Earth Day is upon us!
Two years ago to the day, my colleagues at Lit Hub put together a giant round up of books about ecology, nature, climate change, and other environmental topics (365 books, to be exact) to encourage reading, learning, and acting on behalf of the jeopardized natural world. This year, I wanted to spotlight some of the books that have come out since thuen that have contributed to this crucial mission. (If you think I’ve missed a very important book, check the aforementioned Lit Hub master list.)
Here are 50 nonfiction books about animals, science, nature, that all have to do with learning about the wonders of the natural world, as well as the damages that have been wrought to it.
Aside from having possibly the best name in the world, the biologist Merlin Sheldrake does an enthusiastic and inspiring job presenting the many marvels of the mycological world. Trust me, your mind will be blown upon reading about the extraordinary powers of even a single fungus that lives among us. After reading my copy, I went out and bought a bunch more to give as gifts. A book like no other!
Aimee Nezhukumatathil, World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments
This masterful essay collection by the poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil is a memoir secretly concealed inside a multifaceted appreciation of the extraordinary qualities of animals of all different kinds. You will want to give this book to everyone you know.
More than anything else, rock musician Jonathan Meiburg’s book A Most Remarkable Creature: The Hidden Life and Epic Journey of the World’s Smartest Birds of Prey, seems so attuned to the personalities, intelligences, and feelings of the animals he encounters. The book chronicles his journey across South America, in pursuit of the brilliant, and extremely rare, species of bird, the striated caracara, and Meiburg’s tone is awed that the magnificent creatures around him might even acknowledge or pay attention to him. It’s a humble, grateful book, full of wonderful ornithological knowledge.
Helen MacDonald, Vesper Flights
I can’t better articulate how Vesper Flights triumphs than Parul Sehgal in The New York Times Book Review, who noted that Macdonald’s writing provides “an antidote to so much romantic, reductive writing about the natural world as pristine, secret, uninhabited—as a convenient blank canvas for the hero’s journey of self-discovery.” Yes, indeed! In both of her books (this, and its predecessor H is for Hawk), Macdonald both observes and participates in nature in a manner which is free of philosophical entanglements. But her relationships with and observations of animals are not excuses for personal reflection. Her writing is free of human hang-ups and thought spirals, thereby debunking the primacy of common human opinions about nature. She meticulously and devotedly presents complicated facets of the natural world, not to try to make metaphors out of them, but to appreciate them for what they are.
After Jessica J. Lee accidentally encounters letters written by her immigrant grandfather, she heads to her ancestral homeland of Taiwan. This book is a presentation of the island itself: its natural landscape and how it has shaped and is shaped by the culture that it begot; in the words of Sangamithra Iyer at The Rumpus, it is “a stunning reconnaissance effort to uncover and connect with family history through language and landscape.”
Tucker Malarkey, Stronghold: One Man’s Quest to Save the World’s Wild Salmon
The novelist Tucker Malarky undertakes a very compelling feat in this pseudo-biography of her first cousin, Guido Rahr, a fly fisherman, advocate for salmon populations, and all-around misfit. But his life’s goal, to save the world’s wild salmon populations, began when he noticed that the salmon runs in the Pacific Northwest had dwindled… and he was one of very few people who could figure out why. It’s a fascinating and essential story.
Michael E. Mann, The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet
This isn’t just a book; it’s a PLAN. To quote Book Marks, “Recycle. Fly less. Eat less meat. These are some of the ways that we’ve been told can slow climate change. But the inordinate emphasis on individual behavior is the result of a marketing campaign that has succeeded in placing the responsibility for fixing climate change squarely on the shoulders of individuals. The result has been disastrous for our planet. In The New Climate War, renowned climate scientist Mann argues that all is not lost. And he outlines a plan for forcing our governments and corporations to wake up and make real change.
