14 Fabulous Contemporary Lady Nature Writers

The greatest—and greenest—Women’s History Month reading list

By Katie O'Reilly

March 11, 2021


Photo by Rawpixel/iStock

This story has been updated from its original version, published on March 8, 2017.

As with the rest of the literary canon, men have more or less dominated the sphere of American nature and environmental writing. This is perhaps due to old-fangled notions of nature experiences as uniquely male rites of passage, as well as the idea (specious though it might be) that domestic obligations preclude female writers from embarking on far-flung adventures. Chances are, the well-documented gender byline gap plays a role too. History, however, shows that women have for centuries explored the natural world on the page—and to great effect.

With rich diversity in voices, attitudes, and styles, their essays, memoirs, novels, plays, reportage, and poetry have done much to expand the traditional definitions of nature writing. For evidence, look no further than Annie Dillard’s faith-centric Pilgrim at Tinker Creek; Kathleen Jamie’s Findings, which documents the author’s attempts to reconcile family life with her birding passion; Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost, which presents the endeavor of losing oneself in nature as a kind of Zen rebirth; or Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us, which reveals the poetry inherent in marine biology. Few have observed New England landscapes with the observational genius of Mary Oliver, or captured the essence of the desert like Ellen Meloy. Women writers also have effectively sounded the alarm on environmental havoc, as proven in Carson’s Silent Spring and Terry Tempest Williams’s many literary admonitions against nuclear testing. By highlighting marginalized viewpoints, many other women writers have helped expand the nature writing genre beyond Walden Pond’s boyish concerns. Think Alice Walker, whose poetry recalls the stamp slavery and oppression left on sharecropped land in the South; Louise Erdrich, whose novels helped bring Native writing into the mainstream limelight; and Ursula K. Le Guin, whose fantastically utopian fiction, while set largely in space, provide Earth lovers with ample food for thought.

Such writers paved the way for a new and burgeoning wave of female authors whose work continues to inform and inspire conservation endeavors—and to entertain and inspire greenies who like to read. For Women’s History Month, we’d like to recommend 14 outstanding contemporary writers. Each of these women’s words can make us reconsider or better appreciate our relationship to the natural world. So, go find an alfresco reading spot (or at least a place with a view of the great outdoors), and dig into literary fare from the following ladies.


For three years, Deborah Cramer trekked from the south end of the earth all the way into the icy Arctic, following the 19,000-mile migration of a type of tiny sandpiper called the red knot. Red knots are particularly imperiled by climate change, and they survive on the eggs of horseshoe crabs—primordial animals whose blue blood, it turns out, serves a crucial biomedical role: detecting bacterial contamination in human vaccines, and thus safeguarding human health. In 2015’s The Narrow Edge: A Tiny Bird, an Ancient Crab, and an Epic Journey, Cramer not only unpacks this science but also recounts her extraordinary odyssey. The book, Cramer’s third, serves as a riveting travelogue, a tribute to red knots’ tenacity, and an argument for the interconnectedness of species—the author eloquently reveals how the health and well-being of a tiny bird and an ancient crab mirrors that of humankind. It’s also a work of philosophy: One of the book’s central questions asks whether species should have to prove their financial worth to humankind. With an urgency not unlike that displayed in Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s landmark reveal of the impact of DDT, Cramer proves that when the mostly unknown little avian creature hurts, we hurt too. For more on that, check out Cramer’s New York Times op-ed.

What exactly do animals teach us about our humanity? That’s the question driving Alison Hawthorne Deming’s Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit. Through linked essays, Deming traces humans’ relationship with animals since the beginning of our species—when they served as food, clothes, gods, and companions. In our post-industrial world, however, Deming theorizes that we have diminished not only the physical but also the spiritual presence of animals—in art, symbolism, and more. Whether observing wildlife in the desert near her Arizona home, along the American East Coast, or in Africa, Deming comes back to the same conclusion: By better honing our animal-awareness, humans can hope to reverse (at least some of) our planetary destruction and make “the next leap forward in our evolutionary story.” Fun facts: Deming is the great-granddaughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne and the author of five other books and six poetry collections, including Woven World: On Fashion, Fishermen, and the Sardine Dress—a cultural history of and elegy to the cottage industries and ways of life we’re losing on a swiftly changing planet—forthcoming this fall from Counterpoint Press. Check out some of her masterful verses in Orion.  

