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25 classics of environmental writing to help with your summer reading list

I consulted some expert sources, along with my own bookshelves, and drew up the list below, cutting it off at 25 for no good reason other than that seemed enough.

There’s something about the turn of a season that makes me want to draw up a new reading list, and the arrival at last of real summer weather got me thinking about classics of environmental writing I might want to revisit or read for the first time.

So I consulted some expert sources, along with my own bookshelves, and drew up the list below, cutting it off at 25 for no good reason other than that seemed enough (and 250 was certainly possible).

The shortest set of recommendations came from Peter Dykstra, the longtime CNN correspondent and producer who now publishes Environmental Health News and listed his top five for the Mother Nature Network. The longest came from the folks at Goodreads (357 titles), and the most eclectic from an Illinois blogger who goes by Wren.

There were others, too, but they began to get duplicative and, anyway, you may have your own favorite recommenders. If so, feel free to share those links — or other favorite titles — in the comments below.

  1. Silent Spring (1962) — loved both for its craft and its impact in alerting Americans to the dangers of heedless pesticide uses, this landmark book and its author, Rachel Carson, are the subject of On a Farther Shore by Minnesota’s William Souder, published last September on Silent Spring’s 50th anniversary.
  2. A Sand County Almanac (1949) — now frequently published with additional essays and supplemental materials, this is Aldo Leopold’s timeless appreciation of wilderness, species, ecology and a conservation ethic that rises from the land itself.
  3. Earth in the Balance (1992) — Al Gore’s earliest and broadest book about global environmental threats including, but not limited to, global warming; followed in 2006 by An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do About It and this year by “The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change.”
  4. Cadillac Desert (1986) — a history of water “development” in the arid West as a pageant of corruption, special-interest politics and wishful thinking, Marc Reisner’s epic is required reading for understanding that region’s water problems and is not without relevance to our own.
  5. Coyotes and Town Dogs (1993) — a personal favorite, Susan Zakin’s “new journalism” approach renders a tedium-free account of environmental radicalism as embodied by Dave Foreman and Earth First! (also, the young and still-to-be-famous Ted Danson, who devoted some time back in the day to toppling billboards along Arizona highways).
  6. The LoraxWalden (1854), by Henry David Thoreau, is on the list because it has to be, although I admit I still struggle with the style. This founding text of American nature and environmental writing is in the public domain for aficionados of the free e-book, as is John Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra (1911), which I prefer.
  7. The Lorax (1971) — Dr. Seuss’ indispensable tool for enlisting the youngest of children into a lifetime of tree-hugging and anti-corporate hostility, but in a nice way.
  8. Field Notes from a Catastrophe  (2006) — Elizabeth Kolbert’s elegant adaptation of New Yorker pieces  remains my favorite treatment of global warming’s unraveling of climate and natural balances as we knew them.
  9. Never Cry Wolf (1963) — Farley Mowat’s treatise on the Arctic wolf, widely credited with inspiring a reconsideration of wolf eradication in latitudes more like ours. I also like his autobiographical Born Naked.
  10. Everyone who loves John McPhee’s books has a favorite, and I suppose mine would be either The Control of Nature (1989) for its look at the folly of trying to keep the Mississippi River from changing course in southern Louisiana, or Encounters With the Archdruid (1972) for its celebration of David Brower’s radical resistance to the federal Bureau of Reclamation in a time when building dams at Grand Canyon was under active consideration.
  11. Ditto Edward Abbey, as to everyone having a personal favorite, but for me there’s a clearer front-runner: Desert Solitaire (1968), a collection of essays and ramblings written from a creaky trailer during the author’s seasonal employment at what was then Arches National Monument. The place is now a national park, replete with the wide roadways and motor-tourist conveniences Abbey railed against, and in a visit to the holy place some years ago I determined that the National Park Service has marked the site of Ed’s old abode, more or less, with a really excellent outhouse.
  12. The World Without Us (2007) — Alan Weisman’s speculative analysis of how the earth we’ve used so thoroughly might respond to our sudden disappearance.
  13. The Omnivore's DilemmaThe Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (2006) — the Michael Pollan book that many would consider his best single synthesis of what’s wrong with modern food systems and diets. OTOH, some might prefer his Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World (2001).
  14. Naturalist (1994) — a personal favorite, E.O. Wilson’s autobiographical tracing of the encounters with nature that shaped his ideas of biophilia and consilience.
  15. The End of Nature (1989) — still perhaps Bill McKibben’s most powerful and accessible work on how greenhouse gases are remaking the world. And while we’re on McKibben, a survey of classic American environmental writing that he edited for the Library of America came out in 2008 under the title American Earth.
  16. Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (1979) — lays out James Lovelock’s rather more optimistic line of thinking about planetary fate and resilience, which has been influential despite the considerable derision it also provokes.
  17. Stalking the Wild Asparagus (1962) — the Euell Gibbons book that launched modern foraging and retains biblical stature for modern seekers after wild food, along with Stalking the Healthful Herbs (1966) and Stalking the Blue-Eyed Scallop (1964).
  18. Last Child in the Woods (2005) — Richard Luov’s sobering look at “nature deficit disorder” and the consequences of raising generations that rarely move beyond the great indoors.
  19. Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (2002) — a genuine manifesto about rethinking sustainability, by William McDonough and Michael Braungart. McDonough gave me a lasting epiphany on a visit to Minneapolis some years ago when he observed that most environmental regulation is aimed at ensuring merely that we poison ourselves and each other more slowly.
  20. Guns, Germs and Steel (1997) — the first volume in Jared Diamond’s stunningly interdisciplinary look at the environmental factors driving the fate of human societies past, present and future, followed by Collapse (2005) and last year’s The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?
  21. The Unsettling of AmericaThe Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (1977) — Wendell Berry’s elegant critique of industrial farming, written with co-author Wes Jackson.
  22. Where the Wild Things Were (2008) — William Stoltzenburg’s look at, in the phrasing of his subtitle, “life, death and ecological wreckage in a land a vanishing predators.”
  23. The Empty Ocean (2004) — a rich, complex, non-scolding history of humankind’s use and overuse of the earthly environments we understand most poorly, and with huge consequences, by Richard Ellis.
  24. Break Through (2007) — an important though by no means universally accepted argument for a positivist, “post-environmental” approach to the politics of environmental protection and stewardship by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger.
  25. Far Tortuga (1975) — OK, this one was on nobody’s list but my own, but Peter Matthiessen’s experimental novel, constructed from fragments of dialogue and glimpses of Caribbean seascape, renders a doomed turtle-fishing trip in a text that is part poem, part screenplay, completely compelling. I never tire of revisiting it, especially at bedtime in the cramped berth of a small sailboat rocking on Lake Pepin.