Julia Rothman, The Anatomy Books
Julia Rothman’s four Anatomy books are the ultimate endorsements of the sheer educational power of illustration, while also being actual works of art, themselves. Farm Anatomy, Ocean Anatomy, Nature Anatomy, and Food Anatomy (with the Ocean and Nature installments co-authored by John Niekrasz and Food co-authored by Rachel Wharton) are brilliant taxonomies of all the “parts” of all the tools and participants within various natural and agricultural systems. With their (it must be noted) rich illustrations, they push the boundaries of what scientific illustration can do, and who can benefit from it. An ageless accomplishment, it’s the perfect series to read with your kid or just curl up with, yourself.
In this “wonderful mix of science-based speculation and entertaining whimsy,” in the words of critic David P. Barash, the Cambridge zoologist Arik Kershenbaum conducts a hypothetical exploration of what alien life might be like, given what we know about the “universal laws that govern life on Earth and in space,” to quote the Book Marks summary. Out of this world.
Melanie Challenger, How to Be Animal: A New History of What It Means to Be Human
Melanie Challenger’s excellent, excellent new book cannot be described in better terms than it was by Charlotte Shane at Bookforum, so I’m just going a paste a chunk of that review here: “How to Be Animal begins with the premise that our collective self-regard depends on the idea that we are superior to every other type of being. This fiction is predicated on a denial of other animals’ inner complexity, or at least a belief that it can’t approximate, let alone surpass, our own … Challenger’s book is a dizzyingly ambitious attempt to correct this destructive logic by examining its genesis, and I don’t mean ‘dizzying’ figuratively. How to Be Animal induces the type of vertigo I experienced as a child while pondering where I was before I was born, if I could exist without a body, and what it would be like to have never existed at all. The book aims to convince readers that our earthbound, embodied existences are precious and absolute.”
Scott Weidensaul, A World on the Wing: The Global Odyssey of Migratory Birds
This lovely book is an investigation into the phenomenon of global bird migration, and when I say it pulls this off, I do not mean it lightly. This is a comprehensive approach that goes hard on the science while also bursting with emotion. You’ll feel like running underneath a V of geese with your arms spread out when you’re done.
Andreas Malm, How to Blow Up a Pipeline
This passionate, fiery book by respected climate scholar and activist (and, ahem, saboteur) Andreas Malm is a call to action for the climate movement, begging those who care about the earth to advance tactics in order to prevent complete planetary destruction. Marches and petitions aren’t good enough, he argues: what we actually need to do, to end fossil fuel extraction, is to blow up oil pipelines. And the like. What’s so clever about this ride-or-die account is that it’s also a wry history of the successes of more assertive types of activism.
My boyfriend is an avid birder, so I got him this coffee-table-book-sized nonfiction book that goes deep in analyzing what birds are doing, and why they’re doing it… but it doesn’t do it from a human’s perspective! It does it from a bird’s perspective! A real eagle eye view, if you will!
Sierra Crane Murdoch, Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder, and a Woman’s Search for Justice in Indian Country
This remarkable work of journalism chronicles the work of Lissa Yellow Bird, a Native American woman who was released from prison in 2009 to find that her home had been ravaged by an oil boom. When she learns that a young white oil worker has mysteriously disappeared, she begins an investigation into the shady interlopers who have invaded the landscape.
Patrik Svensson, tr. Agnes Broomé, The Book of Eels: Our Enduring Fascination with the Most Mysterious Creature in the Natural World
What actually IS an eel? I don’t know, but I am very curious. The good news is that in this book, Svensson starts with this inquiry, a very helpful bit of “what actually IS this thing” groundwork that builds into an actual thesis. Yes, the book attempts to reveal the enigma that is the eel, but it also defines the eel as an entity that has long drawn clueless fascination and resisted classification. He then takes this inquiry to metaphysical places, meditating about the nature of life and death, which may not be for everyone, but it is thematically cohesive: the eel is just one glaring mystery in the mystery that is nature.