Camille Dungy’s Black Nature holds the distinction of being the first collection to anthologize nature writing by African American poets. Dungy’s selections—including work by Rita Dove, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Natasha Trethewey, as well as several emerging writers—not only broadened the concept of African American poetics but also helped change notions of who writes nature poetry. Dungy posits that Black people have been writing about the natural world for centuries; most, however, didn’t have the luxury of venturing to a mountain to find themselves. As people become increasingly aware of the cataclysmic effects of environmental degradation, Dungy points out that more are addressing nature in the traditional spirit of Black writers—taking the interconnectedness of economics and class politics into account. The author of three poetry collections, Dungy’s mesmerizing essay collection, 2017’s Guidebook to Relative Strangers, documents her own travels as a poet-lecturer with a small child in tow—covering her experiences of mothering, illness, and race divides. Get a taste of Dungy’s sharp, thoughtful writing via this Ecotone essay about her quest to find chicken and waffles above the Arctic circle.

In 2014’s White Spaces, Black Faces, academic, backpacker, and former actress Dr. Carolyn Finney amassed her vast knowledge of environmental history, cultural studies, geography, and race to theorize on our broader cultural understanding of the “great outdoors” and argue that unwritten rules continue to determine who can enjoy safe access to outside spaces. Looking toward the future, Finney’s book also highlights the work of African Americans opening doors to greater and more equitable participation in conservation and adventure endeavors and reveals the perceived and real ways in which American nature has long been racialized. She continues to write about ongoing issues of racialized nature (check out this searing Guardian piece on Christian Cooper and George Floyd from last summer).

Rahawa Haile not only became one of a small handful of African American women to successfully complete the Appalachian Trail; the thirtysomething wrote candidly about her often harrowing 2016 experience in Outside. Along the 2,190-mile trail, she also left books by Black authors in trail shelters. “These were writers who had endured more than I’d ever been asked to, whose strength gave me strength in turn,” Haile wrote on Buzzfeed in 2017. “I wanted to show them beauty from heights that a history of terror had made clear were never intended to be theirs.” Since completing her thru-hike, the Eritrean American has given a number of interviews and presentations about her personal experience on the AT—inspiring hikers of color, queer hikers, and women throughout the world. Keep an eye out for her hotly anticipated first book, In Open Country, forthcoming from Harper this September, in which Haile will explore what it means to move through America, and the world, as a Black woman.

The author of 10 nature books (including a poetry collection), Barbara Hurd also volunteers for her local watershed group, which monitors western Maryland’s Savage River. A self-proclaimed “river monitor,” Hurd makes a habit of listening for quieter signals of disruption among plants and wildlife—the complexities of atonal birdsong, for instance, or the sense of foreboding that arises when a flock of geese, soaring overhead, suddenly plunges to water. This is abundantly evident in Hurd’s personal, meditative prose, which draws parallels between her own sphere and the natural world, offering up rich explorations of literature, family, science, place, and the waning phenomenon of attentiveness itself. Her 2016 essay collection, Listening to the Savage: River Notes and Half-Heard Melodies, calls on readers, too, to engage in deep, habitual listening, “to turn … the ear, that lonely hunter, and put it closer to the ground.” It’s for our own good, Hurd writes, and for the sake of the planet too. Hurd’s latest, The Epilogues: Afterwords on the Planet, just released from Standing Stone Books, is a reflection on the human condition in the face of a heating planet. The compassionate, eminently wise collection honors all that is managing to survive without the help of heroes.

