I receive and review numerous books throughout the year that fall into the category of environmental or nature writing, with some specific to the Pacific Northwest. Here are the best of 2008.
The Encyclopedia of Earth: A Complete Visual Guide, Michael Allaby, University of California Press
This 600-page tome is a science textbook gone wild. It's blown out with thousands of beautiful images, unusual maps, creative diagrams, and illustrations, from microscopic views of snowflakes to Paleolithic timelines to satellite imaging of Pacific Northwest rivers to a map of the moon's craters. In addition to its artistic delights, it offers concise explanations of our planet's infinitely interesting processes, including the stories of geology, biology, oceanography, botany, and weather. Visual enough for children to get engrossed in, the book entices the reader to get lost for untold hours flipping from page to page, exploring everything from tsunamis to the troposphere to Torres del Paine. One seems to obtain knowledge through osmosis with the Encyclopedia of Earth, getting smarter just by handling it.
Encyclopedia of Northwest Native Plants for Gardens and Landscapes, Kathleen A. Robson, et al., Timber Press
Another hefty volume of information and photography, this encyclopedia is for those with an appreciation for our native Northwest vegetation, be they gardener, amateur botanist, ecologist, nurseryman, or landscapist. Covering over 500 different naturally occurring plant species that grow both west and east of the Cascades, information offered includes not only the expected, such as whether the leaves are pinnate or palmate, or the size of seeds, but also growing information like temperature hardiness, flowering times, cultivating and siting tips, and what kinds of birds and bugs are attracted to it. This handsome encyclopedia is bound to be as indispensable to local plant lovers as is the Pojar & McKinnon, only this book is more suited for home reference.
Nature's Beloved Son: Rediscovering John Muir's Botanical Legacy, Bonnie J. Gisel, with images by Stephen J. Joseph, Heyday Books
"Botany for (Muir) was a means of making sense of the natural world," opines Gisel in her introductory essay, "and it would significantly contribute to the value he placed in nature and wilderness ... through plants he gained an inordinate sense of the enormous interlinked complexity of life." Looking at these reproductions of Muir's plant collection is therefore akin to gazing upon the dried-up bits and pieces of the planet that helped to inspire the wild thinking that Muir boldly pioneered in the late 19th century. Both changing plant specimens and Gisel's accompanying essays allow one to follow in the footsteps of Muir, from Scotland to Wisconsin to the Gulf of Mexico to Yosemite and on to Alaska. An elegant and reverent book.
American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau, edited by Bill McKibben, Foreword by Al Gore, The Library of America
I already own plenty of different anthologies of nature writing, but McKibben argues in his introduction that "environmental writing" is different — "it takes as its subject the collision between people and the rest of world," he explains, "...it seeks answers as well as consolation, embracing controversy, sometimes sounding an alarm." If this distinction is too vague, you'll soon get a sense of what this genre contains as you read the many different authors collected herein: Whitman, Muir, Pinchot and Roosevelt; Jeffers, Snyder and Abbey; Carson, Eiseley and Leopold; Lopez, Dillard, Bass, Momaday and McPhee; Pollan, Kingsolver and Solnit. Aside from the rousing, incisive, often epochal classics, McKibben makes some surprising choices, too: John Steinbeck, Philip K. Dick, Alice Walker, E.B. White, R. Crumb and Joni Mitchell. The overall feel of the combined readings is modern and easy yet empathetic. The tones are often urgent but seldom strident. Humanity may be in precarious position on Planet Earth, but without the thoughtful ecological influences of these gathered writers, it'd probably be a lot worse.
The Selected Letters of Wallace Stegner, edited By Page Stegner; The Selected Letters of Alan Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, edited by Bill Morgan, Counterpoint
One of my favorite ways to gain deeper understanding of and empathy for favorite authors is to read their record of personal correspondence. There is a voyeuristic pleasure that comes from reading unpolished missives. When an author writes a letter, it often comes from a different place than their authorial voice. In their unpolished, unvetted, and unguarded language, letters reveal new aspects of the writer and allow us to see their minds at play as they work over ideas, respond to criticism, share personal experiences, and offer insights. There is also, of course, a voyeuristic thrill to reading someone else's mail, too.
Stegner was a prolific letter writer, and fascinating missives appear in the chapter devoted to his teaching years at Stanford when the "Dean of Western Writers" tutored Edward Abbey, Tom McGuane, Ken Kesey, Wendell Berry, and Scott Momaday, among others. Other letters chart the progress of his family of novels over the decades, including the tribulations involved with writing, editing, and publishing classics like The Big Rock Candy Mountain, Crossing to Safety, and Angle of Repose. Advice to young writers, travel stories from around the world, ruminations on nature, literature, and life — this is a collection of letters that taken together forms a compendium of ideas from one of our country's best, most-beloved writers.
The Ginsberg/Snyder collection, on the other hand, is not a record of one mastermind's evolving artistry but instead a chronicle of a long-lasting, loving relationship between two friends. Not just any two friends pen-palling around, but two of America's greatest poet-philosophers from the past century. The correspondence between these revolutionary thinkers is incandescent, two great minds rubbing up against each other and throwing sparks. Their conversation begins in 1956, soon after the two met in San Francisco as the literary Beat Movement was coalescing around the infamous Six Gallery reading. Ginsberg was completing his controversial masterwork "Howl" and Snyder was readying to publish Myths & Texts. For the next four decades, the two compatriots wrote to each other about their ongoing writing labors, many publications and public readings, travels to India and Japan, love-lives and families, teaching jobs, political views, mountaineering expeditions, and seemingly endless struggles to pay the bills. Running throughout their letters is an ongoing philosophical, often academic conversation about their mutual interest in Buddhism, Zen and Asian literature, and culture.
In a time when inter-personal communication has devolved into texting, Twitters and emoticons, reading the well-crafted, thoughtful letters of Stegner, Snyder, and Ginsberg feels like a bulwark against transitory chattiness and flibbertigibbets.
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