The best books on the natural sciences

1 authors have picked their favorite books about the natural sciences and why they recommend each book.

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Inside Passage

By Michael Modzelewski,

Book cover of Inside Passage: Living with Killer Whales, Bald Eagles, and Kwakiutl Indians

This late-90s account of Modzelewski’s time among the islands of the Inside Passage north of Vancouver is a little bit out there, figuratively as well as literally; the symbolism can be a wee bit heavy at times (“inside passage” — get it?). But the life he portrays, the incredible beauty and power of this part of the world, the characters he describes so indelibly, make this a book that I’ve gone back to again and again.

Who am I?

As an avid trail-runner and mountain-biker who’s done a ton of outdoorsy things, from sailboat racing on the Chesapeake Bay to rockclimbing to backpacking in the Pacific Northwest, I’m convinced that nothing gets you closer to someone’s experience than a well-told first-person account. The best personal narratives make you feel the cold, glow with the exhilaration, and burn with ambition to go, to do, to see for yourself — and can even make you look at the world, and yourself, in a new way. These books, different as they are, have all done those things for me.

I wrote...

A Window to Heaven: The Daring First Ascent of Denali: America's Wildest Peak

By Patrick Dean,

Book cover of A Window to Heaven: The Daring First Ascent of Denali: America's Wildest Peak

What is my book about?

In A Window to Heaven, Patrick Dean brings to life this heart-pounding and spellbinding feat of this first ascent and paints a rich portrait of the frontier at the turn of the twentieth century. The story of Stuck and his team will lead us through the Texas frontier and Tennessee mountains to an encounter with Jack London at the peak of the Yukon Goldrush. We experience Stuck's awe at the rich Inuit and Athabascan indigenous traditions—and his efforts to help preserve these ways of life.

Filled with daring exploration and rich history, A Window to Heaven is a brilliant and spellbinding narrative of success against the odds.

Nature Matrix

By Robert Michael Pyle,

Book cover of Nature Matrix: New and Selected Essays

One of my delights upon moving to the Oregon coast was learning that the venerable yet approachable biologist and writer Robert Michael Pyle lives right across the Columbia River. Eclectic, insightful, and never stuffy or overwrought, he’s on equally firm footing delving into the mysteries of butterflies and Sasquatches. No wonder he’s the subject of the recent feature film The Dark Divide. None of his books disappoint, but this recent essay collection is especially remarkable for its depth and breadth.

Who am I?

Much of what Deb knows about writing, nature, and life she learned in Alaska, where she also mastered the art of hauling water and cooking ptarmigan. She loves characters who tug at the heart and stories that grab you from the opening line and never let go. Deb is the co-founder of Alaska’s 49 Writers, and she has been invited to join the faculty at several writers’ conferences. After 36 years in Alaska, she now lives on Oregon’s north coast, where you’ll find her strolling the beaches and forests with her husband and boxer dog.

I wrote...

Roar of the Sea: Treachery, Obsession, and Alaska's Most Valuable Wildlife

By Deb Vanasse,

Book cover of Roar of the Sea: Treachery, Obsession, and Alaska's Most Valuable Wildlife

What is my book about?

Over a century ago, treachery in Alaska's Bering Sea twice brought the world to the brink of war. The US seized Canadian vessels, Great Britain positioned warships to strike the US, and Americans killed Japanese pirates on US soil, all because of the fur seals that crowded onto the tiny Pribilof Islands.

The herd's population plummeted while notorious seafarers like Alex MacLean poached indiscriminately. Enter an unlikely crusader to defend the seals: self-taught artist and naturalist Henry Wood Elliott, whose zeal and love for the sea creatures urged him to go against all odds and take on giants of the sea. Impossible as it seemed for him to win, Elliott exposed corruption while setting the course for the modern wildlife protections.

A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm

By Edwin Way Teale,

Book cover of A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm

“For us it is a farm with a different kind of harvest,” Teale describes of how his aging Trail Woods farm yields observations, memories, and adventures. Teale has been called a “20th-century Thoreau” for his work as a naturalist, writer, and nature photographer. But in chapters titled A Hammock in the Woods, Stone Fences, The Man in the Brushpile, and more, his expression of love for living things transcends scientific observation; he shares his relationships with stones, plants, and animals so that we recognize they are made not only of earth, but of spirit, too.

Who am I?

Journalistic interviewer Jacqueline Raposo has created hundreds of stories discussing the human condition for magazines, websites, podcasts, and her book, The Me Without—a personal growth memoir exploring the science and spirit of habit change. Chronically ill and disabled, she’s never uncovered a new app, product, or study as directly beneficial to emotional health as time spent observing the natural world.