In 2018, Latria Graham wrote an essay for Outside detailing the challenges of being Black in the great outdoors. The vivid, vulnerable piece chronicled Graham’s realization during college that virtually no Black outdoors person's words had entered the literary canon (at least, not at her Ivy League alma mater). “My body could not endure the erasure of my ancestry, of the adventurer within me.” It also plainly identified African Americans’ barriers to entry in national parks (time, money) and called for a reframing of the conversation about whom the outdoors is for. Following the essay's publication, countless readers reached out to Graham, seeking her advice on how to stay safe in spaces where nonwhite people haven’t historically been welcome. She never wrote back—because she had no idea what to say—until the aftermath of 2020’s racially charged and revolutionary summer, when she released Out There, Nobody Can Hear You Scream. In this searingly honest essay, Graham reveals what she didn’t feel readers were ready to hear two years prior—that all too often, all the equity measures and protective mechanisms Black people have created for themselves aren’t enough. “Sometimes they will kill you anyway.” The piece itself is a force of nature—Graham meditates on how the fears embedded in her genes determine her relationship to the one space where she says her chronic depression tends to ebb and suggests that people of color venturing outside is itself a political act—that while she, nor anyone else, can protect Black and brown adventurers, “the more we see, the more we document, the more we share, the better we can empower those who come after us.” Check out Graham’s expansive repertoire of analysis on culture, foodways, sports, books, nature, and more.

A plant scientist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, poet/botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer has taken to the page to explore her Indigenous heritage and also to reveal how living beings such as squash, sweetgrass, and salamanders offer us important lessons—if we only learn to listen to them. In her most recent book, 2013’s Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, Kimmerer eloquently makes the case that by observing and celebrating our reciprocal relationship with the natural world, one can gain greater ecological consciousness. As a scientist, Kimmerer is a proponent of the somewhat marginalized “Traditional Ecological Knowledge” approach, also known as “Indigenous Knowledge” and “Native Science.” TEK encompasses the worldviews and traditions of Indigenous people concerning ecology, spirituality, and human and animal relationships. To see this belief system in action, look no further than this Earth Island Journal article, in which Kimmerer tells the story of an epic paddling adventure, and meanwhile unpacks the compelling Indigenous history of the Onondaga Nation.

For evidence that environmental writing can be anything but dry, check out Amy Leach’s genre-bending essays. These whimsical explorations of animal kingdom phenomena—exploding sea cucumbers, fainting goats, the relationship between gods and donkeys—pose important questions about our kinship with the wild world. They’re also quite the trip; Leach muses on whether light holds meaning for jellyfish and tapeworms, and with Seussian flair, points out that not all of the insects one sees in the water are water insects. “Some may be bamboo insects that fell off their bamboo, or shore insects that got washed off their shore.” Her first collection, 2013’s Things That Are, serves to expand perceptions of our animal neighbors and rekindle our communion with them too. For a taste of Leach’s prose—a standalone species in itself—check out her essay about the celestial daydreams of an amateur astronomer in Tin House. We can’t wait to get our hands on The Everybody Ensemble, out this fall from FSG. A collection of essays, praise songs, poetry, philosophy, and whimsical (yet scientific) escapades into nature, it subtly posits that a call to joy is requisite if we are to truly take care of the earth and everything in it.

The author of numerous award-winning environmental books, Kathleen Dean Moore is perhaps best known for integrating philosophical reflection into personal experience. While her early creative nonfiction focused on the cultural and spiritual values of the natural world, her more recent work centers around the ethics surrounding climate change. Along with Michael P. Nelson, she published 2011’s Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril, a compendium of testimonies from world and religious leaders about our obligations to future generations. Great Tide Rising: Toward Clarity and Moral Courage in a Time of Planetary Change, published in 2016, takes on the questions about why, exactly, it’s wrong to wreck the world, asking readers, “What is our obligation to the future? What can anyone do? What are the stories and ideas capable of lifting those who deeply care, inspiring them to move forward with clarity and moral courage?” A multimedia artist, Moore also collaborates with concert pianists during performances, bringing music to her messages about global extinction and the inherent moral imperative. Fitting, then, that her latest, Earth’s Wild Music, just released from Counterpoint, celebrates the call of loons, howl of wolves, shriek of frogs, bellow of whales, and laughter of children in this “time of terrible silencing.” Moore’s stunning essays lament and celebrate these songs, calling on readers to rise to defend them and their performers.

