I have a particularly soft spot in my heart for stories that combine history, politics, and nature. Here’s a list of some of my favorites; you’ll notice that most have some elements of all three.
Mark Kurlansky has made a literary career out of writing offbeat history books. Perhaps his best is Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World. The book follows the fish from 17th century fleets crossing the ocean in search of the prized catch, and how salt cod fed European noblemen and Caribbean slaves. Faster, more efficient ships, bigger factories, and the invention of frozen food brought the cod worldwide. Not to give away the ending, but Kurlansky quotes an out-of-work Newfoundland fisherman as saying “We caught the last one.”
The fish also lent its name to one of my favorite places. Of his many detailed journals of nature, Henry David Thoreau’s Cape Cod is the most enduring. Thoreau wanders the long beach for days, running into a few interesting characters and all manner of nature along the way.
Next are a couple of books about the train wreck that tends to happen when nature meets politics: Cadillac Desert is the late Marc Reisner’s epic about water in the American West. Like the old saying says, “Whiskey is for drinking, and water is for fighting.” Reisner follows the mind-boggling corruption around the quest for scarce water in the west, and its environmental consequences.
Michael Grunwald’s The Swamp proves that it’s also possible to have a swirl of corruption and environmental damage when there’s too much water. The schemes and scams surrounding the development of the Florida Everglades have been the object of folklore for decades, beginning with the Marx Brothers movie The Cocoanuts. Grunwald outdoes Groucho by taking the story to the present day.
Considerably less funny than the Marx Brothers is Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes From a Catastrophe. The 2006 book, based on Kolbert’s series in the New Yorker, is an alarming, but not alarmist, inventory of what we’re facing with climate change.
Here are three from legendary environmental writers:
Bill Mckibben’s The Age of Missing Information manages to cram nature, pop culture, and contemporary anthropology into one short volume. McKibben enlisted a small army of friends to tape every one of the 120 channels of the Fairfax County, Virginia cable TV system for a full 24 hours. Then, in a deeply masochistic act, he spent half a year watching it all. Then he sat on a mountain and wrote a book about it, while watching only nature, where there was always something on.
John McPhee’s The Control of Nature is a masterfully-written trilogy of man’s efforts to tame the untameable: Engineers and madmen try to change the course of the Mississippi River, control the flow of lava, and defy the fire-prone canyons of California.
It would be folly to write a list like this and not include Silent Spring. Rachel Carson’s skill as both a scientist and journalist produced a book that literally changed history.
Tim Egan is a New York Times reporter whose book The Worst Hard Time gives firsthand accounts of how nature changed history. Egan focuses much more on the personal stories than on the science of the Dust Bowl, but those stories are a chilling parable of what can happen when we don’t take care of the land.
Here are two books on topics that don’t, at first, seem like they rate having books written about them:
Not to be outdone by the codfish, dust also has a biographer, Hannah Holmes. The Secret Life of Dust: From the Cosmos to the Kitchen Counter, the Big Consequences of Little Things proves that even dust has a place in the order of things, and a place on the bookshelf. Holmes has also written books on the wildlife in her suburban backyard, and The Well-Dressed Ape, which I haven’t read, but it apparently examines homo sapiens and its curious behaviors the way a scientist would.
Bet you didn’t think anyone could write a book that’s half Lewis and Clark, half Tony Soprano, either. The Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures on the Edge of a City is Robert Sullivan’s wilderness trek through the swamps of Jersey. Porting a canoe over a New Jersey Turnpike off-ramp, talking with the chief hose-holder for the mosquito control crew, and finding amazingly resilient wildlife amidst one of the world’s most famous dumping grounds. Sullivan wanders the Meadowlands the way Thoreau wandered the outer beach at Cape Cod 140 years earlier.
Finally here are two more that will break your heart a little bit:
Lost Mountain by Erik Reece is the tragic story of a mountain that lived up to its name. For a year, Reece documented the sacrifice of an eastern Kentucky mountain that was flattened and turned into a moonscape in order to harvest its coal.
An Island Out of Time by Tom Horton is a sentimental tale of a wonderful place whose days are numbered. Smith Island sits in the middle of Chesapeake Bay. Its fishery is gone, its young people have pretty much moved off the island, and someday, the island itself will be gone from a combination of subsidence, erosion, and sea level rise. One of the oldest settled places in Maryland, Smith Island is too pretty, too charming, and way too young to die.
I’ve included the Amazon.com links for these books. You should seriously consider buying all thirteen; you have two more shopping days before Earth Day.
Peter Dykstra is the former executive producer of CNN's Science, Tech and Weather Unit. He writes three columns for MNN: Media Mayhem on Mondays, Political Habitat on Wednesdays, and Green States on Fridays. (Yes, he writes a lot.)