy to share, however, he’s not telling stories that have already concluded: he’s intent on inspiring his readers to suit up for battle on the oceans’ behalf. His sense of wonder and fighting spirit are contagious.
Soul of a Lion
Marieta and Nick van der Marwe, inheritors of a cattle-ranching fortune in Namibia, rescued a vervet monkey from an abusive home more than 30 years ago. That kindness was the first act in what has become their lives’ work: the van der Marwes went on to establish the Harnas Wildlife Foundation, a rehabilitation center and sanctuary that has rescued nearly 400 indigenous animals (many of whom still live on their former farm). Barbara Bennett visited Harnas as a volunteer, and “worked harder than I had ever worked in my life and I got dirtier and more scratched and bruised than I had thought possible. And I adored every second of it.” She was entranced both by the animals she encountered and the woman who devoted her every waking moment to them; Soul of a Lion is Bennett’s affectionate portrait of her and her extraordinary multi-species family.
The Genius of Birds
“Birds have never seemed dumb to me,” Jennifer Ackerman writes. “In fact, few other creatures appear so alert, so alive in fiber and faculty, so endowed with perpetual oomph.” The Genius of Birds undergirds her lifetime of amateur enthusiasm with a journalist’s well-curated demonstration that birds are quantifiably brilliant. Ackerman’s pretty brilliant as well, and this is popular science writing at its finest: her affectionate, instructive prose guides readers through complicated concepts and maintains an utterly infectious sense of delight in discovery.
Hope Jahren is a geobiologist, a lifelong laboratory lover, and, as the New York Times put it, author of a memoir that “at its best, does for botany what Oliver Sacks’s essays did for neurology, what Stephen Jay Gould’s writings did for paleontology.” (A common sentiment—Lab Girl has earned a slew of accolades, from Best Books of the Year nods and critics’ awards to fandom from Barack Obama.) Lab work, she says is performed “with both the heart and the hands,” and her eloquent account of how she came to do it and why she loves it so damn much will make you a botanist in spirit.
John Muir had a knack for, more than a century ago, making observations that are more pointed in our time than they were in his. “Few places in this world are more dangerous than home,” he once noted. “Fear not, therefore, to try the mountain passes. They will kill care, save you from deadly apathy, set you free, and call forth every faculty into vigorous, enthusiastic action.”
In March of 2020, Muir’s words are difficult to read. Unoccupied natural spaces are some of the few unequivocally healthful pleasures available to many of us, and the time we spend outdoors replenishes the emotional reserves we draw on when we head back inside.
Muir was an avid hiker, to put it mildly. In 1868, he walked from San Francisco to Yosemite. “The world is big,” he said. “I want to have a good look at it before it gets dark.”
Look at the world through these writers’ eyes. Look again, and again.
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