Anyone who has a serious interest in the intersection of nature and American literature hears about the core canon of books that focus on environment and ecology—books you almost can’t avoid learning about, either in school, or from friends and colleagues, or through general exposure to the field.
And there are plenty of good reasons that these books make up the canon—these are the ones that mapped out the ideas that American environmentalism (albeit an environmentalism forged mostly by white people) is based on. These are books like Walden, A Sand County Almanac, Silent Spring, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Arctic Dreams, Desert Solitaire, Refuge, American Primitive, The Unsettling of America, and Axe Handles. (There—I’ve given away my top ten.) People who read Terrain.org probably know most or all of these books.
But all of us have also read lesser-known books that mean just as much to us. A book we stumbled upon in a bookstore, or was given to us by a friend, or saw at someone’s house. Books we intuited were meaningful to us, even though we had never heard of them, or the author, or either. Maybe these are the books we hold closest to our hearts, because they are so especially personal.
Here’s a list of books I came upon early in my reading career—in my 20s and 30s—that made all the difference to me. And were ones that I felt I had “discovered”—that were somehow my books.
Dolores LaChappelle was a writer, skier, climber, mountaineer, philosopher, and early student of deep ecology. For me and my college friends at the University of Colorado in the 1970s, these two books came close to being our bibles—no other author we knew of blended outdoor experience and reverence for nature in the way Dolores did. Moreover, her books—especially Earth Festivals—gave us actual ideas about how love for the planet could be expressed and celebrated. These books are long out of print but findable in used bookstores and websites that specialize in out-of-print books.
Susan Griffin, Woman and Nature (Counterpoint, 1978)
A remarkable book that, in its connection of patriarchy and environmental injustice, was decades ahead of its time. The book is not just a detonation of sexism, but also a detonation of the language, attitudes, ideas, philosophy, and spiritual concepts that people used (and use) to to divide people from the natural world. On reflection, it’s extraordinary how far out ahead this author was from anyone else in the field. And it’s disturbing to think about how long it took for other authors and readers to catch up with her.
Pattiann Rogers, The Tattooed Lady in the Garden (Wesleyan Poetry, 1987)
Every reader of nature poetry knows Mary Oliver and Gary Snyder. But for me, Pattiann is the consummate nature poet, and is still, in my opinion, critically underrecognized. No one mashes science, animals, desire, family, and fantasy together in the way she does, and no one writes love songs to the natural world like hers. Who else could write this line about a horned lizard: “No touch to its body, even from its own kind / Could ever be delicate or caressing.” This book is long out of print, but multiple books of Pattiann’s collected poems can be found; for example, Firekeeper (Milkweed Editions).
Erazim Kohák, The Embers and the Stars: A Philosophical Inquiry into the Moral Sense of Nature (University of Chicago Press, 1987)
David Rothenberg put me onto this little-known book, which has shaped my thinking about nature as much as any other. Kohák, living alone in a cabin in New Hampshire, criticizes Thoreau, but I’ve never read a modern book that was as much like Walden. Ethics, morality, communion, the impact of technology on the human psyche, and the quest for self-knowledge clash in this strange, challenging, uncategorizable book. Since I read it, barely a day has gone by when I haven’t thought about it. Incredibly, it’s still in print.
Seth Kantner, Ordinary Wolves (Milkweed Editions, 2003)
This one is later, and comes with the disclaimer that it was published at Milkweed Editions while I was editor-in-chief there. But holy moly, what a book, one in which ancient and modern perspectives on the value of nature collide in ways that leave the reader both shaken and hopeful. Not to mention that the writing is breathtaking and the storytelling exemplary. In my view, this is required reading for anyone who is trying to understand why multiplicity, inclusion, and diversity are so important to a healthy culture.
Header photo by danfador, courtesy Pixabay.