An ongoing series in which Forest Society Communication Coordinator Sophie Oehler shares nature-themed books, movies, and other media that will entertain you through the rest of winter. Find Part II, recommended films, here.
2023 is well under way and if you’re anything like me, you’ve already started and inevitably abandoned at least half a dozen New Year’s goals. This year, though, I’m turning over a new leaf and forcing myself to commit to at least one goal. I’m choosing to read more books.
I used to love reading when I was younger. My parents would ask me to fold laundry and I would do so, begrudgingly, with my chore in one hand and a book in the other. And then school quickly consumed my time and brain power and my beloved paperbacks fell by the wayside, replaced by academic journals and textbooks. Now that I’ve graduated, one would think I’d have more opportunity to sit down with a novel. But I always find an excuse: I’m too busy, the book is too long, Tik Tok is more interesting.
But I’m putting my foot down and committing to reading two books a month. And to keep me honest, each month I'll post a new collection of book recommendations for others wanting to fill their shelves with new titles. Here is my first installment of nature-themed suggestions (some of which I have read, and some of which are on my ‘to read’ pile) that will be a great way to kick off our New Year's intentions (resolutions, by the way, are out).
Feel free to email me some recommendations to be added to the collection. Who knows… maybe next year we’ll have a book club!
by Robin Wall Kimmerer
When I first read this collection of essays, I was a junior in college, smack dab in the middle of online school and isolation. This book was a ray of sunshine during a very dark time. Kimmerer is a Citizen Potawatomi Nation member and a decorated Environment and Forest Biology Professor at SUNY for Environmental Science and Forestry.
Both identities are represented strongly in this anthology, through academic explanations of forest relations, and whimsical anecdotes about picking pecans, and making wild strawberry shortcakes that hide a philosophical message under every stone.
For anyone who considers themselves connected to nature or wants to find further reasons to appreciate the world around them, this book is a must read. Kimmerer’s knowledge and insight to the natural world refreshes the things we already love about the Earth and reminds us of the things we take for granted. Every fellow reader who I have spoken to has shared my enthusiasm, calling it their Bible, a conversation with an old friend, an introduction to a new world of thinking. Though the construction of this book will allow you to read each essay piece by piece, savoring each word, you’ll want to eat it all in one bite.
by Dr. Drew Lanham
Admittedly, this is not a book but rather an essay, and quite a rich one at that. I had the privilege of seeing Lanham speak at the University of Vermont, a presentation that prompted me to read “Forever Gone.” Dr. Lanham specializes in ornithology, which inspired him to write this essay focusing on the extinction of the Carolina parakeet, as well as the extinction of many other famous species — ones whom he titles “Gone Birds.”
“Gone Birds” are any avian species unnecessarily wiped out by humans, be it purposefully or collaterally. This essay compares the plight of Carolina parakeets to that of Black Maroons — self liberated slaves forced to live in the marshes of the South to avoid discovery and return to slavery.
Secluded in the marshes with them were the Carolina parakeets, and many other wild species that white humans had decided were inferior beings not welcome on their farm lands. This essay, written by an ancestor of these African slaves, is a hard hitting statement about the white supremacist roots that the conservation movement sprouts from.
Though Lanham offers little call to action, it is up to people like myself and my predominantly white colleagues to evaluate the way we oversee conservation, to let voices like Lanham’s rise above our own, and to learn from our past, from species like the Gone Birds, and all they have come to represent.
by Pat Shipman
My mother has been recommending this book to me and, quite frankly, anyone who breathes in her general direction since she read it when it came out in 2015. This year, I’ve decided to check out her emphatic referral. This nonfiction book discusses the rise of Homo sapiens, the domestication of “wolf-dogs” and the resulting fall of the Neanderthals.
Shipman’s research has led her to believe that Homo sapiens and their dogs were the Earth’s first true invasive species (hence “The Invaders”), meaning that they might not necessarily have killed off all the Neanderthals, but rather found ways to out-survive them. It is an interesting and, at times, overwhelming testament to the powerful nature of human ingenuity and persistence, and our ability to use our surroundings to our benefit.
I started reading this book with my own dog at my feet while I ate lunch. It is hard to believe that either of us— me, spilling hummus on my jeans and him, begging for baby carrots and sighing when he receives none— could originate from such violent beginnings.
