A dozen natural history books for summer reading

It’s Summer Book Week at Via Negativa. Since I’ll be gone part of the week on vacation myself, I decided it would be an ideal time to consider what constitutes the perfect summer read. I’ve enlisted the help of my family to put up posts while I’m gone, and also do a little guest-blogging.

As you might guess, my mother has a large library of nature and natural history books. It includes all the expected authors – Abbey, Thoreau, Dillard, Lopez – and many more besides. I’ve been wanting for some time to get her to supply a list of her all-time favorite nature books, because I figured it would include a number of non-standard authors and even a few obscure ones. This past weekend, Mom graciously complied. Here’s her list, and what she had to say about it.

These twelve books represent only a fraction of the wonderful natural history books that I have enjoyed over the years. Most are now out of print, but all are available through Amazon.com except for one (Crip, Come Home), and that is available through Bookfinder.com – another good, online source for used books. My choices are colored by my interests over the years and by, in a few cases, authors who are or were friends. In alphabetical order by author:

Twelve Moons of the Year, by Hal Borland. Any book by Hal Borland is good reading. Most are based on his nature editorials for the New York Times. As the dust jacket tells us, “Here…is that familiar, comfortable voice, gentle wit, occasional crankiness, and dry, countryman’s wisdom that made him one of Americas’s best-loved writers about nature.” He died in 1978 and immediately fell off the radar screen in collections of best nature writers. But for anyone who loves celebrations of the daily events in country living, Borland’s work is worth reading.

The Appalachians, by Maurice Brooks. Written back in 1965, this beautifully illustrated book is a primer on the Appalachians by a man known as “Dr. Appalachia” in his lifetime. I was enchanted by it because it captures the uniqueness and beauty of this old chain of mountains stretching from Canada’s Gaspe Peninsula to southern Georgia, with such chapters as “Orchids That Aren’t in the Tropics,” “Lungless Salamanders,” and “The Wood Warblers.”

Life on a Little Known Planet, by Howard Ensign Evans. The “planet” is that of the insect world. Evans has written many wonderful books and this is just his best known. How can you not embrace the work of an author who has chapters called (for example) “The Cricket as Poet and Pugilist,” “Bedbugs, Cone-nosed Bugs, and Other Cuddly Animals,” and “The Intellectual and Emotional World of the Cockroach”? In his concluding chapter, “Is Nature Necessary?” Evans writes, “The fact that there are literally millions of species of plants and animals on this little-known planet of ours is to me overwhelmingly exciting,” and he conveys this excitement throughout his book.

Spring in Washington, by Louis J. Halle. I’ve probably recommended this book to more people than any other I’ve read. Written in 1945, Halle visits, on bicycle, all the natural places in and around Washington, D.C. When we lived there, 20 years later, we still found and visited all the places he wrote about. This is not a guidebook. Instead, Halle “undertook to be monitor of the Washington seasons, when the government was not looking. Though it was only for my own good, that is how the poorest of us may benefit the world.” I must admit that I took his words to heart.

The Long-Shadowed Forest, by Helen Hoover. Helen and her artist husband Adrian lived on the shores of a lake on the Canadian border of Minnesota during the middle of the twentieth century. Best known for herGift of the Deer, I like this book even more, maybe because of her poetic title that evokes our own forest. Hoover snowshoes in the winter and walks the other months of the year, describing what she sees in the rugged wilderness where she and her husband chose to build their primitive cabin without the amenities of modern life. She feeds a three-legged mink, watches bull moose battle, records the antics of chickadees and gray jays, and sees wolves crossing the frozen lake. But she too has a message. “When we poison and bulldoze and pollute, let us remember that we are not the owners of the earth, but its dependents. Let us look to the earth, to its wealth and beauty, and be proud that we are a part of it. Let us respect it, and time and space, the forces of creation and life itself. As we hold the future in our hands, let us not destroy it.”

A Naturalist on a Tropical Farm, by Alexander F. Skutch. For more than 60 years, before his death just a few weeks shy of his 100th birthday, Skutch, a native of Maryland, lived on a tropical farm in Costa Rica where he studied and wrote about tropical birds in dozens of books. My husband and I visited him back in 1989, when he was 85, and ate lunch with him and his wife while his tropical birds flew in, out, and around his unscreened home. Throughout his life he watched his tropical farm become an island in a sea of agriculture. In this book he writes about his life on the farm and the wildlife he observes, including leaf-cutting ants, cichlid fishes, and a potpouri of plants, birds, and mammals.

