Nature and the Environment
America’s history begins in wilderness. Writer’s relationships even today continue to play a large role in our collective unconsciousness. From the grandeur of the Sierra Nevada and the Rockies to the impenetrable wilderness of Alaska, the rugged landscapes of New England to the murky swamps of the South, some writers spend their entire lives getting to know and to comprehend terrain- both exterior and interior. Their work helps us rediscover values long forgotten, to revel in the beauty we pass over daily in our hectic lives, to recall feeling wonder at something simple, majestic, and ineffable as nature.
In honor of the 50th anniversary of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, I chose a few seminal works in classic nature writing and in the modern environmental movement, both American and global. These are powerful works for both adults and children that capture the struggle to understand and to preserve a viable environment. These works are both old and new, that entertain and significantly challenge readers to think about the natural world and environment in different ways.
Silent Spring (1962) Rachel Carson
Along with Leopold’s A Sand Country Almanac, there may not be another environmental book written in 20th century America that has had as much impact. Silent Spring, a surprise best seller, documented the harmful effects of pesticides on the environment, particularly on birds; led to a nationwide ban on DDT: and inspired the modern environmental movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s. However, some of Carson’s other works remain more accessible to readers today. The National Book Award-winning and New York Times Bestseller The Sea Around Us (1951), for example is poetic, intelligent, less technical. Readers interested in C arson’s life and career as a marine biologist and writer may also wish to return to On A Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson by William Souder.
The Snow Leopard (1978) Peter Matthiessen
The Snow Leopard recounts Peter Matthiessen’s two-month study of the Himalayan Blue Sheep and his search for the rare, elusive snow leopard with biologist George Schaller in the remote Tibetan Plateau. Matthiessen’s quest soon becomes a spiritual journey; a student of Zen Buddhism, Matthiessen describes the impenetrable mountains as he reflects on life and death and offers insight into Tibetan culture; ‘Figures dark beneath their loads pass down the far bank of the river, rendered immortal by the streak of sunset upon their shoulders”. The Snow Leopard is a multilayered book of inherent beauty and spirituality, prose and extraordinary physical and metaphysical travel.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974) Annie Dillard
Essayist, poet, critic and novelist Annie Dillard drew on her personal journals for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, that refers to a stream behind her former home near HollinsUniversity and Roanoke, Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Highly spiritual (Dillard converted to Roman Catholicism) and inspired by Thoreau’s Walden, the book written as a series of internal monologues based on different seasons, chronicles Dillard’s thoughts on life and nature and her metaphysical journey over the course of a year. As for her former home near Tinker Creek: “It holds me at anchor to the rock bottom of the creek itself and keeps me steady in the current, as a Sea Anchor does, facing the stream of light pouring down. It’s a good place to live; there’s a lot to think about.”
Now where can I find a cabin in the woods? Happy reading….
Further Reading: Fiction and Non-Fiction
Nature (1836) Ralph Waldo Emerson
Walden (1854) Henry David Thoreau
Leaves of Grass (1855) Walt Whitman
The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod (1928) Henry Beston
The Grapes of Wrath (1939) John Steinback
Desert Solitaire: A Season in Wilderness (1968) Edward Abbey
Coming Into the Country (1977) John McPhee
The Wisdom of John Muir (100 plus Selections From the Letters, Journals, and Essays )
Zodiac (1988) Neal Stephenson
The Windup Girl (2009) Paolo Bacigalupi
1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created (2011) Created Charles C. Mann
Award Winners for Younger Readers:
My Side of the Mountain (1959) Jean Craighead George
Island of the Blue Dolphins (1960) Scott O’Dell
Whalesong (1981) Robert Siegel
The Sign of the Beaver (1983) Elizabeth George Speare
Hoot (2002) Carl Hiaasen