The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature
by David George Haskell
I started reading this in the waiting room of my doctor’s office to pass the endless amount of time one spends there before the nurse finally comes to get you. Haskell’s writing made the time go by much faster. The prologue sets up the reason for the proceeding book: forest mandalas. Mandalas are a meditation practice used by Tibetan monks, commonly made with chalk and colored sand. They have many purposes but, by and large, they are meant to open the mind to the expanse of the universe, to represent the entire cosmos in a single circle.
Forest mandalas are meant to do much the same thing. Observers throw a circle into the woods and spend the year examining their circle's contents, how it changes through the season, and what it can tell us about the forest.
Haskell’s mandala hides in Shakerag Hollow in Sewanee, Tennessee, a place I have visited often (perhaps why I was drawn to the collection). In the three chapters I have read so far, Haskell has stripped naked in the Tennessee snow to understand what the chickadees feel come winter, ensured me that I am never alone because there is always lichen growing nearby, and unlocked a new personal fear: horsehair worms which grow inside crickets, all the while hijacking the insect’s brain to convince it to drown itself, at which point the worm rips a hole in the cricket’s abdomen and escapes into the world.
This book proves that, just like in nature, there is always something happening, something to learn from, if only we are patient enough to see it. I emerge renewed after each chapter.
by Cheryl Strayed
As someone who grew up hiking, this book had always seemed something of a fool’s errand. And at first glance, it is: young woman hikes the Pacific Crest Trail without any prior experience or knowledge or even preparation, gets into some mishaps, considers failing, inevitably doesn’t. But this book is so much more than just that.
I was convinced to read this after reading one of Strayed’s essays, “Love of my Life” which details the events following the loss of her mother. It is raw and real, and I fell in love with her writing and decided to give her memoir a shot. It is now one of my favorite books.
The death of her mother is, in fact, what inspired Cheryl to embark on her journey up the PCT, after a devastating divorce and tumultuous affair with heroin addiction. The book oscillates between her tales of the trail, her memories of her mother, and her experience dealing with grief. And though, it’s true, she makes some frankly embarrassing mistakes along the way (so much so that at points I was willing her to give up, just to save her from herself), in a way it is all very fitting.
It is a journey of the human experience, of human life and human loss, of discovery, of exploration, and in the end, the wild. And what is ever perfect, sensical or straightforward about that?
Hope in the Dark
by Rebecca Solnit
A disclaimer: this book is not about nature. But, with climate change trudging steadily forward, dragging us along behind it, I feel it is an important one to include. I read a segment of this brief but bright book for a college English class and haven’t stopped thinking about it since. So much so that when I saw it in a bookstore, I ignored the price tag and bought it straight away.
Solnit’s book is a persuasive attempt to reverse the way we look at our future, to celebrate our victories, and to move forward with optimism rather than with fear. She offers testimony to why we aren’t doomed just yet, anecdotes of success in our past, and why those might prove useful in our future. Her first sentence is a quote from Virginia Woolfe: “The future is dark, which is on the whole, the best thing the future can be, I think.”
Solnit (and through her Woolfe) aims to tell you that a dark and uncertain future does not have to mean doom. Though darkness and fear have often come in tandem, there is no reason why we should look ahead towards a cloudy “to come” and drag our heels in hesitation. I recently had a conversation with a peer in which they declared that they didn’t feel like participating in climate change education for fear of depressing everyone, including themselves.
I empathize with that sentiment. Climate grief weighs heavy on my shoulders too, especially after a green Christmas, and during a so far rather brown January. And as Dr. Drew Lanham writes, “Choose wildlife conservation as a profession and you’re surrounded by loss…it can be an unhealthy undertaking that drains one’s reserves of hope.” Which is why I implore all of you to read this, or at least read something that fills you with a sense of joy or hope for the future —naturalists, conservationists, everyone else alike.
What a waste it would be to wallow in our own self destruction and watch salvation slip slowly by. Continue not in fear, but in spite of it. Continue with hope, with purpose, with reason, of which we are all full of if only we look inwards to find it. Don’t give up on us yet, folks. Who knows what lies in the future. And what a blessing that is.
To email Sophie with book suggestions, comments or concerns, contact email@example.com