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The best environmental books we’ve read in 2016

I polled our contributors to see what books they’ll remember best from 2016.

And here we have it — some of which we’ve reviewed and some of which we hope to still…

 

Anna Monders


Last of the Giants: The Rise and Fall of Earth’s Most Dominant Species by Jeff Campbell

 

Midge Raymond

The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf
This book examines the life of the oft-forgotten founder of the modern environmentalist movement, Alexander von Humboldt, and his story is a timely one, especially in an era in which climate change is still not receiving the attention it needs in order to save the planet.

 


Marrow Island by Alexis M. Smith
This novel envisions environmental catastrophe on several levels. With a narrative that alternates between the narrator’s past visit to the Washington state island and her current life in Oregon, Smith’s novel portrays the connections between eco-disasters natural and man-made, between relationships past and present, and how we recover — or do not — from landscapes forever changed.

 


Up to this Pointe by Jennifer Longo
A delightful, wholly original novel that brings YA readers to territory not often visited in this genre: Antarctica. While the novel doesn’t tackle environmental issues head-on, its glimpses of Antarctica’s natural beauty, details on research in eco-marine biology, and the fact that the protagonist is a vegetarian all subtly link this novel with environmental awareness.

 

Jacki Skole

Only the Animals, by Ceridwen Dovey, explores what it means to be human in an extraordinary series of short stories narrated by animals caught up in conflicts dating back to the late nineteenth century.

 

In Lab Girl, Hope Jahren digs into the inner life of plants and into her own life to create a memoir that is as much about her as it is about the natural world we all inhabit.

 

John Yunker

Barkskins by Annie Proulx

Where Sometimes a Great Notion is a testament to the forests along the coast range of Oregon, Barkskins is a testament to all forests.

 

My Last Continent by Midge Raymond

An epic love story at the bottom of the earth. Perhaps I’m a bit biased but I do believe this book is one of the best books of the year.

 

Center for Humans and Nature’s Best Books of 2016

Coming of Age at the End of Nature: A Generation Faces Living on a Changed Planet, Julie Dunlap and Susan Cohen, eds., Trinity University Press

It’s a collection of essays by young adults (in their 20s to early 30s) writers, exploring the realities of a rapidly changing natural world and our response to it.

 

The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature, by Drew Lanham, Milkweed Editions, 2016.

The Home Place is a remarkable meditation on nature and belonging, a deeply moving memoir and riveting exploration of the contradictions of black identity in the rural South and in America today.

 

The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy by Michael McCarthy, New York Review Books

Acclaimed British environmental journalist and essayist Michael McCarthy weaves his personal experience growing up in rural England and his close observations as a naturalist into a beautiful reminder of what biophilia can really mean.

 

Decolonizing Nature: Contemporary Art and the Politics of Ecology by T.J. Demos,  Sternberg Press
Art historian and culture critic T.J. Demos brings together contemporary new theoretical directions in political ecology and philosophies of the “post-Natural condition” with contemporary eco-activist and art movements from around the world. Drawing from indigenous traditions that are very old and scientific thinking that is very new, the book is a guide to emerging new visions—and visualizations—of the relationships between humans and the Earth.

Ecological Governance: Toward a New Social Contract with the Earth by Bruce Jennings, West Virginia University PressCenter for Humans and Nature Senior Fellow Bruce Jennings argues that both technological innovation and a transformation of values will be needed in a transition to a post-fossil carbon world. He explores the pathway from a social contract of consumption to a social contract of trusteeship through new modes of freedom, justice, solidarity, and ecological democratic governance.

 

Born on Third Base: A One Percenter Makes the Case for Tackling Inequality, Bringing Wealth Home, and Committing to the Common Good by Chuck Collins, Chelsea Green Publishing

What are the responsibilities of the rich? Especially in this political moment as the gap between the haves and have-nots continues to increase? Born into the one percent, Chuck Collins gave away his inheritance at 26 and spent the next three decades mobilizing against inequality. He delivers a narrative and challenge to other unrooted one percenters to invest themselves into communities and to use their wealth and power to respond to issues such as climate change.

 

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben, Greystone Books
Imagine that trees talk to each other, care for their children, as well as care for the sick and elderly. Imagine that trees can scream in pain and mourn their dead. Then read The Hidden Life of Trees to ground your imagination in reality. You will never look at trees the same way again.

 

Great Tide Rising: Towards Clarity and Moral Courage in a time of Planetary Change by Kathleen Dean Moore, Counterpoint Press

Philosopher and nature essayist Kathleen Dean Moore takes on the questions: Why is it wrong to wreck the world? What is our obligation to the future? What is the transformative power of moral resolve? How can clear thinking stand against the lies and illogic that batter the chances for positive change? And always this: What stories and ideas will lift people who deeply care, inspiring them to move forward with clarity and moral courage?

 

Fracture: Essay Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America, Stefanie Brook Trout and Taylor Brorby, eds., Ice Cube Press

More than fifty writers explore the complexities of fracking through first-hand experience, investigative journalism, story-telling, and verse—exposing fracking’s effects on local communities as well as its global impacts.

