The best books that inspired me to embark on a life of studying and writing about the natural world

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?

A quote from this lyrical, moving, and closely-observed book about a naturalist’s solitary year on Cape Cod helped me define what I set out to do in chronicling the natural world:

“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals…for the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.”

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Never Cry Wolf

By Farley Mowat

Book cover of Never Cry Wolf

Why this book?

I first was hooked on books by Farley Mowat as a child with his The Dog who Wouldn’t Be about his adventures with his beloved pet, Mutt. Later, as an adult, I would read the most famous book by this author, and it affected me deeply. The book is a portrait of a scientist whose findings turn him into an activist on behalf of the animals he studied. Though it was published as a factual account, Never Cry Wolf was later decried by some critics as fiction. Yet, even if he departed from the facts on the ground, Farley Mowat’s text remains true to matters of the heart. “Never let the facts get in the way of the truth,” he counseled me when, many years later, the famous author generously invited me to stay at his home while I researched my own first book, Walking with the Great Apes. While I, trained as a journalist, have always remained a stickler for the facts, Farley deeply affected my own work in showing me that a book must have emotional resonance as well as factual accuracy if its author is to successfully move others to action, which has always been my hope.

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King Solomon's Ring: New Light on Animal Ways

By Konrad Lorenz

Book cover of King Solomon's Ring: New Light on Animal Ways

Why this book?

This is a classic account of animal behavior by the man who founded the modern field of ethology. His careful and detailed accounts of his time living with graylag geese, crow-like jackdaws, and even cichlid fish are not only scientifically fascinating but filled with wonder and love for each animal as an individual—a creature who loves his or her life as much as we love ours.

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Gorillas in the Mist

By Dian Fossey

Book cover of Gorillas in the Mist

Why this book?

This is the first-person account of living among wild mountain gorillas by primatologist Dian Fossey, the second of the three woman scientists, all protogees of the paleontologist Louis Leakey, who conducted the first long-term studies of humankind’s closest living relatives, the great apes. She conquers the old myths depicting gorillas as King Kong monsters, and shows them as gentle vegetarians who are extraordinarily devoted to their families. Like the other books I mention above, I read this one when I was in my 20s. Dian’s memoir was then in its first edition and sported the most beautiful cover I had ever seen on a book. It featured a close-up, intimate portrait of one of the gorillas about whom she writes, Uncle Bert, his black face benign and thoughtful, his jet fur bejeweled with cloud forest raindrops. The back cover shows him from the back, accentuating the great dome of his skull and the massive power of his shoulders and back. That this cover does not feature a human with this gorilla, but a single individual gorilla instead, reflects how Dian herself felt about each of these animals, and why she wrote the book. It was not about her; it was not about why gorillas are important to people; the book is why each gorilla on this sweet green earth matters in his or her own right, and why each should inspire not just our compassion, but our respect, our admiration and our awe.

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Of Wolves and Men

By Barry Lopez

Book cover of Of Wolves and Men

Why this book?

One of my best friends, who later went on to become a veterinarian, left this book for me on my porch as a gift before I went to live for six months in a tent in the outback to study emus. This classic, careful study of wolves' true lives, and how they have been understood and misunderstood in human cultures through the centuries, showed me the value of looking at an animal’s historical and even prehistoric relationships with humans in an effort to understand its powers.

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