One of winter’s pleasures is curling up with a lap robe and a good book. It’s even better if we can learn something new from the book. With the help of librarians and independent booksellers in the region, Agate Magazine has compiled a short list of books that can enrich our lives. They combine modern scientific rigor and a more holistic approach that helps us see nature and our place in it in ways that can foster deeper, more creative and effective approaches to today’s existential environmental problems.
The list starts with a book I read last year that changed my life in a subtle way (so far). I’m going to let Molly Fish at Leopold’s Bookstore in Madison, Wisconsin describe it:
Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants, by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Milkweed Editions, 2020.
“This book is at once a graceful autobiography, a philosophical exploration of nature and humanity, and soul-nourishing poetry… Without lecturing, it teaches you about botany and complex ecosystems. Without judging, it invites you to slow down and savor the places and people around you. I found it to be a soothing and rejuvenating read, and I think you will too.”
Molly also likes:
Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change our Minds, and Shape our Futures, by Merlin Sheldrake. Random House, 2021.
In a New York Times review, Jennifer Szalai follows the author’s gaze to meet “fungi, without which so many of the plants that we take for granted wouldn’t exist.” Szalai salutes Sheldrake’s view that “paying attention to fungi can transform our fundamental understanding of the world.” The review explains that “mushrooms are just the minuscule flowering tip of the vast fungal world. The largest recorded fungal network is in Oregon, a network—or mycelium—that covers four square miles and is thousands of years old… Sheldrake’s book is full of striking examples (of surprising behaviors), prying open our cramped perspectives.”
Recommendations from three staffers at Magers & Quinn in Minneapolis:
The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing. Princeton University Press, 2021.
August Lah says, “By telling the story of one mushroom, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing manages to tell a story about the whole world. Her short, playful chapters explore a tangled web of ecology and economy that winds its way across the globe.”
All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis, edited by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson. Penguin Random House, 2020.
Steph Gorney says, “I am more grateful for this book than I am for almost any other in the world. Full of writing that’s equally powerful and beautiful, every time I sit down with this anthology it feels like I’m giving myself a gift. Everyone should read it.”
How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, by Jenny Odell. Melville House, 2019.
Mara Henderson says, “If you read Braiding Sweetgrass and are still trying to figure out how to apply that knowledge in your “busy” “modern” life, this is the book for you.” Reputedly a favorite of Barak Obama.
Jennifer Jubenville at The Bookstore at Fitgers in Duluth suggests these writers:
Peter Wohlleben is a German forester who writes about ecology in popular language. He has been pointedly criticized by many scientists for too much anthropomorphism, among other supposed failings. But his books have found an enthusiastic audience: The Hidden Life of Trees (2015) was a New York Times bestseller. His latest, The Heartbeat of Trees: Embracing Our Ancient Bond with Forests and Nature (Greystone Books, 2021), draws on new scientific discoveries to show how humans are deeply connected to the natural world.
Another prolific writer, Diana Beresford-Kroeger, is “a world recognized author, medical biochemist and botanist. She has a unique combination of western scientific knowledge and the traditional concepts of the ancient world,” says her web page. To Speak for the Trees: My Life’s Journey from Ancient Celtic Wisdom to a Healing Vision of the Forest (Random House, 2019) summarizes her discoveries and beliefs: “…the discovery of mother trees at the heart of a forest; that trees are a living library, have a chemical language and communicate in a quantum world; that they heal living creatures through the aerosols they release and that they carry a great wealth of natural antibiotics and other healing substances…”
Bob Dobrow, Owner of Zenith Bookstore in Duluth, recommends:
Plants Have So Much to Give Us, All We Have to Do Is Ask: Anishinaabe Botanical Teachings, by Mary Siisip Geniusz. University of Minnesota Press, 2015.
Here’s what Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass, says:
“This is a thoroughly engaging, holistic, and vibrant book. Every chapter made me hungry for more. Many plant knowledge treatises are thin soup, but this is hearty and nourishing because it has all the elements that Western scientific plant teachings leave out.”
Underland: A Deep Time Journey, by Robert MacFarlane. W.W. Norton, 2019.
The Guardian reviewed it: “…the tales of adventures are only a takeoff point for discussions of deeper concerns: the relationship between man and landscape, the instability of time and place, and perhaps above all, the fragility of all we are and all we create.”
The Overstory by Richard Powers. W.W. Norton, 2018.
Nathaniel Rich writes in The Atlantic:
“In his tree-mad novel, which contains as many species as any North American forest… trees speak, sing, experience pain, dream, remember the past, and predict the future. The past and the future, it turns out, are mirror images of each other. Neither contains people…”
This Pulitzer Prize winning novel has nine main human characters. One of them concludes that “Humankind is deeply ill… The species won’t last long.” The Atlantic continues: “This is the consensus among Powers’s characters, and it’s a darkly optimistic one. Optimistic for the planet, pessimistic for the fate of humanity. Once man clears out, nature will return.”
From Maureen Maloney at the Duluth Public Library:
The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, by Andrea Wulf. Penguin Random House, 2015
This national best seller reveals the forgotten life of Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), a visionary German naturalist who conceived of nature as a complex and interconnected global force that does not exist for the use of humankind alone. His writings had lasting influences on Darwin, Wordsworth, Goethe, Muir, Thoreau, and many others. If that’s not enough, he predicted climate change!
Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction, by Michelle Nijhuis. W.W. Norton, 2021.
Michael Berry writes in the Christian Science Monitor:
“In reviewing conservation’s advances and missteps, Nijhuis argues that the mission of these efforts must be ‘the protection of biological diversity, ecological complexity, and the evolutionary process—in short, the preservation of possibility…’ Alternately heartbreaking and encouraging, “Beloved Beasts” proposes a larger vision of stewardship—one that extends beyond just winsome or majestic creatures to encompass the entire planet.”
Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors, by Carolyn Finney. University of North Carolina Press, 2014.
Finney argues that the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and racial violence have shaped cultural understandings of the “great outdoors” and determined who should and can have access to natural spaces. She highlights the work of African Americans who are opening doors to greater participation in environmental and conservation concerns.
In Search of The Canary Tree: The story of a Scientist, a Cypress, and a Changing World, by Lauren E. Oakes. Basic Books, 2018.
Let’s let Anna, on GoodReads, describe her reaction: “At first, I thought its uniqueness was in that it approached its thesis through the lens of a single tree species (yellow-cedar) and its Alaska environs. It struck me that this is a refreshingly esoteric approach compared to other popular science books on climate change, which speak in grand terms about impending doom on a variety of fronts. However, the most illuminating parts of this book were the author’s interviews with native inhabitants of the land she studied… The writer is clearly very talented with language and writes with more self-awareness than many in her profession do.”
A World on the Wing: The Global Odyssey of Migratory Birds, by Scott Weidensaul. W.W. Norton. Hardcover 2021; paperback to be published March, 2022.
From the publisher: “[This book conveys] the wonder of bird migration and its global sweep. Pulitzer Prize finalist Scott Weidensaul also introduces readers to those scientists, researchers, and bird lovers trying to preserve global migratory patterns in the face of climate change and other environmental challenges. Drawing on his own extensive fieldwork, in A World on the Wing Weidensaul unveils with dazzling prose the miracle of nature taking place over our heads.”
The Arbornaut: A Life Discovering the Eighth Continent in the Trees Above Us, by Meg Lowman. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021.
From the publisher: “With a voice as infectious in its enthusiasm as it is practical in its optimism, The Arbornaut chronicles Lowman’s irresistible story… Lowman launches us into the life and work of a field scientist, ecologist, and conservationist… A blend of memoir and fieldwork account, The Arbornaut gives us the chance to live among scientists and travel the world—even in a hot-air balloon! It is the engrossing, uplifting story of a nerdy tree climber—the only girl at the science fair—who becomes a giant inspiration, a groundbreaking, ground-defying field biologist, and a hero for trees everywhere.”
A recommendation from a retired Minnesota DNR manager:
Thus Spoke the Plant: A Remarkable Journey of Groundbreaking Scientific Discoveries and Personal Encounters with Plants, by Monica Gagliano.North Atlantic Books, 2018.
A story of up-close-and-personal encounters with plants, plant shamans, indigenous elders, and mystics from around the world. Gagliano is a leader in the emerging field of research that suggests that plants respond to their environments in sophisticated, complex ways. In the New York Times, reviewer Ellie Shechet asked Gagliano if she sometimes wonders if she is going insane. Gagliano replied: “Maybe we should admit that we hardly understand who we are, we hardly understand where we are at, we know very little compared to what there is to know… To be open to explore and learn, I think that is the sign of wisdom, not of madness. And maybe wisdom and madness do look very similar, at some point.”
And here are a few more:
How Animals Grieve, by Barbara J. King. University of Chicago Press, 2013.
On King’s web page, https://tinyurl.com/2p8pkm4z Jessica Pierce, author of The Last Walk, says:
“Barbara King has collected an incredible database of stories about various kinds of animals, and taken together they offer more than enough substance to sustain this book. It is as if she has created a mosaic for her reader. She has collected bits and pieces—individual stories about one animal or another—which by themselves might be little but trifles. But King pastes them together with masterful skill, and the result is a compelling picture of animal grief. We get the feeling that there are still a lot of blank spaces on the canvas, as our scientific understanding is far from complete, but it is only a matter of time before these spaces will begin to fill in. How Animals Grieve is a fascinating book which will interest and inform animal lovers and scientists alike.”
The Ecology of Wisdom: Writings by Arne Naess. Counterpoint, 2009.
From the publisher:
“A founder of the Deep Ecology Movement, Norway’s Arne Naess wrote articles on environmentalism that have provided inspiration for ecologists, philosophers, and activists worldwide. This collection amasses Naess’ most important works in which he calls for nonviolent, cooperative action to protect the Earth… Naess’ writings draw from Eastern religious practices, Gandhian nonviolent direct action, and Spinozan unity systems. Playful and compassionate in tone, Ecology of Wisdom showcases Naess’ exceptional enthusiasm, wit, and spiritual fascination with nature.”
Okay, I’ll admit I’m including this one because of the arresting cover and the Darwin connection.
A Most Remarkable Creature: The Hidden Life and Epic Journey of the World’s Smartest Birds of Prey, by Jonathan Meiburg. Knopf, 2021.
In the Falkland Islands, Darwin met an unusual falcon that was “tame and inquisitive,” “quarrelsome and passionate.” Nearly 200 years later, Meiburg explored the life of these rare birds, now called striated caracaras.
“As curious, wide-ranging, gregarious, and intelligent as its subject.”—Charles C. Mann, author of 1491.
“Wholly captivating natural history… Meiburg’s enthusiasm matches Darwin’s, and readers will share it.”—Kirkus Reviews.
A Thousand Trails Home: Living with Caribou, by Seth Kanter. Mountaineers Books, 2021.
Kirkus Reviews: “Alaska native and conservationist Kantner has been among caribou all his life… [he has worked] preserving migratory pathways and otherwise helping conserve caribou populations in a time of drastic climate change throughout the north country… Readers will gain a new appreciation of these magnificent ruminants through Kantner’s sharply focused eyes.” Especially by savoring the more than 100 color photographs.
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