I wrote...

The Me, Without: A Year Exploring Habit, Healing, and Happiness

By Jacqueline Raposo,

Book cover of The Me, Without: A Year Exploring Habit, Healing, and Happiness

What is my book about?

At the age of thirty-four, journalist Jacqueline Raposo finds herself chronically sick, single, broke, and wandering in a fog. Weary of trying to solve her problems by adding things to her life, she attempts the opposite and subtracts habits including social media, shopping, sugar, and negative thoughts over the course of one year. In this intimately curated search for self-improvement, Raposo confesses to the sometimes violent and profound shifts in her social interactions, physical health, and sense of self-worth. With the input of doctors, psychologists, STEM experts, and other professionals, she offers fascinating insights into how and why our brains and bodies react as they do to habits, and sheds light on the impact of everyday choices on our mental state. Part memoir, part case study, this book offers an inspiring example of how to forge your own journey, expose your wounds, and help yourself heal. 

The Living Mountain

By Nan Shepherd,

Book cover of The Living Mountain: A Celebration of the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland

"The thing to be known grows with the knowing." This slim book is the distillation of a whole lifetime spent knowing the Cairngorms. Every page is radiant with wisdom, and I think it’s close to perfection. A book all about matter and spirit, and how paying close attention to creation is an endlessly rich and rewarding devotion. 

Who am I?

I did a master's in Environmental Policy, and at the end of that year, I thought, "this is all very well, but there’s no point designing these policies if no one wants them." My response to the environmental crisis is to try to open people’s eyes to the beauty and wonder of Nature. If you pay close attention, you start to develop an expansive sense of the ordinary: Creation is stranger, more mysterious, and more wonderful than we can imagine. This in turn helps us to love the world more deeply, and we tend to look after things that we love. 

I wrote...

Talking Through Trees

By Edward Picton-Turbervill,

Book cover of Talking Through Trees

What is my book about?

Talking Through Trees was supposed to be a rather dry history of the gardens in St John’s College, Cambridge, but what came out when I sat down to write it was altogether more unexpected. The book is a rhapsody on the trees in the college’s garden, flowing between anecdote, history, biology, poetry, and philosophy. It was augmented by 35 wonderful woodcuts produced by Angela Lemaire for the book and printed by hand at the Old Stile Press. My favourite lines are "A tree is a river in reverse. A river converges on its trunk, and a tree diverges from its source. Humans are both wood and water, since our arteries are trees, and our veins are rivers."

This book is available here.

A Walk in the Woods

By Bill Bryson,

Book cover of A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail

In this absolute classic, the author describes his efforts to hike the Appalachian Trail as a pudgy, past-his-prime Dad. It functions as a master class in how to present reality with precision-engineered comic timing (and even more perfect grammar/sentence construction). Bryson also demonstrates his rare ability to enliven a dull setting by delving into its history to find those nuggets of weirdness that bring a place to life. Some of his other books are more ambitious, more educational, and at times funnier, but the clean framing makes this the quintessential Bryson read.

Who am I?

As a journalist, I’ve often been frustrated at the sense that I am preaching to the choir – those who take the time to read about a serious topic don’t need to, and those who need to, won’t. I’ve learned to spread awareness by packaging serious information inside a “Trojan Horse," one so fun to read that it reaches people who can actually benefit from the educational bits. These brilliant books, and many others, show that a spoonful of sugar can help us easily swallow information about social justice, endangered species, the U.S. military, and American history. I happily make these books Christmas gifts, knowing they are joys, not obligations.

I wrote...

A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town

By Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling,

Book cover of A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town

What is my book about?

A tiny American town's plans for radical self-government overlooked one hairy detail: no one told the bears.

Once upon a time, a group of libertarians got together and hatched the Free Town Project, a plan to take over an American town and completely eliminate its government. In 2004, they set their sights on Grafton, NH, a barely populated settlement with one paved road. A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear is the sometimes funny, sometimes terrifying tale of what happens when a government disappears into the woods. Complete with gunplay, adventure, and backstabbing politicians, this is the ultimate story of a quintessential American experiment -- to live free or die, perhaps from a bear.

A Sand County Almanac

By Aldo Leopold,

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

Aldo Leopold was a Forest Service ranger stationed in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest when he first began advocating for a new approach to managing national forests. Leopold’s visionary thinking and diligent advocacy resulted in the first-ever Wilderness Area in the U.S.—the Gila Wilderness Area, established in 1922—more than 40 years before the Wilderness Act was passed by Congress in 1964. A Sand County Almanac is Leopold’s best-known work and follows his efforts to restore a patch of cut-over farmland in Wisconsin while also articulating his vision of a land ethic where humans and nature are intertwined and care for people cannot be separated from care for the land. His beautiful writing resonated strongly with me when I first read A Sand County Almanac more than two decades ago, and his vision remains as important now as ever.

