Reading the Outdoors - Books by Three Big Names in Nature Writing
July 26th, 2021
The tradition of Nature Writing has a firm foundation in the U.S. from celebrated authors like Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, and in the 20th century Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Edward Abbey and others. It’s recent incarnation seems to have gathered some mainstream steam with the popularity of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and other such tales of long, complicated, endurance treks and adventures.
But it doesn’t seem all that often that Creative Nonfiction books in the vein of outdoor literature, adventure or nature writing top the charts and gain big-time readership. Most of the books that I’m reading are niche for sure, and so it takes some research, as well as accumulated knowledge of the writers and the genre, to even find these books to add to the reading list.
Since I’m well into my list of books to read in this genre, and since I specialized in Environmental and Nature Writing in graduate school, I figured why not share some of these reads and perhaps make it that much easier for others to find them and enjoy!
Without further ado, here are three books by three big-name authors in the Nature Writing genre.
The Hour of Land: a Personal Topography of America’s National Parks by Terry Tempest Williams
“Any wind will tell you it is the long view that counts. Big Bend National Park is the long view--stark, lonely, and soul saving”
I’ve always enjoyed Williams for her unique style and boldness of phrase as she gives voice to the land, or in favor of nature, especially the desert of her home state of Utah. I was first introduced to Williams in the early 2000s in an undergraduate environmental literature course and have read and valued her contributions to the genre ever since.
In The Hour of Land, Williams explores twelve National Park units traveling from Maine to Texas to Alaska and several places in between. She doesn’t focus solely on National Parks either, but visits one National Military Park, two National Monuments, one National Recreation Area and one National Seashore.
This personal topography is exceptional, especially if you’re looking for a combination of vivid descriptions, a peculiar yet interesting casts of characters, with a fair amount of land advocacy tossed in the mix.
But what exactly is a personal topography, you might ask? It’s Williams' survey of the land though her own experiences and lens. Many of the places that Williams writes about have some personal significance to her, either from some distant family lineage, an attempt to lease BLM land to prevent oil drilling, or memories from childhood (or adulthood) excursions with her father.
Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape by Barry Lopez
“It is precisely because the regimes of light and time in the Arctic are so different that this landscape is able to expose in startling ways the complacency of our thoughts about land in general.”
Barry Lopez wrote Arctic Dreams after a five-year stay with Inuit peoples on the North American Arctic Coast. This book is a compilation of what he saw and what he learned, organized in chapters that focus on one arctic animal at a time. Lopez’s writing shifts from breathtaking descriptions of far-away places to detailed accounts of his travels to long passages of scientific writing containing little-known facts about the evolution of the musk ox or the insulating properties of polar bear fur.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book because it allowed me to enter into a world that I don’t imagine I’ll ever be able to experience (though who knows!). I found myself opening Google Maps often to find a location on Baffin or Ellesmere Island, zoom in on the satellite image or browse posted pictures as a way of supplementing Lopez’s descriptions. All of this confirmed what I already knew--the arctic is an otherworldly place!
This book is worth the read, even if it the pace slows a bit here and there with dry, informational prose. When Lopez is on his descriptive game, the prose is rich and meditative. And if that’s not enough to persuade you to check this title out, Lopez won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 1986 for Arctic Dreams.
Leave It As It Is: A Journey Through Theodore Roosevelt’s American Wilderness by David Gessner
“If our parks seem tame when we drive through them, we need to remember that creating parks was once a wild idea. Wild as in out-of-the-blue, fresh, new, dangerous, out-there intoxicating. Wild as in people thought the idea was crazy.”
Gessner writes about wilderness and environmentalism. He writes about the virtues of Theodore Roosevelt’s ideas about preservation and National Parks, as well as it’s oversights and unfortunate consequences. Gessner describes his own connection to these various landscapes of the American West in his book. But perhaps most importantly, he documents the conversations he’s had with a multitude of activists along the way.
Leave It As It Is is a layered tale of Gessner’s travels to many wild places across the west that were in some way significant to Theodore Roosevelt, or otherwise flashpoints in today’s battle to preserve and protect wilderness landscapes in the United States. He combines historical anecdotes with contemporary tales in an effort to show the long history, the current urgency, and what’s at stake in the environmental emergency that is the Anthropocene.
I enjoyed this book, though I went into the reading with other expectations. I expected to read a book with more description of Gessner's outdoor adventures. The reality of the book is a bit different, but interesting on its own terms.
Read it for Gessner’s description of his travels with his nephew, or for the insights about public land management from the author and his acquaintances alike, or for a brief lesson on Roosevelt’s influence on land preservation and our National Park system. But go into it knowing that this is not a book solely about land management or about an adventure across public lands. It’s multifaceted and ultimately a good read.
Williams, Terry Tempest. The Hour of Land: a Personal Topography of America's National Parks. Picador, 2016.
Lopez, Barry. Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape. 1986. Vintage Books, 2001.
Gessner, David. Leave It As It Is: A Journey Through Theodore Roosevelt’s American Wilderness. Simon & Schuster, 2020.