The best books on fieldwork in wild places

William E. Glassley Author Of A Wilder Time: Notes from a Geologist at the Edge of the Greenland Ice
By William E. Glassley

Who am I?

I am a geologist who studies the origin and evolution of continents, which has required traveling the world to conduct fieldwork. Most of that experience has focused on Greenland and the wilderness fringe that bounds the inland ice cap. For weeks at a time, I and two colleagues, John Korstgård and Kai Sørensen, camp in some of the world’s greatest wilderness landscapes. Over years of such research, I have come to treasure the exquisite emotional power fieldwork in wilderness settings provides. It is the most direct way to begin the journey of understanding the place of humanity in the unfolding progress of cosmic evolution and was the impetus for my recent book.

I wrote...

A Wilder Time: Notes from a Geologist at the Edge of the Greenland Ice

By William E. Glassley,

Book cover of A Wilder Time: Notes from a Geologist at the Edge of the Greenland Ice

What is my book about?

Conducting research in Greenland requires living in the wilderness for weeks at a time. The isolation from the rest of the world gifts the researcher with such deep experiences of nature that they transform how one sees existence. In this book, I describe the emotional experiences that were the incessant background to the scientific enterprise we undertook. Expedition after expedition laid bare the power of the natural world when it is free of the superficial human impacts mankind invariably imposes on a place.

The book is an homage to wild places, the emotional truths they convey, and the importance of preserving what is left of them.

The books I picked & why

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The Log from the Sea of Cortez

By John Steinbeck,

Book cover of The Log from the Sea of Cortez

Why this book?

Although best known for his extraordinary works of fiction, John Steinbeck’s sensitivity to place is most profoundly exposed in this daily account of his expedition to the Gulf of California with his good friend and marine biologist, Ed Ricketts. Their research on this remote body of water carried them into a world of deep insights about life, philosophy, and the nature of being that Steinbeck’s exquisite prose allows the reader to experience. Repeatedly, the important consequences of living in isolation from the rest of the world is beautifully conveyed. A lyrical unity of science, reflection, solitude, and the value of wilderness.

The Fragile Edge: Diving and Other Adventures in the South Pacific

By Julia Whitty,

Book cover of The Fragile Edge: Diving and Other Adventures in the South Pacific

Why this book?

The relationship between ourselves and the sea is commonly constrained by beaches and tides. But Julia Whitty, deep-sea diver, and filmmaker opens the mind to the richness of deep waters through the scientific and soulful journeys she poetically shares in this book. Her time spent working in the South Pacific allows an expansion of our own experiences of the wild world. The delicate relationships of life’s many forms, from whales and sharks to rays and coral, contained within Earth’s liquid artistry, offers an opportunity to enrich our understanding of connections we seldom perceive but which, once acknowledged, expand the perception of life’s wealth.

Ice Rivers: A Story of Glaciers, Wilderness, and Humanity

By Jemma Wadham,

Book cover of Ice Rivers: A Story of Glaciers, Wilderness, and Humanity

Why this book?

Academic research into glacial processes seldom inspires deep reflection, but this fine book dramatically changes that narrative. Although Jemma Wadham does an outstanding job providing an introduction to the physical science of glaciology, her emotionally rich descriptions of many expeditions to study the melting ice around the world underscores why fieldwork matters. She frankly presents personal challenges, life-threatening health issues, and the arduous reality of living on the fringe of massive ice sheets and glaciers in a way that exposes the deeply human experience of academic scientific research in wild nature.

The Immense Journey

By Loren Eiseley,

Book cover of The Immense Journey

Why this book?

In this eloquent exploration, Loren Eiseley poetically describes his experiences conducting anthropological field research, and the reflections that work inspired. The Immense Journey is that rare blend of scientific curiosity, wonder, and wisdom that humbly explores the deep questions about human existence, inspiring rather than preaching. Although conveying with precision field observations and research endeavors, this book is, in reality, a literary masterpiece.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

By Annie Dillard,

Book cover of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Why this book?

In the domain of nature writing, few books are as wondrous as Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. In a voice that is uniquely creative and with an eye that probes below immediate impressions, Annie Dillard delves into the purest world of emotional experience of place. Her prose invariably captivates and surprises. Although her field excursions were local her vision was vast. This book revolutionized my view of fieldwork and nature writing, teaching me that brilliant writing, ingeniously phrased, can transport the imagination to a new sense of the world.

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