Learning about the landscape and the lifeways of more-than-human nature means venturing out in it with your senses wide open, above all. Yet such learning can be greatly enhanced by reading, after you come back indoors. Some of our finest, most meaningful literature has been inspired by the desire to describe and defend the wonder of the living world. Following are some recommendations to get you started roaming knowledgeable through the wild places and pages.
One book indispensable to understanding our bioregion, from the bedrock to the forest canopy, is Glenda Daniel and Jerry Sullivan's Sierra Club Naturalist's Guide: The North Woods. It's well-written and amazingly comprehensive, not just a roster of the plants and animals that characterize our home place, but an explanation of the patterns of their dances together. Fascinating and richly rewarding.
No home should be without its field guides, books to help you answer the question, "What's that?" The Peterson guides are dandy. Illustrated with drawings depicting ideal-typical examples of the species in question, providing useful notes about ranges and field marks, well-organized, these books do a lot of hard work. I use Eastern Birds and Wildflowers all the time. The Audubon series of field guides has nice texts and a lot more natural history than the Peterson Guides, but are photographically illustrated, which turns out to be a drawback for identification purposes because often the individual organism you're looking at is just enough different from the photo to leave a doubt. Field guides make good gifts (especially to yourself). There are scads of them--you can learn the ferns, the moths, the grasses, the nests. Get to know your neighbors!
Reading Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac should, I feel, be a basic requirement of American citizenship. This powerfully written, expert collection of essays on landscape, game, range, hunting, fishing, wilderness, predators, and the land ethic is the greatest ecology book of our time. A Sand County Almanac repays every reading with wisdom, vision, and delight. It will change the way you see things.
Rachel Carson stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Aldo Leopold. Her exquisite books--The Edge of the Sea, Under the Sea Wind, The Sea Around Us, and Silent Spring are lyric, elegant meticulous natural history as well as investigative research. A marine biologist, Carson gave her life to her writing, with utter conviction as to the preciousness of every living creature. Silent Spring, an indictment of the wanton use of chemicals in nature, is deemed one of the most influential books of the last 50 years, credited with launching the environmental movement as we know it. The urgency of its message is undiminished more than thirty years after it first jolted the country.
Big Picture-wise, the best current book on biodiversity is E. O. Wilson's The Diversity of Life. Wilson is a distinguished scientist, a learned and passionate defender of tropical nature, and a leading myrmecologist (you could look it up). He's a fine prose stylist as well. This book explains the principles of biodiversity, why there can be no satisfactory substitutes for the process of evolution and why, therefore, the extinction crisis is so dire. The Diversity of Life is illustrated with graphs, photographs and vividly-written vignettes of particular ecological relationships: good stories.
If you are seriously interested in biodiversity and how to preserve it, there are a couple of magazines you should keep up with. One is Conservation Biology, which mixes technical articles on subjects like genetics, demographics, and wildlife biology--the details of species endangerment--with wide-ranging philosophical considerations by some of the leading practitioners of this "crisis discipline". Subscriptions: $130 per year (6 issues) from Blackwell Sciences, Inc., 238 Main Street, Cambridge MA 02142-1016. (Perhaps we could take up a collection to have a local library subscribe.) The other critical periodical is Wild Earth, rooted in the same understanding and concern as Conservation Biology, but addressing the layperson-activist with strategic and tactical intelligence on wildlands, and hence, biodiversity preservation. Wild Earth also publishes poetry, provocative essays on related issues like human overpopulation, and some of the best black and white wildlife drawing you'll see anywhere. Subscriptions: $25 per year (4 issues) from POB 455, Richmond, VT 05477.
Fierce contemporary poetry that sings, cries, chants, paints, and envisions once-and-future untrammeled nature is collected in Gary Lawless' poignant anthology Poems for the Wild Earth ($8.95 plus postage and handling from Blackberry Books, 617 East Neck Road, Nobleboro, ME 04555.) Lawless' own poem gives the flavor:
When the animals come to us,
Finally, a book to lead you to hundreds of good books: This Incomparable Lande: A Book of American Nature Writing, edited by Thomas J. Lyon. With an introductory history of the literature of the American earth written from a deep-ecological perspective; 22 selections from classic works dating from 1634 to the present; and an extensive annotated bibliography, Lyon's fair and sturdy work could keep you going for years, introducing the great company of American writers that has over three centuries and especially during the last 50 years, been celebrating and detailing this incomparable land, paying due tribute to its awesome complexity with grace and intelligence.
When you come right down to it, this is a literature of love and devotion, words to encourage a passion for Life.
Return to the Index of Synapse 35, Spring Equinox 1996