The best books on loss and hope in the southern Appalachian environment

Who am I?

I moved from Ohio to southern Appalachia in 1978 to take a temporary job teaching philosophy at the University of Tennessee.  I hadn’t planned to stay, but I fell in love with the mountains. Recently I retired after a fruitful 44-year career here. Concern for this land and for my children and grandchildren led me to environmental activism and shifted my teaching and writing from mathematical logic to environmental and intergenerational ethics. Eventually I wrote or edited four books on environmental matters (two specifically on the southern Appalachian environment) in addition to three on logic and (most recently) a tome on the tricky topic of incomparable values.


I wrote...

A Land Imperiled: The Declining Health of the Southern Appalachian Bioregion

By John Nolt,

Book cover of A Land Imperiled: The Declining Health of the Southern Appalachian Bioregion

What is my book about?

It offers a broad and richly detailed survey of overlapping health threats to America’s most biologically diverse region. Central to the book’s conception is the idea of “health writ large”—that is, the functional integrity—not only of humans and their organizations, but of all living things and the ecosystems that sustain them. Sections contributed by regional experts on air, water, flora and fauna, food, energy, waste, transportation, population, and urbanization assess the functional integrity of these aspects of southern Appalachia, while chapters on future prospects and models of sustainability consider ways to improve health writ large.   

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Prodigal Summer

John Nolt Why did I love this book?

It is an erotic romance of many species. This lush, exuberant novel interweaves the stories of three strong twentieth-century women whose lives are shaped both by their lusts and by the sights, sounds, tastes, scents, and textures of the southern Appalachian landscape. The women’s lives mingle in turn with the lives of others similarly influenced by their lusts and by different sensations of that landscape—among them moths, mice, birds, and immigrant coyotes. The shifts of perspective among Kingsolver’s vividly and voluptuously imagined human and nonhuman protagonists are both disorienting and fascinating. Of this work Kingsolver later writes, “Reader, hear my confession: I have written an unchaste novel.”

By Barbara Kingsolver,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked Prodigal Summer as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

It is summer in the Appalachian mountains and love, desire and attraction are in the air. Nature, too, it seems, is not immune. From her outpost in an isolated mountain cabin, Deanna Wolfe, a reclusive wildlife biologist, watches a den of coyotes that have recently migrated into the region. She is caught off guard by a young hunter who invades her most private spaces and interrupts her self-assured, solitary life. On a farm several miles down the mountain, Lusa Maluf Landowski, a bookish city girl turned farmer's wife, finds herself marooned in a strange place where she must declare or…


Book cover of Another Country: Journeying toward the Cherokee Mountains

John Nolt Why did I love this book?

Camuto’s supple prose draws the reader into a journey toward mountains that no longer exist, although they are named on some old maps: the southern Appalachians not as they are, but as they were before the European invasion. A keen historian and observant naturalist, Camuto walks deep into “what’s left of the backcountry,” documenting the hopeful reintroduction of the nearly extinct red wolf and reflecting on Cherokee place names, culture, and history. "Needless to say,” he confesses, “I never got to the Cherokee Mountains”—and, in sad irony, shortly after the book’s publication the red wolf reintroduction failed. Still, Camuto has succeeded in recording resonant reminiscences of places, peoples, and biotic populations now lost.

By Christopher Camuto,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The southern Appalachians encompass one of the most beautiful, biologically diverse, and historically important regions of North America. In the widely acclaimed Another Country: Journeying toward the Cherokee Mountains, Christopher Camuto describes the tragic collision of natural and cultural history embedded in the region. In the spirit of Thoreau's "Walking," Camuto explores the Appalachian summit country of the Great Smoky Mountains-the historical home of the Cherokee-searching for access to the nature, history, and spirit of a magnificent, if diminished, landscape.

As the author takes the reader through old-growth forests and ancient myths, he tells of the attempted restoration of Canis…


Book cover of The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture

John Nolt Why did I love this book?

