Recommended Reads of 2023

Man excitedly holding a stack of books in each arm.
Friday, December 15, 2023
Book Recommendations

I always scan those year-end “best of” lists for new reading material. In that spirit, I’d like to share the books I’ve read this past year related to nature and the environment. The books appear roughly in the order I read them, not in any order of preference.

Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter by Ben Goldfarb
This is perhaps the highest praise one can give a book – it changed my understanding of the world.  I had never considered what an outsized role beavers played in American history and how impoverished our ecosystems are without this keystone species.  Goldfarb challenges us to overcome our ecological amnesia.

Beaverland: How One Weird Rodent Made America by Leila Philip
Covers much of the same material as Eager, but from a more personal perspective.  Fascinated by the beavers near her home in Connecticut, Philip spends time in the field with a colorful assortment of characters – trappers, auctioneers, conservationists, scientists and engineers.

Feral: Losing Myself and Finding My Way in America’s National Parks by Emily Penningto
Pennington is a young woman with a bad case of wanderlust and a goal of visiting every national park in America.  She saves her money, quits her job and sets out in a van.  Her ambitious itinerary is soon upended by forces ranging from snowstorms to the Covid pandemic to a faltering relationship. 

Slow Birding: The Art and Science of Enjoying Birds in Your Own Backyard by Joan Strassmann
Instead of racing around adding rare birds to a life list, Strassmann makes the case for a deeper understanding and appreciation of the more common birds close to home – in the backyard, a local park or nature preserve. 

Waypoints: My Scottish Journey by Sam Heughan
Hiking across Scotland with Outlander’s Jamie Fraser – need I say more about the appeal of this book?  And yet, I have to add that I enjoyed getting beyond the mythic character and learning about Heughan’s life and struggles as an actor and seeing Scotland through his eyes. 

The Salt Path, The Wild Silence, and Landlines by Raynor Winn
Within a single week, Winn and her husband learn he has a terminal illness and lose their farm in Wales, the source of their livelihood.  Homeless and destitute, they set out to hike the South West Coast Path, a 630-mile trail along England’s rugged, windswept coast between Somerset and Dorset.  It was so compelling, I immediately devoured the sequel, The Wild Silence, and I’m currently plowing through her most recent effort, Landlines, which published in September.

Wilding: Returning Nature to Our Farm by Isabella Tree
The author and her husband are landed gentry, inheriting a title and a 3500-acre estate in West Sussex.  Problem is, the standard farming practices aren’t profitable.  Facing bankruptcy, they decide to rewild their land, an intervention that proves to be more sustainable, both ecologically and economically. 

Better Living Through Birding: Notes from a Black Man in the Natural World by Christian Cooper
Cooper, the Black man targeted by a white dog owner as he was birding in Central Park, tells his story – of that defining moment, of his lifelong infatuation with birds (and comic books), and of his role as an editor, author and gay activist. 

Birdgirl: Looking to the Skies in Search of a Better Future by Mya-Rose Craig
As a child, Craig joins her parents on intense and demanding trips around the world to add rare species to her prodigious life list. For her, birding isn’t a hobby or pastime, it is the thing that holds her family, and her mother’s fragile mental health, together.  It also spurs her to become an environmental and social justice activist.

The Great Displacement: Climate Change and the Next American Migration by Jake Bittle
The term “climate refugee” probably conjures images of people fleeing floods in a low-lying country like Bangladesh or people facing famine due to drought in parts of Africa, but Bittle provides powerful examples of how residents of our own wealthy country are also being impacted by extreme weather. 

A Road Running Southward: Following John Muir’s Journey through an Endangered Land by Dan Chapman
Revisiting John Muir’s thousand-mile walk through the South to take stock of how the natural world has fared 150 years later. 

Wildscape: Trilling Chipmunks, Beckoning Blooms, Salty Butterflies, and Other Sensory Wonders of Nature by Nancy Lawson
Lawson explores the natural history of her own backyard through the five senses, using her own poetic and astute observations as the basis for a deep dive into the science at the root of animal behavior.

Restoring Eden: Unearthing the Agribusiness Secret that Poisoned my Farming Community by Elizabeth Hilborn
After a typical spring flood along a Piedmont river, all the life in a beloved wetland on her farm suddenly dies off, leaving the author, an EPA scientist, to search for answers and ultimately have tough but compassionate conversations with her neighbors. 

Hokuloa Road: A Novel by Elizabeth Hand
An underemployed handyman in Maine jumps at the chance to become the caretaker of a billionaire’s remote, private nature preserve in Hawaii, but a series of unsettling events quickly undermines the peace he was hoping to find in this idyllic setting. 

A Solitude of Wolverines: A Novel of Suspense by Alice Henderson
The first in a series of mysteries/thrillers featuring Alex Carter, a smart and fearless wildlife biologist, will appeal to fans of Nevada Barr who created the indelible and indestructible park ranger, Anna Pigeon. 

The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet by Jeff Goodell
Hurricanes, wildfires, tornadoes and floods are dramatic natural disasters, grabbing attention in the media landscape, but insidious heat waves are far more lethal, especially for the most vulnerable among us.  There’s increasing urgency to recognize them as a threat to public health and develop strategies to protect ourselves.

Nature at Your Door: Connecting with the Wild and Green in the Urban and Suburban Landscape by Sara Gagne
While we tend to think of nature as something removed from our daily lives, Gagne, a professor of landscape ecology at UNC Charlotte, explores how our yards, parks, roads and cities are part of an urban ecosystem. 

Wastelands: The True Story of Farm Country on Trial by Corban Addison
A scrappy law firm in Salisbury takes on the pork industry, challenging the waste management practices on its contract farms that create a nuisance for their poor and mostly Black neighbors in Eastern North Carolina.  An engrossing and substantive page-turner in the mode of John Grisham, who admired it so much he penned the introduction.