Though Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac was written in and about Wisconsin, Leopold was born in Burlington, Iowa, and that’s where his love of nature first began to emerge. Last fall, the State of Iowa proclaimed the first full week of March as Aldo Leopold Week, a time to celebrate and pay tribute to Leopold’s legacy as a leader in conservation.
As a writer, I also see Aldo Leopold Week as a time to celebrate and reflect on nature writing, a genre that influences my own writing deeply. I don’t define myself primarily as a nature writer because the term is limited, and I don’t build fences between what I do and don’t do, but my experiences writing about nature were certainly what inspired me to pursue writing seriously and remains a passion of mine.
(Those interested in beginning nature writing should check out this excellent resource: “Henry Thoreau as a Model for Nature Writing” by Ron Harton.)
I wanted to take this opportunity to call out some amazing nature writing texts. There are hundreds of books shelved under the category of “Nature Writing” on Goodreads, and there are a lot that I haven’t read. I’m not including any books on this list that I haven’t read in their entirety, and while I’m ashamed to admit it, there are some really important books that I’ve only read in excerpts.
It’s worth acknowledging that this list is more than 75% white men. For a long time, the genre was largely dominated by white men, but there are now plenty of excellent nature writing texts by women and people of color. I just haven’t read them all yet, and a lot of the ones to which I’ve been exposed, I haven’t had the chance to enjoy in their entirety yet. Don’t worry. It is a priority of mine. Many are sitting on my bookshelf right now, just waiting for their turn.
Therefore, please don’t see this list as my nature writing canon–far from it. I can only recommend that which I know, and unfortunately, my formal literary education focused primarily on white men, and I’m still in the process of making up for lost time. Check out that Goodreads shelf I mentioned, and you’ll see a more diverse array of nature writing texts.
One more thing worth noting is that I don’t actually use the category of “nature writing” to organize my own books on Goodreads. It’s too hard for me to define. I use the much broader “environment.” I didn’t want to overthink what is or isn’t nature writing for this blog post, so the following list is based on the Goodreads hive mind. If people are shelving it under “nature writing,” then I counted it. If they aren’t, then I didn’t. I expect controversy.
Without further ado, here are just a few great nature writing books besides A Sand County Almanac with Other Essays on Conservation from Round River by Aldo Leopold. They appear in alphabetical order, not in any order of preference.
- Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey
- The Lives of Rocks by Rick Bass
- A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson
- Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England by William Cronon
- The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
- The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories by Ernest Hemingway
- A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid
- Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver
- Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver
- The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert
- The Singing Wilderness by Sigurd F. Olson
- The Wilding by Benjamin Percy
- The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan
- In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan
- Living Downstream: A Scientist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment by Sandra Steingraber
- Walden by Henry David Thoreau
- Words from the Land: Encounters with Natural History by Stephen Trimble (editor)
- Biophilia by Edward O. Wilson
- The Diversity of Life by Edward O. Wilson
- The Future of Life by Edward O. Wilson
Lots of omissions here, I know, and probably plenty of books that would be better classified elsewhere. The point is not to for me to establish the nature writing canon but to spark discussion, so discuss!
What are your favorite nature writing books? What are the most offensive omissions (which may be either because I haven’t read a critical nature writing text yet or because the Goodreads community hasn’t yet shelved the work as “nature writing”)? What doesn’t belong on this list? Often we think of nature writing as nonfiction, yet a few fiction texts made the list–but no poetry. Does nature writing have to be nonfiction? Within nonfiction, do research (rather than observation) based texts count? Does any of this even matter?
Ames Reads Leopold
Though this is the first annual Aldo Leopold Week, communities nationwide have been celebrating Aldo Leopold Weekend on the first weekend of March since 2004. And Saturday, March 7, will be the eighth annual Ames Reads Leopold event.
I had the pleasure of reading “Axe-in-Hand” at last year’s Ames Reads Leopold, and this year, I am thrilled to be reading “January Thaw.”
The event is free and open to the public. You can expect readings from Leopold’s work, a screening of the Emmy award winning documentary Green Fire, and an overall good time. It’s also a great opportunity to check out the newly renovated Ames Public Library if you haven’t had the chance to do that yet. Check out this news release for more information.