Peter Godfrey-Smith, Metazoa: Animal Life and the Birth of the Mind
Do you remember that mind-blowing book about the octopus from a few years ago? Well noted philosopher and scuba diver Peter Godfrey-Smith’s next book similarly explores the vastness of animal consciousness and what it reveals about the origins of the human mind. As Robert Eagan wrote in Library Journal, “An astonishing range of creatures are considered and a fascinating argument advanced about how evolutionary innovations can give rise to animal minds.”
Hooray for Erin Brockovich! The crusader who took down Pacific Gas and Electric has not stopped her activism and she will not stop! As Gabino Iglesias writes for NPR, the book “is a brutally honest look at how mismanagement, chemical spills, mishandling of toxic waste and sludge, and even fake studies have created the perfect storm in terms of damaging water systems in the United States … Brockovich delves deep into places where there are unreported cancer clusters to show us the extent of it.”
N. Scott Momaday, Earth Keeper: Reflections on the American Land
Diego Báez at Booklist calls this beautiful book “a profound reflection on humanity’s relationship with its terrestrial home, the planet Earth. In this ‘spiritual autobiography,’ Momaday addresses his intimate, evolving relationship with the land in quick vignettes composed of disarmingly short paragraphs that depict moments big and small.”
Don’t just take my word for it… here’s what Adrian Wolfson from The Washington Post has to say about it: “In her glorious and exuberant celebration of these biological flying machines, The Language of Butterflies, Wendy Williams takes us on a humorous and beautifully crafted journey that explores both the nature of these curious and highly intelligent insects and the eccentric individuals who coveted them. En route we discover, among other things, the remarkable interconnectivity of living things, the deceptions that insects deploy to trick predators and the complexities that present a significant challenge to our attempts to conserve the rapidly disappearing natural world.”
Tim Birkhead, The Wonderful Mr. Willughby: The First True Ornithologist
Have you heard of Francis Willughby? Probably not, but, in the words of the Book Marks summary, in his very short life he “helped found the Royal Society, differentiated birds through identification of their distinguishing features, and asked questions that were, in some cases, centuries ahead of their time.” This lovely biography attempts to restore his legacy and bring him the credit his many ornithological accomplishments deserve.
This beautiful, heartbreaking treatise by French Buddhist monk and animal activist Matthieu Ricard gutted me when I read it a few years ago. Its argument is simple: that humans are not the only creatures who can feel pleasure and plain, and who deserve lives free of pain and torture. He declares that it is a moral obligation to treat all animals with compassion. The hard part about this book is that Ricard outlines the countless ways in which our society does not, in fact, treat animals with respect, and his breakdown of the ways in which the animals that we turn into food, clothing, decoration, entertainment, test subjects, and other entities suffer greatly is beyond devastating. Everyone should read this book.
Stefano Mancuso tr. Gregory Conti, The Nation of Plants
Italian plant neurobiologist Stefano Mancuso’s framework (which understands the floral world as its own “nation”) is only the first of the countless innovative scaffoldings that he uses to present the truths of the botanical world to us.
This might be cheating, because it’s not out yet, but I hope everyone picks up Helen Scales’s The Brilliant Abyss when it hits shelves in July of this year! Scales is a marine biologist, and in this book, she presents to us the limits of our knowledge about the world’s ocean ecosystems. She notes that we’re actually at a historical watershed in terms of deep-sea exploration: very soon, our technology will make it possible to examine the unfathomable depths of the oceans. But, Scales warns, while this is a thrilling possibility for science, it’s also possibly another doomed frontier, about to be mined and exploited.
