The best books on humans and their relationship with nature

The Books I Picked & Why

Braiding Sweetgrass

By Robin Wall Kimmerer

Braiding Sweetgrass

Why this book?

If you grew up in a culture prone to separating “nature” and “people” into two separate categories, Braiding Sweetgrass is a gateway into thinking beyond this binary. Robin Wall Kimmerer, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and a botanist, brings Indigenous and western scientific knowledge traditions together to show how plants and animals are our oldest teachers. Braiding Sweetgrass is a tour, at turns humorous and profound, through the lives of strawberries, algae, squash, goldenrod, bays, and ponds – and the people who live with them. Both a collection of essays and a field guide to creating a generous, reciprocal relationship with the communities of people and other beings we live with, Kimmerer is an invigorating read the first time through and a wise companion years down the line. Kimmerer is such a generous presence it only seems right to think of her book as opening onto the varied world of Indigenous relations with what is so insufficiently called “nature” in English. Linda Hogan’s The Radiant Lives of Animals, and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s As We Have Always Done are two of many places to turn next.


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Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape

By Barry Lopez

Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape

Why this book?

Arctic Dreams is a classic, and for good reason. At a sentence level, it’s hard to surpass Lopez’s powerful, precise evocations of places, people, and the relationship between the two. It is also bracingly unsentimental but generous, curious, and suffused with profound moral insights into the nature of being alive, all told through explorations of Arctic places and pasts. Along the way, Lopez guides you through the natural histories of caribou, polar bears, sea ice, and the Arctic from many kinds of human histories, from Inuit to shipwrecked Europeans. It’s a book that teaches you how to see the world more fully, and why you’d want to. Arctic Dreams is a kind ancestor to Robert Macfarlane’s Underland, and shares moral exactitude with Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl, two other books that care deeply and differently about our relationship to the worlds we dream and make.


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Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals

By Alexis Pauline Gumbs

Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals

Why this book?

Many of us ground our relationship to nature and ecosystems through animals: a pet, the songbirds at our feeder, a glimpse of an urban coyote or deer, a favorite species. This short, profound, joy-filled book offers glimpses into the world of bowhead whales, leopard seals, river dolphins and so many others. But it doesn’t stop with natural history, as fascinating as the walrus whiskers and spinning dolphins in this book are: Gumbs teaches us about each species so they can teach us about our own societies. The result is so poetic it begs to be read aloud, and an exuberant but never sentimental eye for living with a sense of wonder and justice. And if Undrowned leaves you wanting more whales, take a look at Rebecca Gigg’s Fathoms and Nick Pyenson’s Spying on Whales.


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

By Lauret Savoy

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

Why this book?

Trace is a masterful combination of history, personal voyaging, and explorations of geological time, blended together in a powerful vision of American landscapes suffused with politics, loss, and memory. Savoy takes us from the San Andreas Fault to the U.S. capital, through national parks and a plantation in South Carolina, attentive in each place to the meetings of natural history and human pasts marked by race, colonization, and migration. Savoy’s prose is luminous, her historical eye unsparing and keenly attuned to what erodes away. It’s a hard book to summarize, but if you live in the United States, will teach you how to see the country from the stones to the sky. And if you finish it wanting more works blending personal narratives with evocations of place and history, take a look at Jennifer J. Lee’s Two Trees Make a Forest and Kerri Arsenault’s Mill Town.


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Tales of Two Planets: Stories of Climate Change and Inequality in a Divided World

By John Freeman

Tales of Two Planets: Stories of Climate Change and Inequality in a Divided World

Why this book?

Any discussion of how people and nature relate to each other in the twenty-first century will come up against the issue of climate change. And there are so many good books to read on the topic – Elizabeth Rush’s Rising comes right to mind, or the collection All We Can Save, edited by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine Wilkinson. What Tale of Two Planets offers is a global perspective on rising seas, changing seasons, and damaging weather through genres from poetry to prose to fiction. Each author brings clarity to the science and politics of climate change, but the sections here are also portraits of love for place and community. If you’ve never read a book on climate change before, it’s a great start; if you’ve read them all, there’s something new and beautiful here.


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