The best books about nature, culture, and the modern world

Jonathan S. Adams Author Of Nature's Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature
By Jonathan S. Adams

The Books I Picked & Why

Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water

By Marc Reisner

Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water

Why this book?

“In the west, it is said, water flows uphill towards money.” With that line, Marc Reisner captures all of the absurdity of the economic development of the arid lands west of the 100th meridian. First published in 1986, Cadillac Desert remains indispensable in understanding the hubris, greed, and stupidity that has marked so much of that development. Exhaustively researched and reported, and seasoned with the perfect amount of moral indignation, it is timeless. With the water crisis only deepening as climate change brings devastating droughts—reservoirs are at record lows and the Colorado River runs dry long before it reaches the sea— understanding how we got here is more important than ever. 


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The Monkey Wrench Gang

By Edward Abbey

The Monkey Wrench Gang

Why this book?

The environment has had no bolder hero (or anti-hero) than George Washington Hayduke, Edward Abbey’s fictional eco-saboteur. “My job is to save the f***ing wilderness,” says Hayduke, and he and his compatriots head into the desert to destroy the infernal machinery of the industrial age. Thus was born, or at least made compellingly readable, an idea that has worked its way into one thread of the environmental movement: the march of development must be stopped, by whatever means necessary. The Monkey Wrench Gang is worth reading both as a hugely entertaining mashup of fictional genres ranging from the pulp to the picaresque, and as an essential document in the fight for wilderness preservation.  


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One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest

By Wade Davis

One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest

Why this book?

This is perhaps the best book on two separate yet related topics: cultural anthropology and ethnobotany. Davis, well-known for The Serpent and the Rainbow, his book (and subsequent movie) about his quest for a Haitian zombie poison, here takes on twin adventure stories: his own research in Columbia and nearby countries in the 1970s, and that of his Harvard mentor and titan of ethnobotany, Richard Evans Schultes, some 30 years earlier. Both are compelling and compulsively readable simply as adventure stories, but Davis also uses them to demonstrate, in a way few other books ever have, the profound and essential connection between human beings and the living world around them.


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Shadow Country: A New Rendering of the Watson Legend

By Peter Matthiessen

Shadow Country: A New Rendering of the Watson Legend

Why this book?

Shadow Country is Peter Matthiessen’s tour-de-force, semi-fictional account of life and death in the Ten Thousand Islands region of Florida’s Gulf Coast at the turn of the 20th Century. It is a slightly shorter and reworked version of a trilogy originally published separately – Killing Mr. Watson (1990); Lost Man’s River (1997); and Bone by Bone (1999). Matthiessen’s immediate story is that of Edgar Watson, a planter and outlaw, and his murder by his neighbors, but his broader canvas is the American frontier and the ecological costs of empire. His evocation of a long-lost Florida wilderness and those who exploited and transformed it evokes Dostoevsky, Conrad, and Faulkner, and is among the most powerful works of modern American literature.


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Imposing Wilderness: Struggles over Livelihood and Nature Preservation in Africa

By Roderick P. Neumann

Imposing Wilderness: Struggles over Livelihood and Nature Preservation in Africa

Why this book?

National parks have long been the bedrock of nature conservation efforts. For most Westerners, their vision of Africa is built on images from iconic parks like Tanzania’s Serengeti or Kenya’s Masai Mara. Those parks, however, were imposed on the African landscape with lasting and often devastating consequences, among them the pernicious notion that Africans themselves are little more than part of the fauna and are an impediment to conservation efforts that can be swept aside. Roderick Neuman reveals that far from a simple means to protect nature, parks are a complicated intersection of ecological, economic, political, and cultural issues. His analysis of Arusha National Park in Tanzania, not far from Mount Kilimanjaro, melds careful scholarship with passionate and vivid writing and is an essential text for understanding the promise and limitations of long-established conservation practices. 


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