The best books to help you get deep in the wilderness

Who am I?

When I first started reading about wilderness, I accepted it as an obvious thing—a place without people. That lasted a short time before I realized the enormous historical complexity of such places. Rather than places without people, without history, without politics, “wilderness” became a laboratory of American society. I tried to capture that vibrancy in my book An Open Pit Visible from the Moon where I showed all the claims various people made on one wilderness area in the North Cascades. I'm a writer, historian, and former college professor who now calls the Skagit Valley of Washington home. As much as I enjoy studying wilderness, I prefer walking through it and noticing what it teaches.


I wrote...

An Open Pit Visible from the Moon: The Wilderness Act and the Fight to Protect Miners Ridge and the Public Interest

By Adam M. Sowards,

Book cover of An Open Pit Visible from the Moon: The Wilderness Act and the Fight to Protect Miners Ridge and the Public Interest

What is my book about?

In the mid-1960s, Kennecott Copper Corporation planned to develop an open-pit mine in the middle of a designated wilderness area in the North Cascades—something that was entirely legal. An Open Pit Visible from the Moon tells the story of why that mine does not exist today.

As a compromise, the Wilderness Act of 1964 allowed mining and prospecting in wilderness areas, but the effort to protect Miners Ridge tested to see if that compromise would stand. The book describes the scrappy activists who took on Kennecott—from students and local backpackers to a cabinet secretary and a Supreme Court justice—to insist that this wilderness should not have a big pit dug in its heart.

The books I picked & why

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Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape

By Lauret Savoy,

Book cover of Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape

Why this book?

To read Trace is to go on a mesmerizing journey with the wisest of guides. Savoy searches for American identities, and her own multifaceted ones, in the history and memory of landscapes across the continent. Every turn reveals tragic histories and surprising connections and omissions with the most beautiful language. Savoy excavates the palimpsest of stories embedded in landscapes’ histories in a helpful reminder that “nature” is always entangled with the richness and complexity of human life. With each careful word, Savoy deepened my appreciation for how landscape absorbs and reflects its history—and my admiration for her unbelievable gifts as a writer. Trace is one of those books you can read each year and your respect for it grows and the insights from it enlarge your life every time.


Desert Cabal: A New Season in the Wilderness

By Amy Irvine,

Book cover of Desert Cabal: A New Season in the Wilderness

Why this book?

Amy Irvine’s Desert Cabal knocked me out! She takes on a sacred idea—wilderness—and a sacred text—Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire—and both celebrates and criticizes them with a fierce love and integrity. Fifty years after Abbey’s classic book was published, Irvine engages it, challenges it, wrestles with it—finding its author by turns inspiring and irritating while rendering her observations in prose as beautiful and sharp-edged as her beloved Utah desert. Opposed to the long-celebrated lone individualist that Abbey embodied, Irvine proposes a cabal, “a group gathered to conspire, to resist.” It’s an updated, more inclusive, more natural vision. Count me in!


The Promise of Wilderness: American Environmental Politics since 1964

By James Morton Turner,

Book cover of The Promise of Wilderness: American Environmental Politics since 1964

Why this book?

At times, what we most need is a deeply researched, carefully argued, and exhaustively covered history of a topic. Turner provides that essential guidebook to wilderness politics after the passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964. Cutting through slogans and ideology, Turner shows pragmatic strategies, evolving practices, and the political nature of wilderness. I turn to The Promise of Wilderness whenever I want to know what happened and why it mattered. And also, because Turner sees wilderness activism as a key component to modern democracy, a lesson in engaged citizenship—and that inspires me. 


After Preservation: Saving American Nature in the Age of Humans

By Ben A. Minteer (editor), Stephen J. Pyne (editor),

Book cover of After Preservation: Saving American Nature in the Age of Humans

Why this book?

Rarely has a collection of essays inspired and perplexed me as much as this one. One chapter argues one thing; the next argues its near-opposite. And both are persuasive! After Preservation is designed to raise fundamental questions about nature, wilderness, and the Anthropocene without providing definitive answers. I didn’t close the book with answers, but I did close it knowing more, thinking harder, and questioning what I believed. If we are meant to save nature—or if we are merely meant to understand why that’s a fraught concept—we’ll need to grapple with ideas and practicalities like these authors do. 


Aldo Leopold: A Sand County Almanac & Other Writings on Conservation and Ecology

By Aldo Leopold,

Book cover of Aldo Leopold: A Sand County Almanac & Other Writings on Conservation and Ecology

Why this book?

I first read A Sand County Almanac in college, and it inspired me to think deeply about nature. In fact, it helped inspire my career. Aldo Leopold wrestled with our obligations to wild creatures and places arguably more seriously than any contemporary. This is the sort of book where you can open a random page, read a passage, and spend the rest of the afternoon mulling over the ideas, their implications, and the beauty of their expression. This volume collects not only his most famous book but dozens of articles and letters where you can see his mind evolving and changing. Leopold modeled an integrity and a curious mind at work that I try to emulate. I know I’m not alone. 


5 book lists we think you will like!

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