I grew up spending a lot of time out in nature. Most of my friends lived on farms, and I felt like a bit of a city-girl because we only lived on 3 acres (in a neighborhood, no less) and I didn’t own a pair of rubber boots.
So I was well-primed to discover nature memoirs–memoirs in which people make important discoveries about themselves out in the wilds of nature. These are books that extol the beauty of nature, the beauty of isolation from people and “civilization,” the self-discovery that often comes during times of loneliness in the wild. These are books that are deeply moving to me, especially now that I’ve moved to suburbia.
H is for Hawk – by Helen Macdonald
After the unexpected death of her father, Helen throws herself into the project of training a goshawk. The writing is stunningly beautiful, and the descriptions of both the emotional journey of bereavement and the physical journey of training a notoriously difficult hawk are mesmerizing. The relationship between the author’s emotional sojourn, the training of the hawk, and the brambly English landscape was a complex interweaving that I found to be quite intriguing. Read more
The Snoring Bird – by Bernd Heinrich
Bernd Heinrich has written many wonderful nature memoirs (Mind of the Raven and Summer World were both quite wonderful), but this is probably my favorite of his books. A good deal of this book is about Bernd Heinrich’s father–a passionate taxonomist who lived in Germany during both world wars before eventually immigrating to the United States. It’s the story of a man with an intense and sometimes difficult to understand love for nature. It’s also a story about a family interacting in startling ways with the dramatic world events going on in Europe at the time. And it’s a story in which we observe the change in the scientific community from a focus on taxonomy and collecting specimens for museums to a focus on conservation and preservation. It’s a very personal and beautifully told story, and one that I found difficult to put down. Read more…
The Fly Trap – by Fredrik Sjöberg
While I have no particular interest in entomology or hover-flies, Fredrik Sjöberg tells his personal story of collecting insects in Sweden with such passion and enthusiasm that I found this book difficult to put down. He writes in simple and elegant prose, and takes the opportunity to examine various aspects of life and the human condition as he narrates his memoir. He asks underlying questions about the psychology of collecting, and how we learn from nature as we spend time in it. It’s an unusual book, but one that I found to be both intriguing and absorbing. Read more…
Wildwood: a Journey Through Trees – by Roger Deakin
In 1969, Roger Deakin moved to Suffolk and bought the ruins of a Tudor-era oak-framed farmhouse which he renovated board by board. In this book, he tells his journey of coming to understand both the wood in his home and the trees in the forest surrounding his home. He explores the history of the interactions between the people of Britain and the trees in their forests. I particularly enjoyed the sections in which he describes his interactions with people who live “close to the woods” in various ways–from artists who use wood in their work to members of low-impact communes who live literally among the trees. Read more…
The Pilgrim at Tinker Creek – by Annie Dillard
Other than Thoreau’s Walden, this is probably one of the best known nature memoirs in publication. It’s a truly beautiful book. Annie Dillard’s writing is poetic and stunning. She chronicles her year of living in Thoreau-like isolation near a creek in Virginia, and what she observes during her daily time of sitting and watching what goes on in and around the creek. Her descriptions of the philosophical epiphanies she experiences while watching a muskrat or observing the sun shine through the branches of a tree have an intensity and beauty that’s difficult to describe.