Entry #3: Nature Book Recommendations
It’s late winter (almost spring!) here in Maine, which means we likely have another month or two of ice, slush, and mud before we welcome back most migrating birds, dig into the soil, and frolick on trails unencumbered by multiple layers of clothing and foot traction devices. We thought it a good time to compile a book list about various topics related to nature and the outdoors that we’ve been learning from during this unprecedented winter of isolation. We hope one or more of these books—which all address human interaction with the natural world in some form—will inform and engage you as you await warmer days filled with more social interaction and outdoor time.
When the wet and cold subside further, be sure to spend some quality time at some of our partners’ preserves in the Sebago Lake watershed. While there, you might have a new thought about land use, land access, or wildlife thanks to one of these well-researched and insightful books! We encourage you to check books out of your local library or buy through bookshop.org (proceeds support local, independent bookstores).
Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors
by Carolyn Finney
As a social scientist, geographer, and storyteller, Finney delves into the history—specifically of slavery and Jim Crow laws—that shapes Blacks’ relationship to the environment. Drawing as much from popular culture as scholarly research and key historical moments, she deftly demonstrates how limited representation and misrepresentation influence Black environmental attitudes and perceptions, and also how they impact environmental organizations’ practices. Finney’s clear writing, personal experience, and practical advice for environmental practitioners and others do wonders to illuminate the intricacies of this complicated subject.
Notable quote: “We have the chance to see differently, imagine differently, and be actively involved in the regeneration of our communities, in the broadest sense. When we know different, we do different.”
Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants
by Robin Wall Kimmerer
Kimmerer, a botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, melds ancient Indigenous knowledge with her science background to show that a reciprocal relationship with the natural world is key to repairing humans’ broken relationship with land and the world at large. Titled after a sacred plant instrumental in Indigenous ceremonies and basketmaking, the book is a series of essays centered around personal experiences involving maple and pecan trees, vegetable gardens, and other plant-focused subject matter. Kimmerer lyrically weaves lessons for living a better life into each essay in such an eloquent and captivating way that readers will be prompted to reexamine their relationship to nature in myriad ways.
Notable quote: “We are showered every day with gifts, but they are not meant for us to keep. Their life is in their movement, the inhale and exhale of our shared breath. Our work and our joy is to pass along the gift and to trust that what we put out into the universe will always come back.”
Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter
by Ben Goldfarb
Nearly wiped out at the hands of European settlers exploiting them for the fur trade in the first half of the 19th century, beavers have made such a comeback that they are often viewed as landscape-altering pests. In captivating prose, this environmental journalist chronicles the history-changing influence of these much-maligned creatures and through explorations with “beaver believers” explains the profound ways in which beavers act as ecosystem engineers. Goldfarb makes a compelling case for how this keystone species is capable of solving some of our most pressing ecological issues from flooding to erosion to loss of fish habitat, if only humans can learn to harmoniously coexist with them.
Notable quote: [Beavers] “provide highly skilled free labor that obviates the need for expensive interventions, and they serve as four-legged proof that humans do not always know best. Our ecological memories are short-term and faulty; their instincts are unerring and eternal.”
On Trails: An Exploration
by Robert Moore
As an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker, Moore became fascinated by the paths beneath his feet. For years afterwards, he travelled the world talking to experts and exploring all types of trails and networks, including those of the Cherokee, ants, four-legged mammals, and our modern transportation system. The result of these investigations is an entertaining and informative volume that ponders who makes trail, why they are made, and how and why they evolve over time. The mix of history—starting with the world’s oldest fossil trails—and personal experiences involving intriguing characters and sometimes harrowing hikes, is sure to elicit new understanding and appreciation of the trails we often take for granted.
Notable quote: “We are born to wander through a chaos field. And yet we do not become hopelessly lost, because each walker who comes before us leaves behind a trace for us to follow. The full span of trail-making on earth, in its broadest sense—all the walks, all the stories, all the experiments, all the networks—can be seen as part of a great communal yearning to find better, longer-lasting, more supple ways of sharing wisdom and preserving it for the future.
Vesper Flights: New and Collected Essays
by Helen MacDonald
MacDonald, author of the best-selling book H is for Hawk, is one of those writers who strings words together in such a pleasing way that you may want to reread certain sentences just for the pure joy of how they sound. Her remarkable experiences around the globe lead to her examination of the parallels and intersection between the natural and human worlds. From the demise of ash trees to the experiences of birds in urban environments to the marvels of glow-worms and fungi, this scholar and naturalist dives deep into the wonders of the natural world, while not shying away from the painful realities about how rapidly it is changing. In doing so, she aims to impress on readers that we are “living in an exquisitely complicated world that is not about us alone.”
Notable quote: “Apocalyptic thinking is a powerful antagonist to action. It makes us give up agency, feel that all we can do is suffer and wait for the end. That is not what we must be thinking now…I pray that the revelation our current apocalypse can bring is the knowledge that we have the power to intervene.”
What It’s Like to Be a Bird: From Flying to Nesting, Eating to Singing—What Birds are Doing, and Why
by David Allen Sibley
This beautifully illustrated and informative large-format book created by acclaimed author, illustrator, and birder David Allen Sibley, examines remarkable attributes of nearly 100 common and/or familiar North American songbirds. Roughly life-size depictions of birds are juxtaposed with interesting factoids about each featured feathered friend and information about similar species. Best enjoyed at intervals like any good coffee table book, it is chock full of fascinating topics that often pertain to a variety of bird species, such as nesting cycles, sense of smell, and the mechanics of sleeping. Perusing it will allow you to wow your housebound family members with interesting tidbits such as a typical small songbird has about 1,600 feathers, loons feet are so far back on their bodies that they can’t take flight from land, and a chickadee can store up to a thousand seeds a day and then remember where each one is stashed!
Notable quote: “Wild birds face two competing risks every day—starvation and predation. They must eat without being eaten, and they have to find enough food every day to last through the long night. Finding food requires searching, often in the open, and eating adds weight that slows a bird down. They are constantly assessing the risks and benefits of any potential food source.”