Who am I?

I love being outdoors and I’ve been fortunate to spend much of life under the open sky, both professionally and personally. Learning about the landscapes I’ve visited on my outdoor adventures or helped protect through my professional conservation and writing work is both fulfilling and inspiring. Skilled writers deepen my understanding of the diverse, intricate, and complicated natural world. Whether I’m reading to better understand the policies and histories that have shaped our public lands or about the adventurers who inspire me to get out there, I always find immense value and enjoyment when reading about the landscapes we share. 

I wrote...

Our National Forests: Stories from America's Most Important Public Lands

By Greg M. Peters,

Book cover of Our National Forests: Stories from America's Most Important Public Lands

What is my book about?

From the glaciated peaks of Alaska to the deserts of Arizona, America’s 193 million acres of National Forests are true treasures. Our National Forests: Stories from America’s Most Important Public Lands takes readers on a series of journeys through these often overlooked and misunderstood lands. Packed with gorgeous photography and engaging prose, Our National Forests highlights the people, histories, and policies that make these lands so special. 

The Snow Leopard

By Peter Matthiessen,

Book cover of The Snow Leopard

How far must you travel to discover your true inner self? Pretty far, for Peter Matthiessen—all the way to the slopes of Annapurna in Nepal, in search of blue sheep, the Lama of Crystal Mountain, the elusive snow leopard, and most of all, spiritual enlightenment—very big in the ’70s (trust me, I was there). It’s a journal, a travelogue, a nature study, a daredevil escapade in a setting of such unworldly grandeur that makes you long to be there, at the top of the world, where the clouds dance and the mountains sing. Lots of self-reflection, but absolutely worth signing on for the trek.

Who am I?

As an author and composer, writing to me is music: the flow of words across the page can sparkle like a symphony, cry like a requiem, or swagger like rock n’ roll. Places have their own kind of music: in the lilt of their language, the lift of their architecture, the beauty of their landscapes. My favorite books about those places manage to capture that particular music, singing a siren song that stirs my senses and makes me want to go there—not tomorrow, not next week, but right now. I live in Hudson, NY with my wife, actress/writer Mel Harris. Our four children live all over the place. 

I wrote...

The Piazza: Stories from Piazza Santa Caterina Piccola

By Bob Brush, Scott Howard (illustrator),

Book cover of The Piazza: Stories from Piazza Santa Caterina Piccola

What is my book about?

On a tiny piazza in an obscure Italian hilltop town in 1933 remarkable things are happening. From the window of his mother’s bakery a young boy, Niccolò, sees it all. The citizens of this unexpected and improbable place find themselves bound together by their hopes, their lies, their humanity, and their destiny, unbowed in the face of onrushing war and certain catastrophe. It’s a heartwarming, heartbreaking, fantastical love song to a time and place that no longer exist—if in fact they ever existed at all.

The Eternal Frontier

By Tim Flannery,

Book cover of The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples

Finally, expanding outward even further in space and time and going far beyond my Clash of Eagles series source material, Tim Flannery’s book covers the entire geological, ecological, and (yes) human history of the North American continent, from its formative years 65 million years ago through to its “discovery” by Europeans, and the effects those colonizing influences had on the peoples, flora, and fauna. I learned so much from this book that I still think about it almost daily, and especially so when I travel around today’s US in all its depth, breadth, and glory.

Who am I?

My twin passions are science and history, and I try to have it both ways by writing a mix of alternate history and hard SF. I grew up in Yorkshire, England, enjoyed lots of family vacations at Hadrian’s Wall and other Roman-rich areas, and acquired degrees in Physics and Astrophysics from Oxford, but I’ve lived in the US for over half my life and now work for NASA (studying black holes, neutron stars, and other bizarre celestial objects). My novella of a Roman invasion of ancient America, A Clash of Eagles, won the Sidewise Award for Alternate History and formed the starting point for my Clash of Eagles trilogy from Del Rey, and Hot Moon, my alternate-Apollo thriller set entirely on and around the Moon, will be published by CAEZIK SF & Fantasy in 2022.

I wrote...

Clash of Eagles: The Clash of Eagles Trilogy Book I

By Alan Smale,

Book cover of Clash of Eagles: The Clash of Eagles Trilogy Book I

What is my book about?

The Roman Empire has survived in its classical form until 1218 AD, and has now discovered North America. Transported by Norse longboats, a Roman legion crosses the great ocean to Nova Hesperia, enters an endless wilderness, and faces a cataclysmic clash of worlds, cultures, and warriors.