Poet, novelist, and culture critic Wendell Berry decries the sinister tendency of American “progress” to displace, impoverish, or destroy established communities and their lands. Early victims were Native Americans; among the most recent have been small farmers. This is a book of, but not specifically about, southern Appalachia; Berry’s subject is America at large, but he lives at, works on, and derives inspiration from a hill farm in northeastern Kentucky. His thinking, sprung from these roots, is deeply and genuinely conservative. Unlike those corporate anarchists or spiteful malcontents who claim that label today, he actually advocates conservation. Every discerning reader will dissent from some of his opinions, but those whose minds are open will savor his wry and unconventional wisdom.

By Wendell Berry,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Unsettling of America as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Since its publication in 1977, The Unsettling of America has been recognized as a classic of American letters. In it, Wendell Berry argues that good farming is a cultural and spiritual discipline. Today’s agribusiness, however, takes farming out of its cultural context and away from families. As a result, we as a nation are more estranged from the land—from the intimate knowledge, love, and care of it.

Sadly, his arguments and observations are more relevant than ever. Although “this book has not had the happy fate of being proved wrong,” Berry writes, there are people working “to make something comely…


Book cover of Return the Innocent Earth

John Nolt Why did I love this book?

This emotion-rich novel chronicles three generations of a southern Appalachian family as they rise by ambition and hard work from indebted and nearly destitute farmers to wealthy owners of a national canning business. (In real life, Dykeman married into such a family.) As members of this fictional family feud with one another over the values of “tenderness and toughness,” communal trust and “money-greed,” and “the wild and the useful,” the reader gains insight into the prejudices and passions that have shaped the contemporary land and culture of southern Appalachia. Dykeman was the Tennessee State Historian from 1981 to 2002.

By Wilma Dykeman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Return the Innocent Earth as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


Book cover of Travels Through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges or Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Chactaws

John Nolt Why did I love this book?

It rings with awe-struck musings on Bartram’s explorations, begun just before the American revolution, of the lush and bountiful landscapes of the southern British colonies. Bartram’s effusive descriptions of the astonishingly profuse flora and fauna, replete with taxonomic names, provide a baseline for gauging the steep ecological declines that followed. The Penguin edition includes an appreciative introduction by American writer James Dickey, best known for his novel Deliverance.

By William Bartram,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Travels Through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges or Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Chactaws as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

At the request of Dr. Fothergill, of London, to search the Floridas, and the western parts of Carolina and Georgia, for the discovery of rare and useful productions of nature, chiefly in the vegetable kingdom; in April, 1773, I embarked for Charleston, South Carolina, on board the brigantine Charleston Packet, Captain Wright, the brig——, Captain Mason, being in company with us, and bound to the same port. We had a pleasant run down the Delaware, 150 miles to Cape Henlopen, the two vessels entering the Atlantic together. For the first twenty-four hours, we had a prosperous gale, and were cheerful…


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The Road from Belhaven

By Margot Livesey,

Book cover of The Road from Belhaven

Margot Livesey Author Of The Road from Belhaven

New book alert!

Who am I?

Author Reader Secret orphan Professor Scottish Novelist

Margot's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

The Road from Belhaven is set in 1880s Scotland. Growing up in the care of her grandparents on Belhaven Farm, Lizzie Craig discovers as a small girl that she can see the future. But she soon realises that she must keep her gift a secret. While she can sometimes glimpse the future, she can never change it.

Nor can Lizzie change the feelings that come when a young man named Louis, visiting Belhaven for the harvest, begins to court her. Why have the adults around her never told her that the touch of a hand can change everything? When she follows Louis to Glasgow, she begins to learn the limits of his devotion and the complexities of her own affections.

The Road from Belhaven

By Margot Livesey,

What is this book about?

From the New York Times best-selling author of The Flight of Gemma Hardy, a novel about a young woman whose gift of second sight complicates her coming of age in late-nineteenth-century Scotland

Growing up in the care of her grandparents on Belhaven Farm, Lizzie Craig discovers as a small child that she can see into the future. But her gift is selective—she doesn’t, for instance, see that she has an older sister who will come to join the family. As her “pictures” foretell various incidents and accidents, she begins to realize a painful truth: she may glimpse the future, but…


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Interested in Appalachia, Cherokee, and agriculture?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Appalachia, Cherokee, and agriculture.

Appalachia Explore 47 books about Appalachia
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