Bruno LaTour, Down to Earth, Politics in the New Climatic Regime
The French philosopher Bruno LaTour takes on the Climate Crisis. I agree with James Delbourgo, who masterfully noted in the LARB that “It’s fascinating to see a thinker like Latour grapple with the political moment and deploy the abstractions of his intellectual program to help clarify it. His book is a success in this regard.” Delbourgo continues, “Latour’s point is that crises of migration, inequality, and environment are linked by a politics of denial: we finally have an environmentally based politics, but it’s one of negation… The protagonist of his book is not a person but a mythology: the idea of ‘attachment to the soil’ (‘attachement au sol’). This attachment is characterized by a yearning to retreat from ‘the global’ to ‘the local,’ and to define ourselves as defending our soil from external enemies who will not only land but also somehow destroy us. Ironically, such nativism — truth to soil, if you like — is driven by escapist flight: flight from the reality of anthropogenic climate change, and flight from empirical evidence to ‘alternative facts.’ Trumpism is the ultimate mental staycation: there is only here, and there is nothing outside of here to care about. Let’s lock ourselves in. In other words, the political world now under construction is one of paradoxical flight toward the local, rather than away from it; we don’t share the same planet, and so there’s no common ground. If any grassroots connected all of us once upon a time, those roots seem to have been pulled up like so many inconvenient weeds in the name of protection from our enemies.”
Peter Wohlleben, tr. Jane Billinghurst, The Inner Life of Animals: Love, Grief, and Compassion–Surprising Observations of a Hidden World
A follow-up to his bestseller, The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben’s new book moves in steps to bring our understanding of humankind’s mental and emotional abilities as relating to animals; each chapter hones a particular “human” emotional state that appears in animal, too.
Elena Passarello, Animals Strike Curious Poses
In each of Elena Passarello’s sixteen essays in this gorgeous and unconventional collection, she focuses on an animal that has been celebrated by humans: named, celebrated, venerated, memorialized.
In their excellent 2019 Book Marks list in honor of Indigenous People’s Day, Sarah Neilson praises this meticulous book by Dina Gilio-Whitaker (of the Colville Confederated Tribe): “In this short but dense primer, Gilio-Whitaker brings her vast knowledge and experience to the page as she charts the history of environmental (in)justice (EJ) in North America since colonization. The book opens with a detailed account of Standing Rock and moves outward, highlighting the ways in which western colonial expansion, the Industrial Revolution and its legacy, and the mainstream EJ movement continue to exclude, marginalize, harm, indeed kill, First Nations people. Drawing connections between Indigenous health, sacred sites, and the essential leadership of Indigenous women, she illustrates capitalism as a manifestation of settler colonialism that is fundamentally incompatible with Indigenous ways of thinking/being and, therefore, with environmental justice. Gilio-Whitaker makes a comprehensive, urgent and compelling argument for the indigenization of the EJ movement.”
Michelle Nijhuis, Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction
You’ve definitely seen this cover on display if you’ve been inside a bookshop lately—you can’t miss the neon. Michelle Nijhuis’s excellent new book is a history of the conservation movement. As Donna Seaman writes in Booklist, “Nijhuis parses thorny social and ethical issues, while anchoring this exceptionally comprehensive and enlightening history of conservation to incisive profiles of many ardent and intrepid individuals devoted to protecting animals and their habitats … Along the way, she exposes the racism inherent in environmental decimation, chronicles the struggle to establish community-based conservation initiatives, and explains efforts to protect common species before they decline, introducing heroic contemporary innovators.”
Terry Tempest Williams, Erosion: Essays of Undoing
The environmental and feminist activist Terry Tempest Williams is an urgent cry to save the withering away of America’s public lands, which are constantly besieged by endless corporate and industrial entities. Diane Ackerman writes in The New York Times Book Review, “It is in this spacious, all-encompassing spirit that Terry Tempest Williams imagines erosion in her new book, as a process that also weathers the body, mind and spirit … If Williams’s haunting, powerful and brave book can be summed up in one line of advice it would be this: try to stare down the grief of everyday life, speak out and find solace in the boundless beauty of nature.”
Kathleen Dean Moore, Earth’s Wild Music: Celebrating and Defending the Songs of the Natural World
This evocative essay collection, which spans the career of noted climate activist Kathleen Dean Moore, brings together new and classic essays to encourage people to witness and listen to (this is key) the wonders of the world, along the path to trying to save it.
