Starting in the 18th century, the natural world became a popular nonfiction subject for writers. Charles Darwin (The Voyage of the Beagle, The Origin of Species), John James Audobon (The Audobon Reader), and Gilbert White (The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne) are all well-known in certain circles, but the person most associated with the early popularity of nature writing is Henry David Thoreau. His pioneering work Walden; or, Life in the Woods, published in 1854, was a captivating blend of personal discovery, transcendentalist philosophy, and natural description.You needn’t look back over 150 years for examples of great nature writing, and you needn’t give up all modern luxuries, like running water and wireless internet, to appreciate the wonder of nature. A great place to start is The Best American Science and Nature Writing series. The 2010 edition is edited by theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson, and while there is a healthy selection of scientific essays, there are also a number of wonderful ruminations on nature. The stand-outs include Don Stap’s “Flight of the Kuaka,” an impressively far-reaching migratory bird, and a piece by Jane Goodall on the rediscovery of a presumed-extinct phasmid (a type of insect). Big names like Goodall are also a good place to start if you’re looking for specific books. Goodall has been publishing continuously since 1969, starting with the now-out-of-print My Friends the Wild Chimpanzees. Most of her works center on the relationships between animals, humans, and the environment, as in her acclaimed 1971 work In the Shadow of Man.Christopher Camuto’s trilogy of books centered on the Appalachian Mountains is more concerned with the environment in general. Ruminations on a variety of subjects work their way into his books, including the language of the Cherokee tribe, historical life in the mountains, and the reintroduction of the red wolf into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The trilogy includes A Fly Fisherman’s Blue Ridge, Another Country: Journeying Toward the Cherokee Mountains, and Hunting from Home: A Year in the Blue Ridge Mountains.As with any type of writing, not every nature writer will appeal to every reader. However, reading a good nature book is a good way to remind yourself that there’s a whole world out there, and that each of your actions affects it in some way.
February 1, 2012