By day, Nadia Owusu works in urban planning and policy, incorporating issues of environmental justice into cityscapes and conservation proposals. In her off time, she writes, marvelously, about grief—grief for her parents (she was abandoned by her Armenian American mother, and her Ghanian father died when she was young), for places (she has bounced around the globe, among various family members), and for the natural world, so revered by her ancestors and so denigrated by our modern-day obsession with growth. In Orion’s “Fatherland,” Owusu attempts to make sense of her complex identity, and of the series of upheavals she’s experienced, which shift into focus as she makes sense of her own reaction to the UN’s 2018 bombshell climate report. She named her eagerly anticipated memoir, released earlier this year from Simon & Schuster, Aftershocks, after “the earth’s delayed reaction to stress.” Images of earthquakes and their aftermath recur throughout the luscious and unsettling narrative—through which Owusu wills herself onto firmer ground.

Are you a fan of playfully irreverent, raw writing? And/or of Behind the Music–grade thru-hike realness? Carrot Quinn’s punky first book, Thru-Hiking Will Break Your Heart is not your old-school titan-of-the-trail navel-gazing. Rather, it’s a colorfully detailed, emotionally resonant account of her trek across the Pacific Coast Trail back in 2013, rendered with distinct anarchist flair. We’re looking forward to her upcoming release: The Sunset Route: Freight Trains, Forgiveness, and Freedom on the Rails in the American West, Quinn’s adventure memoir about shaking off her hardscrabble Alaska childhood by traversing the country by freight trains—sleeping in fields under the stars, foraging in dumpsters, and attempting to heal as she rattles through forests and deserts.

Ana Maria Spagna spent months traveling to the Panamint Range, the Sierra Nevada, and the Cascade Range to meet the ordinary people—primarily Indigenous women—undergoing extraordinary endeavors to reclaim ancestral lands from the private companies seeking to capitalize on them. The result is 2015’s Reclaimers, in which Spagna, the author of five other books, renders visible the typically invisible struggles and triumphs of these tenacious underdogs. Spagna’s words are now more relevant than ever—and they’re also funny, relatable, and often joyful (check out her colorful Sierra essay on wildfires in the Pacific Northwest). In Ecotone, nature writer Brian Doyle writes, “I remember the first time I read a passage from Ana Maria—it was in a magazine in which all the other stuff was careful and remote and only news, and her essay was sharp and blunt and had mud and sawdust in it.” For evidence, see Spagna’s recent ode to road trips, Americana, and the music of the late Sharon Jones, published shortly after the 2016 US presidential election, on Terrain.org. In Spagna’s latest, 2018’s whimsical and surprising Uplake: Restless Essays of Coming and Going, she takes wild road trips, returning home to her mountain valley in Washington State to muse on rootedness, yearning, ambition, sonder, and home. It’s a powerful reminder to love what we have while still imagining what it is we want most for ourselves and the world.

Kao Kalia Yang may not immediately strike readers as a nature writer, per se, but she writes poignantly of the intersections between environment and war. Her critically acclaimed memoir, The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir, recounts her family’s harrowing escape from war in Laos—where she witnessed the mass death of honeybees as a result of American “yellow rain” bombs. Yang portrays the consequences of US intervention in Southeast Asia and the stark transition from life in the rainforest to refugee camps in Thailand, and then, to concrete public housing projects in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her most recent release, Somewhere in the Known World: A Collective Refugee Memoir tells the true stories of 14 refugees—prescient subject matter at a time when the most massive human migration since the last ice age is underway because of climate change.