Zach St. George, The Journeys of Trees: A Story about Forests, People, and the Future
So, one of the most interesting scientific tidbits I have ever heard is that trees actually move. They do! They aren’t fixed entities… they expand, and they migrate! Zach St. George’s impeccably well-researched and groundbreaking (admittedly less literally than the trees he writes about) study is a necessary uncovering of the sentience and capabilities of plants.
New York Times bestselling author Carl Safina takes us into the worlds of three separate animal species, to learn as much about them as possible. As Katharine Norbury writes in The Washington Post, “In this superbly articulate cri de coeur, Safina gives us a new way of looking at the natural world that is radically different from our usual anthropocentric perspective. Becoming Wild demands that we wake up and realize that we are intrinsically linked to our other-than-human neighbors.”
In this impressive and comprehensive biography, Toby Musgrave introduces us to a lost figure of the Enlightenment: Sir Joseph Banks, a historian and designer of gardens whose horticultural cultivation shaped the landscapes of the Western world.
Thomas D. Seeley, The Lives of Bees: The Untold Story of the Honey Bee in the Wild
No list on animals and nature should be without a book on bees! And honey, do I have a great one for you! Thomas D. Seeley brings us dispatches from the cutting-edge scientific hive-mind exploring the complex behavioral, social, and survival dynamics of bee colonies.
Kazim Ali was inspired to write this book by the local Pimicikamak community’s challenges brought to them by the Canadian government, following the building of an electric utility on the shores of the Cross Lake Dam. As Rachel Jagareski writes in Foreward Review, “Kazim Ali’s eloquent memoir Northern Light reports on the complicated history of a Canadian landscape and its Pimicikamak residents, who endure human-made challenges every day … This book began as a nostalgic inquiry into that place, but grew into an exploration of human connections to land and water, personal and cultural identities, and the meaning of home.”
Douglas W. Tallamy, The Nature of Oaks: The Rich Ecology of Our Most Essential Native Trees
In this new and enlightening book from New York Times bestselling author Douglas W. Tallamy, our man focuses his attention on the great monolith of the arboreal world: the mighty oak! It’s a rich explanation of exactly what oaks are and how they thrive, plus it’s got a bunch of tips for how you can maintain your own oaks!
Nathaniel Rich, Second Nature: Scenes from a World Remade
To quote Book Marks, “The author of Losing Earth returns with an exploration of our post-natural world in which scientists race to reanimate extinct beasts, our most essential ecosystems require monumental engineering projects to survive, chicken breasts grow in test tubes, and multinational corporations conspire to poison the blood of every living creature.”
In this high-fiber read, plant ecologist Catherine Zabinski follows the evolution of wheat, from its wild origins to its highly modified existence as a staple of modern agriculture. Forrest Pritchard writes, in The Wall Street Journal, that“Amber Waves nimbly segues into a socio-agro primer, providing a crash course in genetics, plant breeding and agronomy,” but that it is still “replete with heartbreak, endless drama and even an unlikely love affair.”
This book is a delightful series of “aha!” moments. After doing impressive biological detective work, Kenneth Catania theorizes why some of the most fascinating animal qualities wound up evolving into existence. Tons of fun.
Callum Roberts, Reef Life: An Underwater Memoir
Callum Roberts is the world’s leading coral reef scientist, and has written a fascinating, loving reflection on his career, and his field. As Caspar Henderson writes in The Guardian (UK), “Reef Life is a vibrant memoir of the joys, as well as the grind, of a research career beginning in the 1980s that has spanned a golden age of coral reef science. It is also a fine introduction to the ecology of reefs and the existential threats they now face.”
This lovely, exacting book tells the story of two lives: that of the Japanese cherry blossom tree, which has lived for 1,200-years—and the English gardener who was determined not to let it go extinct.