Gaius Marcellinus and his 33rd Legion expect easy victories over the native inhabitants, but on the shores of the Mississippi River the Legion clashes with a unique civilization armed with weapons and strategies no Roman has imagined. As Marcellinus learns more about the Mississippian mound-building culture he can’t help but be drawn into their society, forming an uneasy friendship with the people of the city-state of Cahokia. But threats Roman and Native assail them, and Marcellinus will struggle to keep the peace while the rest of the continent surges toward certain conflict.

Rocks and Minerals - A Guide to Minerals, Gems, and Rocks

By Herbert S. Zim, Paul R. Shaffer, Raymond Perlman (illustrator)

Book cover of Rocks and Minerals - A Guide to Minerals, Gems, and Rocks

I can’t go past recommending this tiny book! Way back when I was a kid, my geologist cousin, Rene Schellekens, gave me a cardboard box full of carefully wrapped crystal specimens he’d collected on his travels plus a copy of Zim’s Guide to Minerals, Gems, and Rocks, and that fabulous little guidebook became my bible. I knew, by heart, every word and beautiful hand-drawn and coloured image adorning its pages—each mineral’s crystal system, colour, hardness, and other physical and chemical properties. I have to say, that gift of Zim’s Guidebook led me into a lifelong career of geological exploration into the world’s distant corners, and even into the authoring of my own books on the natural sciences.

Who am I?

I‘m a Sydney-based exploration geologist and science writer, travelling the world in search of gold, exotic metals, gemstones, and the stories they have to tell — writing is my tool to bring alive ideas and concepts important to me, and my popular books include Rocks, Fossils and Dinosaurs; Natural Disasters; and Geologica. Working in the world's poorest regions has also sparked a strong humanitarian interest. I'm the founding president of FreeSchools World Literacy – Australia, a charity dedicated to education of underprivileged children, and towards which earnings from my writing go. It is my belief that education for all, not just a privileged few, is key to solving the world's problems. 

I wrote...

Rocks and Fossils: A Visual Guide

By Robert R. Coenraads,

Book cover of Rocks and Fossils: A Visual Guide

What is my book about?

Rocks and Fossils' predominantly pictorial treatment lures even newcomers to the subjects of geology and paleontology. Packed with glossy color photographs of rocks, fossils, and landscapes, this book is a beauty—including a series of double-page ancient-life artworks depicting creatures from different geologic time periods, from the Precambrian forward. I describe how plate tectonics works, how life evolved, how minerals, rocks, and fossils are formed, and even give clues that people on fossicking trips should look out for. I strive to inspire the readers’ imagination of the ancient landscapes that the exciting discovery of a fossil, mineral, or gemstone conjures. A science work suitable for all ages and schooling, and available in multiple languages.

The Emerald Horizon

By Cornelia F. Mutel,

Book cover of The Emerald Horizon: The History of Nature in Iowa

A more detailed and scholarly book than Crosby’s, this book is a description of the origin, character, and fate of the tallgrass prairie in Iowa. It is essential reading for those who wish to understand what the Iowa prairie (and by extension the prairie of neighboring states as well) was like before being settled by Euro-Americans and converted to agricultural use in the 19th century, what is left of that prairie today, and conservation and restoration efforts to replace some of what was lost.

Who are we?

The short answer is, a retired university professor (Fred) and the coordinator of Natural Areas for the University of Illinois (James). That answer, however, doesn’t give a clue as to how we came to write our book. Fred and his wife established a small three-acre prairie on their land in 2003. They then enlisted James and Grand Prairie Friends, the local conservation organization he headed at the time, to help manage the prairie. Eventually, Fred, who had photographically documented the growth of the prairie and the beauty to be found therein, proposed that he and James describe the prairie with photos so that others could also learn to enjoy it. The rest, as they say, is history.

We wrote...

A Backyard Prairie: The Hidden Beauty of Tallgrass and Wildflowers

By Fred Delcomyn, James L. Ellis,

Book cover of A Backyard Prairie: The Hidden Beauty of Tallgrass and Wildflowers

What is our book about?

“Anybody can love the mountains, but it takes a soul to love the prairie.” This pithy quote, attributed to the writer Willa Cather, encapsulates the challenge of getting people to appreciate the wide-open native grasslands that for thousands of years covered the land from the Great Lakes to the Rocky Mountains. Prairie is beautiful. Prairie is wondrous. Prairie is unique. Prairie is also mostly gone now and the few remnants are vanishing at an alarming rate; further, it is underappreciated to an equal degree. 

In this book, we celebrate the beauty and wonders of a small tallgrass prairie recreated from agricultural land.

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