The best books on nature and the study of life

Bernd Heinrich Author Of Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival
By Bernd Heinrich

The Books I Picked & Why

Bees: Their Vision, Chemical Senses, and Language

By Karl Von Frisch

Book cover of Bees: Their Vision, Chemical Senses, and Language

Why this book?

I received this book from my father as a Christmas present at age 16, in 1956. The author is a Professor of Zoology who made one of the most stunning discoveries of biology of the last century: honeybees communicate direction and distance of a food source they had found to their hive-mates, within the darkness of their hive.

The code involves the movements of their bodies in a "dance," that gives directions with respect to the position of the sun, but at the same time that position shifts with time, the bees without seeing it take into account its movement in the sky, to within about 15 minutes. His experimental proofs deciphering the bees' "dances" are simple and direct, as was his writing of them. The book was and still is an inspiration,  a revelation of nature's beauty that no one had seen before.

When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There

By Aldo Leopold

Book cover of A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There

Why this book?

This book made a big impression worldwide. Leopold, coming from the angle of Ecology, was a naturalist seeing the big picture by looking at all of life, but with a historical reference. He noticed the prairie marshes shrinking and transforming into farmlands. He combined ecology with beauty and poetry and described in detail the glorious night display-dance of the woodcock that was to me then one of the most impressive of marvels and I felt empathy sharing that experience. 

Leopold put himself into the life of the habitat and its animal, and in pithy words with his own sketches describes nature closely, a winning model combining nature and art. He made me feel wanting to spend time in the woods, and in April listen to a marsh come alive at night with the geese and its returning birds.

His descriptions lead us to a wake-up call for the health of the land, analogous to the health of the body via its physiology. He talks of land as a living system requiring an ethic that entails both privileges and obligations since it is a community of interdependent parts. 

When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

The World of the Tent-Makers: A Natural History of the Eastern Tent Caterpillar

By Vincent Gaston Dethier

Book cover of The World of the Tent-Makers: A Natural History of the Eastern Tent Caterpillar

Why this book?

This book is by an insect physiologist named Vincent G. Dethier. This book reveals the amazing and beautifully intricate behavior and physiology of a common moth (generally considered a pest). Expectations were high as his previous book To Know a Fly went beyond the physiology and elevated the common housefly to a comic character through his sketches. Tent-Makers is about the common "Tent caterpillars" that infest fruit trees and he includes sketches of these animals in their natural environment. This book, though small in size, is concise, succinct, and explores the physiology and behavior of these animals as they face one problem after another throughout their whole life cycle of a year. It is a work of sound scholarship derived from a close look at natural history. It is an in-depth view in non-technical language on a topic not generally penetrable to a general audience but here presented for the enjoyment of wonders of nature where the common is made fabulous.

When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

The Red Gods Call

By Paul L. Errington

Book cover of The Red Gods Call

Why this book?

This book is less about Biology and more about becoming a biologist. Errington spent his youth outside, hunting, trapping, and fishing in the still largely pristine environment of South Dakota. Although hunting later "became ritualistic" he then continued the rest of his life feeling "called" into the wild and learning about nature there, leading him to go to graduate studies, but continuing all his life to long "for the authentic." It was a romantic activity to be close to nature, and a joy to learn that there are rules of order driving the complexity of "natural relationships." He validated for me loving the wild and wanting to be part of it all, noticing and savoring it, imprinting on it, being one with it. It made getting close to the land to feel the freedom of it in the wild outdoors, as from the 1893 Rudyard Kipling poem, "The Young Men's hearts are troubled for the whisper of the Trees" and the Red Gods make their medicine.

Errington's love of the wild was mirrored in my own and amplified it because I identified with the "natural state" of authenticity, and with getting something from the land that then bound me to it.

When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

The Sun Is a Compass: My 4,000-Mile Journey Into the Alaskan Wilds

By Caroline Van Hemert

Book cover of The Sun Is a Compass: My 4,000-Mile Journey Into the Alaskan Wilds

Why this book?

This book combines the author's love of nature with adventure. Ornithologist Caroline van Hemert takes a 4,000-mile journey into the Alaskan Wilds and it is both a story of deep immersion into the wild and a story of challenging yourself. Biology is focused on the wonder and complexity of life and what I love about this book is that it celebrates the beauty of the natural world. The author does this through immersion into nature and by deciphering it. Through her intense personal nature contact, she yields unexpected surprises that enhance the beauty of the world. 

Biology can be mentally and physically challenging as a profession, and there is no guarantee of success. More often than not the path does not follow a clear route. It thins out and leads to no discovery. However, along the way, there is the beauty of the physical wilderness, the natural world, and nature in the raw.

I loved this book because her expedition into the wilds of nature was fascinating and it shared the story of her personal achievement while experiencing natures' grandeur.

When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Closely Related Book Lists

Distantly Related Book Lists