Raynor Winn, The Wild Silence: A Memoir
This book is the sequel to Winn’s bestselling memoir The Salt Path, about her life with her beloved, ill husband Moth. But in the words of Heller McAlpin in The Wall Street Journal, “… where The Salt Path stayed on a relatively narrow but propulsive narrative track, The Wild Silence roams further afield. It’s a more expansive memoir, ranging from backstory to update, with meditations on death, sustainable farming, trust, the meaning of home and the central importance of deep engagement with the great outdoors … As always, Ms. Winn exquisitely captures the raw intensity of untamed environments … a full-throated paean to the fundamental importance of nature in all its glory, fury and impermanence.”
Gretel Ehrlich, Unsolaced: Along the Way to All That Is
Gretel Ehrlich’s reverent, roaming memoir is, to quote the Book Marks description, “a meditation on how water, light, wind, mountain, bird, and horse have shaped her life and her understanding of a world besieged by a climate crisis.”
This is a moving (literally, it’s about running) debut memoir, part coming-of-age story, part environmental reflection, part social critique. Álvarez runs in a Native American marathon from Canada all the way to Guatemala, reflecting on his family’s history, as Mexican immigrants who worked in fruit-packing plants before coming to America, and the identity of North America as a whole.
Felicia Luna Lemus, Particulate Matter
This scintillating, multifaceted book is a look at Lemus’s “place”: the state of her marriage (which has been rocked), her identity as a woman of color and a queer woman, her residence in Los Angeles, a place whose land, water, and air have become toxic and compromised, and her identity as a human on a planet that is being destroyed by climate change. As Jason Heller writes in NPR, “it’s more than just a cautionary tale about how climate change and its manmade causes have affected the life of the author. It’s a love story that’s profoundly rooted in the emotional, geographical, and sociopolitical terrain of today.”
Elizabeth Kolbert, Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future
Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Kolbert’s beat is examining the impact of humans on the environment and she does it better than basically everyone. Her new book takes this damage as a starting point rather than a focus, asking how to reconstruct, preserve, and even save nature, going forward.
One of the biggest legacies of history is that Western civilization has been hell for animals. I’ve long been fascinated by Henry Bergh, the wealthy nineteenth-century man who founded the ASPCA and spent his life championing animal rights. Not only did he work for the protection of animals, he also worked to establish corresponding public health protocols. He took on everyone from local gangs to P.T. Barnum, helping to establish laws that protected all animals, from trolley horses, to stray dogs. I’m so grateful to Freeberg for writing this excellent biography.
ed. by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson, All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis
This remarkable, hyper-collaborative book expands our understanding of how those affected by climate change might all work together to stop it, and how female leadership (particularly leadership undertaken by women of color) has proven to be more successful. I really like the summary on Penguin’s website, so I’m just going to quote a chunk of it. Forgive me for the giant paragraph: “There is a renaissance blooming in the climate movement: leadership that is more characteristically feminine and more faithfully feminist, rooted in compassion, connection, creativity, and collaboration. While it’s clear that women and girls are vital voices and agents of change for this planet, they are too often missing from the proverbial table. More than a problem of bias, it’s a dynamic that sets us up for failure. To change everything, we need everyone. All We Can Save illuminates the expertise and insights of dozens of diverse women leading on climate in the United States—scientists, journalists, farmers, lawyers, teachers, activists, innovators, wonks, and designers, across generations, geographies, and race—and aims to advance a more representative, nuanced, and solution-oriented public conversation on the climate crisis. These women offer a spectrum of ideas and insights for how we can rapidly, radically reshape society.”
This fascinating book (besides being the perfect Father’s Day gift for your dad, obviously) is an eye-opening history of WOOD! What? I know! From how trees, and our interactions with trees, have shaped ecosystems, to how wood itself has been incorporated into societies, to how wood functions as a material, it gives a rundown like no other.
This sprawling, exuberant, well-researched study of the Bears Ears National Monument and its surrounding lands provides a long history of the formation, chronicling its significance to the Indigenous tribes who lived in the Southwest, to the modern effort to save it.