The best books about how humanity fouled the waters and why we need wetlands to help clean it up

Sharon Levy Author Of The Marsh Builders: The Fight for Clean Water, Wetlands, and Wildlife
By Sharon Levy

Who am I?

I fell in love with the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary thirty years ago, when I first moved to town. At the time, I was working as a field biologist, and I loved to hang out at the marsh and birdwatch—I’d see everything from pelicans to peregrine falcons. Later I shifted from field biology to science writing, and some of my first articles were about how the Arcata Marsh serves both as a wildlife habitat and a means of treating the city’s sewage. I learned about the grassroots movement that created the marsh, and the global history of wetlands loss. I’ve been hooked on wetlands ever since.

I wrote...

The Marsh Builders: The Fight for Clean Water, Wetlands, and Wildlife

By Sharon Levy,

Book cover of The Marsh Builders: The Fight for Clean Water, Wetlands, and Wildlife

What is my book about?

The majority of the original wetlands in the US have vanished, transformed into farm fields, or buried under city streets. The Marsh Builders delves into the intertwined histories of wetlands loss and water pollution. 

The book’s springboard is the tale of a citizen uprising in Humboldt County, California, which led to the creation of one of the first US wetlands designed to treat city sewage. The book explores the global roots of this local story: the cholera epidemics that plagued 19th-century Europe; the researchers who invented modern sewage treatment after bumbling across the insight that microbes break down contaminants in water; the discovery that wetlands act as powerful filters for the pollution unleashed by modern humanity.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise

Why did I love this book?

During research for my book, I visited manmade wetlands in south Florida, built to filter farm runoff from the water before it flows into Everglades National Park. These constructed wetlands are thick with alligators, spoonbills, storks, hawks, and other wildlife—but they’re just an echo of the surviving Glades. Now among the most cherished natural areas on Earth, in the settlement era the Everglades was written off as wasted space. Early in the 20th century the northern half of the Everglades was drained and turned into sugar fields. Today polluted runoff from those farms threatens the surviving remnants of the Everglades ecosystem. 

Grunwald’s book shows the human quirks and greed that drove the Everglades’ destruction, and that sometimes get in the way of its restoration.

By Michael Grunwald,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Swamp as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“Brilliant.” —The Washington Post Book World * “Magnificent.” —The Palm Beach Post * “Rich in history yet urgently relevant to current events.” —The New Republic

The Everglades in southern Florida were once reviled as a liquid wasteland, and Americans dreamed of draining it. Now it is revered as a national treasure, and Americans have launched the largest environmental project in history to try to save it.

The Swamp is the stunning story of the destruction and possible resurrection of the Everglades, the saga of man's abuse of nature in southern Florida and his unprecedented efforts to make amends. Michael Grunwald,…

Book cover of The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic—And How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World

Why did I love this book?

Johnson’s exploration of a public health crisis and science in the making was one of the references I used in writing my own book. In August 1854, hundreds of people in the impoverished Golden Square neighborhood of London fell violently ill. Many died. By mapping the movements of the victims, Dr. John Snow traced the source of the infection to the Broad Street pump, a public water source that had been contaminated with Vibrio cholerae, the bacterium that causes cholera. Johnson’s account shows how a normally benign microbe was rendered deadly in a crowded mass of people who ended up drinking their own sewage—at a time before the existence of microbes was known. 

By Steven Johnson,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Ghost Map as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A National Bestseller, a New York Times Notable Book, and an Entertainment Weekly Best Book of the Year

It's the summer of 1854, and London is just emerging as one of the first modern cities in the world. But lacking the infrastructure-garbage removal, clean water, sewers-necessary to support its rapidly expanding population, the city has become the perfect breeding ground for a terrifying disease no one knows how to cure. As the cholera outbreak takes hold, a physician and a local curate are spurred to action-and ultimately solve the most pressing medical riddle of their time.

In a triumph of…

The Great Stink

By Clare Clark,

Book cover of The Great Stink

Why did I love this book?

While researching my book, I learned about the sewers of Victorian London. The hideous load of pollution they carried stank unbearably, caused epidemics, and later inspired the invention of modern sewage treatment. This mystery novel takes us into the dank hell of those sewers. A fictional war veteran named William May roams this subterranean world as a surveyor for engineer Joseph Bazalgette, a real-life figure responsible for redesigning London’s sewer system and saving thousands of lives. Reading this novel is as close as one can get to that time and place.

By Clare Clark,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Great Stink as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A mystery that offers “a gripping and richly atmospheric glimpse into the literal underworld of Victorian England—the labyrinthine London sewer system” (Publishers Weekly, starred review).
Clare Clark’s critically acclaimed The Great Stink “reeks of talent” as it vividly brings to life the dark and mysterious underworld of Victorian London (The Washington Post Book World). Set in 1855, it tells the story of William May, an engineer who has returned home to London from the horrors of the Crimean War. When he secures a job trans­forming the city’s sewer system, he believes that he will be able to find salvation in…

Book cover of Water Always Wins: Thriving in an Age of Drought and Deluge

Why did I love this book?

This is a book I would love to have researched and written myself. Gies moves beyond my own book’s story of constructed wetland projects to report on the many other ways people are restoring the natural functions of water: breaking dams, busting apart concretized stream channels. Allowing water to run slow through wetlands and the twisty course of restored natural channels can revive fish and wildlife populations, reduce pollution and flooding, and help sustain people. From the marshes of Iraq to the ancient irrigation channels of Peru, this book will change the way you understand water.

By Erica Gies,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Water Always Wins as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A hopeful journey around the world and across time, illuminating better ways to live with water. 

Nearly every human endeavor on the planet was conceived and constructed with a relatively stable climate in mind. But as new climate disasters remind us every day, our world is not stable—and it is changing in ways that expose the deep dysfunction of our relationship with water. Increasingly severe and frequent floods and droughts inevitably spur calls for higher levees, bigger drains, and longer aqueducts. But as we grapple with extreme weather, a hard truth is emerging: our development, including concrete infrastructure designed to…

Book cover of Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter

Why did I love this book?

Long before I learned anything about their ecology, I was fascinated by beavers and their flair for building. Beaver dams change the courses of streams and create habitat for willows, fish, frogs, songbirds, even elk and wolves. Goldfarb’s book tells the story of the beavers’ destruction by fur hunters, the way their loss changed the way water flowed through all of North America, and the ways people are working to bring them back.

By Ben Goldfarb,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Eager as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

WINNER of the 2019 PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award

Washington Post "50 Notable Works of Nonfiction"

Science News "Favorite Science Books of 2018"

Booklist "Top Ten Science/Technology Book of 2018"

"A marvelously humor-laced page-turner about the science of semi-aquatic rodents.... A masterpiece of a treatise on the natural world."-The Washington Post

In Eager, environmental journalist Ben Goldfarb reveals that our modern idea of what a healthy landscape looks like and how it functions is wrong, distorted by the fur trade that once trapped out millions of beavers from North America's lakes and rivers. The consequences of losing beavers were…

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