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One of the joys about a new year is that you get to look forward to all the books you have yet to read. Over the last year, I’ve read some books that I couldn’t get enough of and need to recommend to you in case you haven’t yet read them.
Perfect for naturalists, these books are broken into three separate categories:
- Climate and Society
- Wildlife and Ecosystems
Choose from whichever piques your interest, or choose at random! Each of these books have been vetted by muah over the previous year.
If you’re like me, you can absolutely work your way through a textbook-style tome of information, but you prefer there to be some engaging element of story or personal connection to the author or characters, even in non-fiction.
A Note on How You Shop…
These books nail it, and you’ll feel like you come out of each page with a new experience or perspective, perfect for reflecting on your goals and accomplishments for that month.
One thing to note – I’ve included an Amazon link to these books, and by purchasing these books through Amazon, I earn a few cents (but you never pay a single cent more) and this helps me devote more time to this blog.
That said, I would highly encourage you to find these books at a community library or non-chain, locally-owned bookstore in your community. I do not earn even a tiny commission for encouraging the support of these entities, but it means the world to them that they have your patronage and helps them stay in business.
If you’ve read any of these books, or had a fun experience picking these books out to read, let me know in the comments at the end of this article!
1. The Potato (Larry Zuckerman)
Here I was, in a local bookstore filled with books floor to ceiling. With books shoved in every crevice, shelf, and any possible alcove that they could be, it felt overwhelming to find something to read that week. Fortunately, I found my way to the “gardening and nature” alcove and sat down on the floor to start browsing. An hour later, none particularly piqued my interest, but when I was getting ready to go, a simple word – “POTATO” – caught my eye.
The Potato is an excellent and engaging story about this crop’s centuries-long misfit role in society. Social prejudices prevented the potato from coming into common use in any home that had the means to eat literally anything else. Even through famines, most of Europe would refuse to eat the potato, too proud to lower themselves to that status, or only eat it in secret.
Ireland, particularly suited for growing the potato, grew around the crop and soon their population would explode – but it wouldn’t necessarily make their quality of living better. But how, exactly, did such an outcast crop, defamed for being a devil root, shake off this poor reputation over the centuries and make its way onto the table of every social class in the US and Europe over time? This book helps pen the story at every step.
2. This is Your Mind on Plants (Michael Pollan)
In this captivating story, This is Your Mind on Plants showcases the mind-altering plants in our society that have become popularized over the years, some in the form of daily vices and others in the form of medicines or illicit drug depending on how it is processed and by whom.
Covering Caffeine, the Opium Poppy, and Peyote, Michael dives into stories of his adventures with each over the years.
Overall, while this book received mixed reviews as ‘boring and short’ or ‘a rambling narrative’, I truly believe that it is due a reader’s expectation of the content based on the book’s title. I had the fortunate experience of seeing a signed copy of the book on display in the Harvard Bookstore without realizing it was the release day, so I snatched it up without looking too hard at what it was about or what I was getting into.
While his classic journalistic style of writing is still there, and there is some informational digest, it largely reads as a long, well-written trip report (or un-trip report, in the case of caffeine) and that’s an enjoyable read, to me.
If you have an interest in autobiographical-style writing of the author’s adventures into the plant world, it is an entertaining read that I quite enjoyed, and there are plenty of facts around the plants to keep your thirst for learning at bay as well. It is, however, not to be read with the expectation that it will help you unlock the secrets of how exactly these plants work within the brain and shed new light on the drug industry.
3. Seeds: A Natural History (Carolyn Fry)
Here I stood, in the Native Plant Trust gift shop, reviewing the books on their shelves after an afternoon stroll through the forest. They were a bit more expensive than I could buy them for online, but I wanted the funds to go to their conservation efforts, as it was the most I could do while the pandemic prevented new volunteers from signing up.
A simple title caught my eye: Seeds.
In this book, Carolyn Fry does a wonderful job of painting a story about seeds and how they co-evolved with humans as a critical source of food, as well as how seeds work in nature and how they came to be the seeds we know today.
The primary takeaway of the book – in my opinion – is how the book highlights individual seed banks, their mission, and their importance in each country. If you are unfamiliar with seed banking or want to learn more about it, it is worth picking up.
4. What a Plant Knows (Daniel Chamovitz)
Daniel Chamovitz does a wonderful job presenting the world of a plant to the beginner in What a Plant Knows.
