The best books of placed-based nature writing

Jack E. Davis Author Of The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea
By Jack E. Davis

The Books I Picked & Why

The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod

By Henry Beston

Book cover of The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod

Why this book?

The Outermost House was one of Rachel Carson’s favorite books about the sea, and it is little wonder why. Beston’s best-known work was inspired by a year he spent on a duney Cape Cod headland with the seasonal elements and the indigenous creatures of land, sea, and air. He had originally intended to stay a fortnight before the “beauty and mystery of this earth and outer sea so possessed and held” him. Having had his spirit shaken on the frontlines during the First World War, he was the better for the longer stay. So are we. The Outermost House is a quietly alluring, elegiac meditation on a place where nature seemed to pursue its rituals as if impingements of modern civilization were nonexistent. Although written nearly a century ago, Beston’s work possesses a timelessness in its central assertion that humanity impoverishes itself when it fails to appreciate the “divine mystery” of nature. 

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The Sea Around Us

By Rachel Carson

Book cover of The Sea Around Us

Why this book?

Carson’s 1955 book is worth revisiting in this age of sea-level rise. The second installment in her ocean trilogy, The Sea Around Us occupied the New York Times bestseller list for 86 weeks. It also won the National Book Award for Nonfiction and the Burroughs Medal in nature writing. Today, the book remains a model for turning science into prose. Carson’s work endures in part because she found writing difficult. For all her toil, readers are the beneficiaries. Whether describing a seashell or explaining the intricate composition of sediments, her words move across the page as nimbly as sanderlings across the shoreline. Much like her pivotal Silent Spring, published eight years later, The Sea Around Us gazes perceptively and presciently upon the past and the future. Following her gaze will change that of readers whenever they are seaside again. 

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Ecology of a Cracker Childhood

By Janisse Ray

Book cover of Ecology of a Cracker Childhood

Why this book?

The New York Times called Janisse Ray the Rachel Carson of her native South Georgia. Indeed, her descriptions of the region’s low- and tall-growing plants and the crawling, flying, stalking, burrowing, nesting, and denning creatures bring to life the pine-and-scrub woodland that circumscribed her years growing up. Part memoir and part nature study, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood pays tribute to the region’s cathedral-esque longleaf pines, pillars of a sylvan ecosystem that once ranged across the Southeast. Their environment is now as rare as the Packards and Ramblers that once littered her father’s auto junkyard, hidden from the road by ragweed and dog fennel and backdropped by pines. Reading Ecology is the next best thing to experiencing the sights, sounds, and smells of the woodland that Ray writes so lovingly about. 

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Desert Solitaire

By Edward Abbey

Book cover of Desert Solitaire

Why this book?

When I sit down to write and the words won’t come, I often seek inspiration by sinking into Desert Solitaire’s rarified expositions of nature. An easterner who went west and fell in love with the Great American Desert, Edward Abbey became a fervent voice for a wonderland that most others maligned as a wasteland. Writing principally about the environment of Arches National Park, where he worked as a seasonal ranger, Abbey was overtly hostile toward modern America’s habitual destruction of wilderness, the “only paradise we need.” While illuminating the true essence of the desert, his essays convey for readers an immersion experience that seems to approximate his real-life one. The primeval desert, Abbey maintained, “cannot be fully assimilated by the human imagination.” Read his absorbing book, and you’re likely to conclude that Abbey defies his own claim. 

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The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man's Love Affair with Nature

By J. Drew Lanham

Book cover of The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man's Love Affair with Nature

Why this book?

Like Rachel Carson, Lanham is a scientist who avoids the stilted style of his profession. His book was also a finalist for the John Burroughs Medal, and like Janisse Ray, he published with Milkweed Editions, a powerhouse publisher in environmental literature. As a black man and lover of nature, Lanham describes himself as an “unusually colored fish out of water.” Growing up in rural South Carolina, he was surrounded by woods and wetlands that beckoned his curiosity on solitary wanderings. Everything captivated him: insects, reptiles, rocks, plants, and, especially, birds. When baptized in his grandmother’s authoritarian religious faith, he questioned the ritual but not the algae and “little black commas of tadpoles” in the devotional waters. Sometime after, he came to believe in Nature’s worthiness for worship, a faith that forms the heart of this elegant book. 

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