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Sierra Magazine
Nature's Finest

Would you, too, like to study environmental literature? Here are a dozen classics.

A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold, 1949
Half a century ago, this book introduced the idea that wolves are good and a "land ethic" is essential. Its graceful prose still helps crystallize thoughts for nature lovers today. "I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in," Leopold says. "Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?"

Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams, 1991
A keen-eyed naturalist embraces adversity in this moving account of her mother's battle with cancer and the Bear River Refuge's struggle against the rising waters of the Great Salt Lake. Even after losing what she loves, Williams writes, "There is no place on earth I would rather be."

Land of Little Rain by Mary Hunter Austin, 1903
"To understand the fashion of any life, one must know the land it is lived in and the procession of the year." A hardy early feminist makes a harsh landscape on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada come alive through spare, powerful prose.

Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey, 1968
With humor, reckless ranting, and loving descriptions of the desert, "Cactus Ed" chronicles his stint as a seasonal ranger in Arches National Park and makes a strong case for the preservation of all wild places: "We have agreed not to drive our automobiles into cathedrals, concert halls, art museums, legislative assemblies, private bedrooms, and other sanctums of our culture; we should treat our national parks with the same deference, for they, too, are holy places."

Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko, 1977
Tayo, a fictional World War II veteran, finds his home on the Laguna Indian Reservation in New Mexico ravaged by alcohol and rage. Ancient ceremonies, deeply rooted to the land, help him navigate the chaos. Tayo's uncle Josiah tells him, "This is where we come from, see. This sand, this stone, these trees, the vines, all the wildflowers. This earth keeps us going."

Walden by Henry David Thoreau, 1854
The current crop of nature writing is all rooted in this quirky personal story about simple living, close to nature. "I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life."

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, 1974
A young woman in 20th century Virginia tries to live like Thoreau, with revelatory results: "In nature I find grace tangled in a rapture with violence; I find an intricate landscape whose forms are fringed in death; I find mystery, newness, and a kind of exuberant, spendthrift energy."

Woman and Nature by Susan Griffin, 1978
An edgy feminist classic argues that Western religion and philosophy have promoted the power of men over both women and nature. "These words are written for those of us whose language is not heard, whose words have been stolen or erased, those robbed of language, who are called voiceless or mute, even the earthworms, even the shellfish and the sponges, for those of us who speak our own language."

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, 1962
This book inspired a U.S. ban on DDT and added pollution to the environmental agenda. Its lucid scientific lessons on the dangers of pesticides conclude with a warning worth heeding today: "It is our alarming misfortune that so primitive a science has armed itself with the most modern and terrible weapons, and that in turning them against the insects it has also turned them against the earth."

Practice of the Wild by Gary Snyder, 1990
With Sierra Nevada dust on his boots, one of America's finest poets of nature uses the essay form to explore how people learn to feel at home in the places they inhabit. Though full of wisdom from around the world, the book is at times as pleasantly personal as a good conversation. "Do you really believe you are an animal? We are now taught this in school. It is a wonderful piece of information: I have been enjoying it all my life and I come back to it over and over again, as something to investigate and test."

Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez, 1986
This learned history of the Far North probes the lives of narwhals, belugas, polar bears, humans, and other life forms that have eked out a living in this dazzling, difficult land. Of the Eskimos, Lopez says, "They have a quality of nuannaarpoq, of taking extravagant pleasure in being alive; and they delight in finding it in other people. Facing as we do our various Armageddons, they are a good people to know."

The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich, 1985
Nature moodily takes center stage when a filmmaker from Los Angeles--the author herself--tries herding sheep on the windswept plains of Wyoming. "Keenly observed, the world is transformed," Ehrlich says. "The landscape is engorged with detail, every movement on it chillingly sharp. The air between people is charged. Days unfold, bathed in their own music. Nights become hallucinatory; dreams prescient."


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