"The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible." -Vladimir Nobokov

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Five Books for Earth Day

I've always loved Earth Day, but I'm usually not very good at celebrating it. I think that being environmentally conscious starts, not with recycling or water conservation (though those things will come later), but with a deeply rooted appreciation and respect for the natural world. So, to help you celebrate Earth Day, here's a quick list of my favorite books about nature and the environment:

1. Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story about Looking at People Looking at Animals in America by Jon Mooallem

This book was my favorite non-fiction book last year, and it has earned its place in my top 10 books of all time. As the title suggests, it examines the lengths that humans will go to save endangered species, and believe me, we will do dome crazy things. From air-lifting polar bears out of Churchill, Alaska, to tirelessly counting butterflies the size of fingernails, humans will often go to extreme lengths to save certain species but not others. Wrapped up in all of this is science, politics, tourism, and even teddy bears. Wild Ones is a funny, gorgeously written, and at times very poignant look at the way humans view the environment and the animals we share it with. If you only read one book on this list, it should really be this one. 

Bonus: I heard about this book through one of my favorite podcasts, 99% Invisible. In this episode you'll hear parts of the book read aloud with musical accompaniment, and it's one of my favorite things ever.

2. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard

Annie Dillard's strength is observation. Reading this book is a lot like going on a nature walk and suddenly seeing every insect, every bird, every path made by a slug, every place where a frog laid their eggs in shallow water. While reading this book, I found myself looking at an altered world. Sunlight slanted differently through the leaves of trees. The air smelled of pine and earth and water. Everything felt more alive than it had before. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek will teach you, by example, to always be alert to the world around you. What really, could be more important? 

To give you some idea of how powerful her prose is, here is one of my favorite quotes:

"I was sitting on the sycamore log bridge with the sunset at my back, watching the shiners the size of minnows who were feeding over the muddy sand in skitter schools. Again and again, one fish, then another, turned for a split second across the current and flash! the sun shot out from its silver side. I couldn't watch for it. It was always just happening somewhere else, and it drew my vision just as it disappeared [....] So I blurred my eyes and gazed towards the brim of my hat and saw a new world. I saw the pale white circles roll up, roll up, like the world's turning, mute and perfect, and I saw the linear flashes, gleaming silver, like stars being born at random down a rolling scroll of time. Something broke and something opened. I filled up like a new skin. I breathed an air like light; I saw a light like water."

3. Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat

Never Cry Wolf is the (possibly fictionalized?) memoir of a governmental scientist's journey into the Alaskan wilderness. It is a beautiful look not only at a mostly unexplored wilderness, but the people and animals who live there. Originally published in 1963, it's also a fascinating window into the scientific process more than half a century ago. 

Favorite quote: "Somewhere to the east a wolf howled, lightly, questioningly. I knew the voice, for I had heard it many times before. It was George, sounding the wasteland for an echo from the missing members of his family. But for me it was a voice which spoke of the lost world which was once ours before we chose the alien role; a world which I had glimpsed and almost entered, only to be excluded, at the end, by my own self."

Bonus: It also got turned a beautiful and moving film that is definitely worth watching.

4. The Poetry of Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver is one of my favorite poets. She seamlessly interweaves the spiritual world with the natural world, and can encompass both minute detail and vast philosophical ideas in a single stanza. Her poems speak to both the vitality of the human spirit as well as powerful transcendent quality that our environment can bring into our lives. Next time you plan to take a walk in the woods or along the shore of a deserted beach, I highly recommend bringing along a book of Mary Oliver's poetry.

My favorite poem: Wild Geese

Bonus: Here is a rare and wonderful interview that Mary Oliver did on Krista Tippet's podcast/radio show On Being.

5. The Oldest Living Things in the World by Rachel Sussman

I have yet you actually get my hands on this book, but ever since I learned about it on BrainPickings, I can't get it out of my head. The book is the result of a long term project in which Rachel Sussman took it upon herself to photograph the oldest living things on Earth. From 3,000 year old Chilean lichen to the 80,000 year old Pando forest in Utah, this book's beautiful photographs put the fleeting nature of our own lives in sharp relief.

Maria Popova on The Oldest Living Things in the World: "Above all, however, the project raises questions that aren't so much scientific or artistic as profoundly human: What is the meaning of human life if it comes and goes before a patch of moss has reached the end of infancy? How do our petty daily stresses measure up against a struggle for survival stretching back millennia? Who would we be if we relinquished our arrogant conviction that we are Earth's biological crown jewel?"

I think I'll just leave you to sit with this question for a little while. Feel free to leave the titles of your favorite nature-related books in the comments, or if you've read any of the books on this list. Most of all, have a wonderful Earth Day!

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