Driftwood Valley, by Theodora Stanwell-Fletcher. A bestseller after its publication in 1948, it has remained a timeless adventure book. Teddy and her husband John overcome a series of near-disasters in their attempt to live in harmony with nature. Living in the wilds of British Columbia where no white people had ever lived, they homesteaded during the latter part of the 1930s. They also collected the plants and animals of the region for the British Columbia Provincial Museum to provide a source of income. But mostly Teddy writes about the natural world and its inhabitants, including an enlightened defense of the wolves they see. “Utter silence, a deathlike hush over the land, and then, from somewhere below, came a sound that made our hearts stand still. Like a breath of wind, rising slowly, softly, clearly to a high, lovely note of sadness and longing; dying down on two distinct notes so low that our human ears could scarcely catch them. It rose and died, again and again.” Many years later I visited Teddy in her northern Pennsylvania home and heard of her years in British Columbia and of her life afterwards. During our visit, she, too, was in her late eighties, and still enjoyed snowshoeing every winter.

Iceland Summer: Adventures of a Bird Painter, by George Miksch Sutton. Sutton was the Pennsylvania Ornithologist for the Pennsylvania Game Commission back in the 1920s. Then he went on to some fame as a bird artist, in my estimation the best of all of them, and as an ornithologist adventurer in such places as Mexico and the Arctic. His books are fun to read and a joy to look at because his delicate paintings always illustrate them. Iceland Summer recounts his summer quest, along with fellow ornithologist Olin Sewall Pettingill, Jr. and his wife Eleanor, for birds in the wilds of Iceland. Not only did this book receive the coveted John Burroughs Medal for nature-writing in 1962, but he was knighted by Iceland for his contributions to that country. His painting of an Iceland gyrfalcon, which appears in this book, was used by the Iceland government in a postage stamp.

Wandering Through Winter, by Edwin Way Teale. The concluding book in Teale’s American Seasons series, it was an inspiration and goad to me, as were all the many books Teale wrote in his lifetime. From his early books on insects, especially Near Horizons, to his late books about his farm in Connecticut, Teale never wrote a bad book. His knowledge of the natural world was vast and he shared it in a most appealing way. In my opinion he was, and remains, the dean of American nature writing. In Wandering Through Winter, as he travels from the Silver Strand below San Diego to Caribou, Maine, he writes about whooping cranes, migrating whales, pupfish in Death Valley, and the eagles of a Mississippi ice jam. Teale also spends a day with a witch hazel gatherer, camps in the desert, and visits a snowshoe maker in Maine.

Crip, Come Home: The Story of a Bird Who Came to Stay, by Ruth Thomas. The bird is a brown thrasher with a broken wing who lived on the Arkansas farm of Thomas and her husband, and was able to make his living on his own despite his broken wing. For eleven and a half years Thomas meticulously observes him. She also watches her husband Stan lose his battle with cancer. “All the months of Stan’s illness, the old thrasher was a joy and a care beyond ourselves,” she writes. “Stan’s love and the old cripple thrasher, somehow they seemed one, and when I faltered, gave me strength. ‘Do not walk and weep and brood by the fire. Somewhere is another need, another pattern. Have courage to seek,'” she concludes. I included Thomas in my book American Women Afield: Writings by Pioneering Women Naturalists, and my editor said that the excerpt from Crip, Come Home brought tears to her eyes.

Mountains of the Heart: A Natural History of the Appalachians, by Scott Weidensaul. An update of the Brooks book, Weidensaul follows the Appalachians from Georgia to Newfoundland, and “we see how geology, climate, evolution and five hundred years of history have shaped one of the continent’s greatest landscape features into a mountain range of unmatched diversity and beauty.” My friend Scott has written other, more praised books such as Living on the Wind, but this is my favorite, probably because of its subject and its lyrical title, since they are the mountains of my heart too. And unlike Brooks’ book, which doesn’t say much about Pennsylvania, Weidensaul, who lives in the shadow of Hawk Mountain, writes at length about his Pennsylvania Appalachian roots.

Naturalist, by Edward O Wilson. As a great fan of Wilson’s writing, I was especially pleased when he published this autobiographical book, beginning with his childhood on the Gulf Coast of Alabama and Florida. He describes both his growth as a scientist and the evolution of the science he has helped define. As he succinctly writes, “Most children have a bug period. I never grew out of mine,” going on to specialize in ants. Unlike many scientists, Wilson has spoken out and continues to speak out about the loss of biodiversity. “The great majority of species of organisms – possibly in excess of 90 percent – remain unknown to science. They live out there somewhere, still untouched, lacking even a name, waiting for their Linnaeus, their Darwin, their Pasteur…Earth, in the dazzling variety of its life, is still a little-known planet…A lifetime can be spent in a Magellanic voyage around the trunk of a single tree.” He may be a famous scientist, but he has never lost his awe for the incredible earth we inhabit.

– Marcia Bonta

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Marcia Bonta is a naturalist writer based in Central Pennsylvania. She's the author of nine books, including Appalachian Spring and Women in the Field, and more than 300 magazine articles. See her website for links to her books and to read her monthly nature column.

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