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Patterns in Nature: Why the Natural World Looks the Way It Does

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Patterns in Nature by Philip Ball is a gorgeous book, dense with full-color photos, including:

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The book is divided into thematic chapters, such as Symmetry, Spirals, Waves and Dunes, Bubbles and Foam. What’s fascinating is the breadth of photographs and how they visually unite geologic phenomena, flora and fauna, such as the similarities between an owl and a butterfly’s wings:

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The “why” behind these various patterns are explained by the author through brief lessons on physics and chemical properties. But these are only high-level explanations and the author freely admits that we don’t really know why so many animals look the way they do.

What I most appreciated about the book was how I found myself rediscovering patterns in nature simply by looking outside the window. It’s important to stop to appreciate the artistic genius of a leaf or a snowflake or your cat’s fur coat. To quote the late Alexander McQueen: There is no better designer than nature.

And, in the end, we all need patterns — humans and non-humans alike.

If you buy this book, buy it for the pictures. Those alone are worth the price.

Patterns in Nature: Why the Natural World Looks the Way It Does
University of Chicago Press

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Book Review: Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv

People of a certain age (myself included) remember growing up outside. Our families opened the doors, shooed us out, and shut them again, leaving us free to wander through our neighborhoods, parks, and/or wild places, making up our own games. I have particularly vivid memories of being let loose on the beaches of Southern California, with only a vague notion of adults close enough to make sure we didn’t drown or get too sunburned but otherwise being free to run around, swim, and build and destroy things in the sand.

These are memories that today’s children may never have, worries Richard Louv, and his book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder outlines the risks, challenges, and solutions for children who are growing up indoors.

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Last Child in the Woods is a comprehensive book, even a bit daunting at first glance, but it should be required reading for anyone with children in their lives. Based on meticulous research and using anecdotes as well as science, Louv takes a close look at the changes in society that have distanced today’s kids from nature — as well as the changes children’s physical and social lives — and offers both stark warnings and hopeful solutions.

Divided into seven sections (beginning with quotations from writers from Whitman to Thoreau to Frost, and many others), Last Child in the Woods covers the immense gifts that nature offers us humans as well as the onset of fears that often cause parents to keep their kids too close. Louv offers data that indicate how the benefits of nature and outdoor physical activity can help with many of the problems that plague childhood populations. To offer a few examples: One study shows that the amount of TV children watch correlates with measures of their body fat; Cornell University researchers discovered that even a room with a view of nature can protect children from stress; natural surroundings encourage boys and girls to engage in make-believe play in egalitarian ways; researchers recommend nature to minimize symptoms of ADHD (“[e]ven without corroborating evidence, many parents notice significant changes in their hyperactive child’s behavior when they hike in the mountains or enjoy other nature-oriented settings”).

In addition to changes caused by housing developments — such as homeowners’ association rules or a lack of green space — issues from stranger danger to fear of the outdoors also prevent children from running around outside. Yet Louv points out that so many perceived dangers are overly hyped, and that in fact, more dangers lurk indoors than out, from toxins to poisonous spiders (the brown recluse, as one example, prefers to live indoors) to allergens to the very real risk of obesity.

Not only are there short-term and developmental effects from what Louv calls nature-deficit disorder, but distance from nature can have a wide-reaching effect on our planet’s well-being in the long run as well: “Lacking direct experience with nature, children begin to associate it with fear and apocalypse, not joy and wonder.” How can children be expected to preserve and protect something they fear rather than love?

Last Child in the Woods is powerful and important, though there is one especially disappointing section of the book, in which Louv makes “the case for hunting and fishing.” While Louv admits he does not encourage hunting, he does encourage fishing, acknowledging “the slim moral logic” dividing the two. While he offers a bit of balance, citing PETA’s objections to fishing as a sport taught in Scouting programs and quoting a young spokesperson who says, “Scouting has taught me that Scouts should not harm the environment or animals in it,” Louv nevertheless goes on to encourage fishing as a way to engage with nature—a very poor message to send to children if we want them to respect the environment in a non-destructive way. And anyone who wants to make an argument for catch-and-release should read Virginia Morell’s Animal Wise (just for starters), which makes clear that, with pain receptors on their heads (trout have twenty-two of them), fish do feel pain; there is simply no way to catch fish that is not cruel or violent, and it’s a shame that Louv encourages fishing as a way for children to engage with the natural world.

Still, otherwise the book offers other good tips and advice for bringing kids into nature. For anyone who might feel overwhelmed by the usual stressors such as a lack of time or travel funds, Louv reminds us to start with small steps: “Encourage your child to get to know a ten-square-yard area at the edge of a field, pond, or pesticide-free garden.Look for the edges between habitats: where the trees stop and a field begins; where rocks and earth meet water. Life is always at the edges.”

Louv emphasizes that the solutions will need to go beyond parenting to educators, school systems, camps, neighborhoods, and cities—but that spending quality time in nature is as essential to children’s development as it is to the care-taking of the planet we call home. “Nature—the sublime, the harsh, and the beautiful—offers something that the street or gated community cannot. Nature presents the young with something so much greater than they are; it offers an environment where they can easily contemplate infinity and eternity…Immersion in the natural environment cuts to the chase, exposes the young directly and immediately to the very elements from which humans evolved: earth, water, air, and other living kin, large and small.”