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

Who am I?

I'm a writer and professor of environmental history who divides his time between two “villes,” Gainesville, Florida, and Harrisville, New Hampshire. On April 16, 2018, while in my campus office excoriating a graduate student for his sloppy writing, I learned that my book The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea won the Pulitzer Prize in History. The chastened student subsequently revised his work and turned in a perfect paper, and I’ve been trying to live up to the distinction of the prize ever since. My first effort to do so will appear in the form of my latest book, The Bald Eagle: The Improbable Journey of America’s Bird.

I wrote...

The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea

By Jack E. Davis,

Book cover of The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea

What is my book about?

Covering the period from geological formation to the present, The Gulf is a biography of a natural place and the peoples and cultures that have intersected with it for some 10,000 years. Dismayed that the Gulf remains largely absent from the pages of American history, I saw a need to write a book about it. An equal motivating factor were big events that had come to define the Gulf as a place. I wanted readers to know its true identity. The Gulf is among the richest estuarine environments in the world, one to which all Americans are connected historically and ecologically. 

Of the book's many fascinating characters, the ones that were most fun to write about, and to indeed treat as characters, were the wildlife and natural features of the Gulf.
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The books I picked & why

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

Why did I love 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. 

By Henry Beston,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked The Outermost House as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The seventy-fifth anniversary edition of the classic book about Cape Cod, "written with simplicity, sympathy, and beauty" (New York Herald Tribune)

A chronicle of a solitary year spent on a Cape Cod beach, The Outermost House has long been recognized as a classic of American nature writing. Henry Beston had originally planned to spend just two weeks in his seaside home, but was so possessed by the mysterious beauty of his surroundings that he found he "could not go."

Instead, he sat down to try and capture in words the wonders of the magical landscape he found himself in thrall…

The Sea Around Us

By Rachel Carson,

Book cover of The Sea Around Us

Why did I love 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. 

By Rachel Carson,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Sea Around Us as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Originally published in 1951, The Sea Around Us is one of the most influential books ever written about the natural world. Rachel Carson's ability to combine scientific insight with poetic prose catapulted her book to the top of The New York Times best-seller list, where it remained for more than a year and a half. Ultimately it sold well over a million copies, was translated into 28 languages, inspired an Academy Award-winning documentary, and won
both the National Book Award and the John Burroughs Medal. The Sea Around Us remains as fresh today as when it first appeared over six…

Book cover of Ecology of a Cracker Childhood

Why did I love 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. 

By Janisse Ray,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Ecology of a Cracker Childhood as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the memories of a childhood marked by extreme poverty, mental illness, and restrictive fundamentalist Christian rules, Janisse Ray crafted a "heartfelt and refreshing" (New York Times) memoir that has inspired thousands to embrace their beginnings, no matter how humble, and to fight for the places they love. This new edition updates and contextualizes the story for a new generation and a wider audience desperately searching for stories of empowerment and hope.

Ray grew up in a junkyard along U.S. Highway 1, hidden from Florida-bound travelers by hulks of old cars. In language at once colloquial, elegiac, and informative, Ray…

Desert Solitaire

By Edward Abbey,

Book cover of Desert Solitaire

Why did I love 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. 

By Edward Abbey,

Why should I read it?

11 authors picked Desert Solitaire as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'My favourite book about the wilderness' Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild

In this shimmering masterpiece of American nature writing, Edward Abbey ventures alone into the canyonlands of Moab, Utah, to work as a seasonal ranger for the United States National Park Service.

Living out of a trailer, Abbey captures in rapt, poetic prose the landscape of the desert; a world of terracotta earth, empty skies, arching rock formations, cliffrose, juniper, pinyon pine and sand sage. His summers become spirit quests, taking him in search of wild horses and Ancient Puebloan petroglyphs, up mountains and across tribal lands, and down the…

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

Why did I love 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. 

By J. Drew Lanham,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

"In me, there is the red of miry clay, the brown of spring floods, the gold of ripening tobacco. All of these hues are me; I am, in the deepest sense, colored." From these fertile soils of love, land, identity, family, and race emerges The Home Place, a big-hearted, unforgettable memoir by ornithologist and professor of ecology J. Drew Lanham.

Dating back to slavery, Edgefield County, South Carolina-a place "easy to pass by on the way somewhere else"-has been home to generations of Lanhams. In The Home Place, readers meet these extraordinary people, including Drew himself, who over the course…

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