Fireside Reading: Some books of nature writing
As a “nature writer” myself, I read voraciously in this field. In part, this is research for my own nonfiction projects. I’d also like to know what fellow writers are up to, and about new developments. Lastly, I read these books for inspiration, to be reminded of some of the things that truly matter to me and that should to our society as a whole. With my seasonal outdoor work, my reading largely clusters around the months when daylight wanes and temperatures plummet. Fortunately, and in line with my convictions, I can draw on two excellent public libraries here in Fairbanks, borrowing books instead of buying them and thereby saving the odd tree or two.
Among the genre’s “classics,” I treasure—and often re-read—Edward Abbey’s essay collection Desert Solitaire; the former park ranger’s reflections on the red rock country are caustic and poetic, and in light of the industrial development of public lands were rather clairvoyant. Equally important is Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. This forester and father of a new land ethic was a brilliant prose stylist, and his advice to keep all the parts when tinkering with nature rings more true today than ever: according to a recent study, by 2020 we could lose two-thirds of wild animals that lived in 1970. In my mind, nature writing that wants to be relevant cannot indulge in bucolic rhapsodies but needs to address ecological and philosophical dilemmas.
The Pacific Northwest also contributes beautifully to the nature writing canon, not just with books such as Barry Lopez’ timeless meditation on high latitudes, Arctic Dreams, but through one Seattle publishing house: Mountaineers Books. Its catalog contains hidden gems such as Cairns: Messengers in Stone, by David B. Williams. This cultural history of the stone markers humans build in the landscape is a delight for the hiker and history buff alike. In its Braided River series, The Mountaineers also publish large-format pictorials that are much more than mere “coffee table books.” Titles such as On Arctic Ground: Tracking Time through Alaska’s National Petroleum Preserve or Arctic Wings: Birds of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (which even contains sound recordings) combine sublime photography and writing by different contributors with environmental advocacy. They remind us of American heirlooms—places and life forms—that deserve our attention and protection.
Lastly, I need to mention the book that has contributed most to my evolution as a writer—from a craft point of view. David Petersen’s Writing Naturally is a primer for beginners and advanced nature writers. It is humorous, anecdote-laden, appropriately down-to-earth, and addresses anything from the nature of nature writing to the selling of your work. I suggest practitioners buy a copy, not borrow it from their library, as they’ll want to annotate and underline things. In these dire times, Petersen speaks for me: “While I could live without writing, I could never live without the things I write about.”
Michael Engelhard is the author of the essay collection, American Wild: Explorations from the Grand Canyon to the Arctic Ocean, and of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon. He lives in Fairbanks, Alaska and works as a wilderness guide in the Arctic.