7 Books That Look at Nature Up Close
Writing that focuses on a brief time in a small, specific ecosystem helps us feel more present in the world
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There is an area of Central Park called Cherry Hill, located just above the Lake and east of Strawberry Fields, that is covered in a ring of its namesake trees. Ignored most of the year in favor of bigger, flatter picnicking spots like Sheep’s Meadow or the Great Lawn, Cherry Hill is overrun with visitors for a few weeks each spring. On a recent walk, I saw an engagement shoot, a couple taking wedding portraits, and a dozen tourists crowded under the pink boughs, all angling for a photograph that didn’t include someone else’s head. But soon the trees shed their petals for leaves, and now people indifferently pass by the slope, looking for the next Instagrammable shot.
The drawbacks of treating life like a highlight reel are becoming increasingly obvious, and not just to the people who have tried to do yoga in the Central Park rowboats. Many of us are trying to be more “present,” a term beloved by wellness blogs but which can be frustratingly hard to enact. What does being present look like? How do we attain this kind of tuned-in mentality? There are answers in a niche type of nature writing which I think of as field guides to being present.
Put simply, these books do what great literature does best: blend form and function. Their language is evocative and poetic, their writers generous, inquisitive, and open. For most us, it’s impossible to move to a secluded landscape and closely observe it for a year, but we can all be more engaged in the world around us. We can ask questions and observe, because the more we notice, the more we get in return.
Walden by Henry David Thoreau
Like much of contemporary nature writing, this genre has strong ties to Henry David Thoreau. When Thoreau wrote Walden, his famous memoir-cum-manifesto about the two years he spent living at Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts, he obsessively detailed the natural world around him, tracking the changing colors of the pond water to the migration patterns of local birds. By capturing this “raw” wilderness (which actually wasn’t that far from town), Walden famously helped spread the idea of Transcendentalism, a social and philosophical movement that emphasizes the individual’s connection to nature. But Walden also helped popularize a literary genre in which a writer carefully observes a specific environment over a limited amount of time, usually one year.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
Thoreau’s experiment at Walden Pond has inspired many nature writers, though the beauty of examining such a specific, and therefore unique, landscape, is that each writer inevitably comes to the format in their own way. Take Annie Dillard. Dillard won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which captures a year spent at her house in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Dillard combines David Attenborough’s passion for natural dramas with the voice of a poet; her prose is lyrical yet raw, and her description of the creeks—“an active mystery, fresh every minute”—could actually describe the book itself. The race to capture cherry blossoms would be anathema to Dillard, who is electrified by every aspect of her environment, and who keeps her eyes open for its surprises. For example, on the night that Dillard goes looking for muskrats, she fails to find any, noticing instead a small insect’s unlikely and inspiring escape from a spider’s web. Dillard is free from the constraints of expectation, which allows her to appreciate life’s many surprises.
The Outermost House by Henry Beston
Henry Beston was also trying to free himself. The year he spent living on a beach in Cape Cod was a respite from a country that was between World Wars and “sick to its thin blood for lack of elemental things, for water, for air, for the dear earth itself underfoot.” Beston recorded his observations from his isolated beachfront cottage in The Outermost House. Without a schedule or concern for time in a conventional sense, Beston’s work feels expansive and elemental. A pattern of waves might interest him for pages whereas his lunch is briefly mentioned, if at all. Of spring sand he writes, “it has entirely resumed its looseness, its fluidity, but the color still tells of winter in the faintest hint of grey.” Turning this kind of lens on something as seemingly mundane as sand is a lesson for the reader. After reading The Outermost House, it’s hard to step on a beach without thinking about how sand changes throughout the year, and then noting that day’s weight, color, and feel underfoot. To see just how much of an impact Beston had, you only have to look at the land he wrote about. The Outermost House is credited in the establishment of the Cape Cod National Seashore by John F. Kennedy, and Beston’s cottage was a national literary landmark until the 1970s, when it was tragically washed away in a storm.
The Forest Unseen, A Year’s Watch in Nature by David Haskell
What if instead of waiting for the next big event, you carefully noted the progress of everything around you, down to a single plant? That’s what David Haskell did in his Pulitzer Prize-nominated book, The Forest Unseen, A Year’s Watch in Nature. Haskell marked off a one square meter plot of land in Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains and obsessively monitored everything that went on in this small ecosystem. As the Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies at the University of the South, Haskell is well-versed in the science of the forest floor, and his goal is to show us how nature is constantly in flux (lichen, for example, may look like a smear on a rock, but in some ways it’s actually busier than a tree, constantly altering its appearance based on the weather.) We might not all be scientists, but we can all benefit from this scientist’s mentality, and celebrate small changes rather than waiting for something huge.
Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness by Edward Abbey
During the 1950s, Edward Abbey worked as a seasonal ranger for the United States National Park Service at Arches National Monument in Utah. His account, Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, is a series of vignettes, including beautifully rendered descriptions of the unusual, arid landscape. Abbey, like Haskell, has a keen eye for what’s changing in his landscape, especially when it comes to what’s in decline or already gone. When he realized he wasn’t spotting as many bobcats or other large predators that historically ruled the park, he tracked their loss to the Department of Agriculture’s policies, which not only endangered some species but led to an explosion of rabbits and deer that threatened the park’s whole ecosystem. Abbey’s critical probing of what he sees is an important reminder of the reason why being present matters at all; it allows you appreciate what we have before it’s gone.
A Year in the Wilderness: Bearing Witness in the Boundary Waters, Amy and Dave Freeman
The Boundary Waters is a one million-plus acre wilderness area in the Superior National Forest in Minnesota. Despite some government protection laws from 1964, it’s seen years of disputes over actions that would destroy the landscape, including mining, vehicle use, and pollution. When Amy and Dave Freeman learned that toxic mining had been proposed for the area’s watershed, they decided to call citizens to action by spending a year in the area and documenting their experience in its wilderness. The resulting book combines both nature writing and activism; it beautifully captures the flora and fauna which are so at risk—loons skating on misty water, the wolves who trailed them through the forest—and helped spur an ongoing, organized effort to save the Waters and ensure their permanent protection.
The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks
When Michiko Kakutani named an English shepherd’s farming memoir one of her best books of 2015, people took notice. In fact the book had already been a success in Britain thanks to its incredibly honest, authentic, and moving portrayal of an ancient way of life. James Rebanks herds his sheep in the Lake District, a unique mountainous landscape which has been farmed by small homesteads for generations. Rebanks himself is an unlikely character, a man who comes from a long line of shepherds and loves his work, but also found his way to Oxford and writes as well as any experienced nature writer. What comes through most in this book is Rebanks’s deep appreciation for what he has, even through its many hardships. Every season presents new challenges, but that only means more moments of success.