While straddling the line between anthropomorphic language (which he’ll fully admit) and scientific research (which he’ll readily cite), Daniel paints an image of how the plant functions in it’s natural world and why the phenomenon of movement, smell, taste, and balance might not be limited to the human perception – though it may be a little different for the plant.
5. Braiding Sweetgrass (Robin Wall Kimmerer)
Two good friends of mine both recommended this book to me after hearing her interview on a podcast called Ologies – which is an excellent podcast I quite enjoy now too, for anyone who loves to learn – and I find out now that it’s listed as a best seller in many bookstores near me. Rightfully so!
Braiding Sweetgrass is a book where Robin shares her story and experience, having grown up with indigenous wisdom and teachings, later becoming a botanist and botany professor.
She shares stories about her childhood and the teachings she’s found over the years trying to reconnect with those roots. There are stories about the research she’s done as a graduate student, and the emotional journey she goes on in advocating for a reconnection with nature, if only we would stop destroying it.
Follow robin through investigative mishaps, potentially dangerous situations, as well as plenty of experiences that help remind you of the magic of nature and life, all through her life’s journey through graduate school, motherhood, and professorship.
Admittedly, I was uncertain when I first picked up the book. Robin considers herself a lover of poetry just as much as science, and I wasn’t ready for a very poetic book, but she surprised me with her scientific research and reasoning sprinkled throughout the book as well. It was easy to become absorbed in this story.
Halfway through the book, a family member who had once gotten me started on the path to botany passed away. Some of my earliest memories were of her taking me into the classroom and showing me slides of microscopic tissues, detailing the location of the phloem, the appearance of cellulose and other plant anatomy. Had she stayed with teaching, I could have easily seen her living the experiences Robin details, as indigenous wisdom was important to her as well, but disease robbed her of these opportunities.
It hit me hard, and I remember the book being a very poignant read, living the experiences and the lessons to reconnect with nature all very important to me, helping me grieve and process the loss several thousand miles away. For this reason, this book holds a special place in my heart even beyond the engaging storytelling and lessons.
6. Gathering Moss (Robin Wall Kimmerer)
This book gracefully details the magic that can be found in the small ecosystems of moss. These small ecosystems are surprisingly complex, and each one has a critical purpose in the ecosystem, despite its slow rate of growth and small size.
Robin also details many of the experiences she’s had as a bryologist, from shady landscaping fiascos where she tries to prevent extensive ecosystem damage, to the truth behind “real moss décor” and how much damage goes on behind the scenes from illegal “moss mining” in the pacific northwest.
7. The Savage Garden, Cultivating Carnivorous Plants: Revised (Peter D’Amato)
In the revised edition of this book, Peter showcases an introduction to carnivorous plants, as well as plenty of information regarding their care, conservation, and cultivation. The Savage Garden is well written and detailed, providing you with all the information you need to raise and care for carnivorous plants.
I’m not really one to buy picture books, but honestly, that’s the primary reason why I got it is so I could look at all the nice images printed in full color. I don’t even currently raise any carnivorous plants, though I love them so, so the dry and factual care information isn’t very relevant to me. Still, I’ve read through many of these sections and find it to be well researched and detailed.
CLIMATE AND SOCIETY
8. No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference (Greta Thunberg)
This book is the least expensive book I’ve purchased in a long time, and it is worth much more than its price. Still, the strategy appears to be in making it more widely available, rather than making a profit off it, and I appreciate that. (Authors receive very little of the list price for their book, often only a few cents or a little over a dollar per copy sold.)
Apathy spirals are a real fact of our generation and is only one aspect that comes with climate-based depression and anxiety. In these spirals, it can be easy to find yourself in a nihilistic fit of “nothing actually matters anymore, everything I do is meaningless.”
This book is one of the few things that can kick me out of that spiral, because it is a quick and light read in large print that helps me remember that I’m not alone in fighting for our future. I would recommend it to anyone whose battling climate depression just to have it around.
Because the book is a compilation of each of her speeches printed in full, they do tend to repeat some details, but it is highly inspirational and motivational. I keep it in my office next to my desk for when my mental health starts flagging.
9. Omnivore’s Dilemma (Michael Pollan)
Michael Pollan never fails to tell an engaging story, no matter the subject matter. Standing in the basement level of the Harvard Bookstore, I held a stack of potential purchases from the nature section upstairs while waiting for our dinner reservation. I spotted this book sitting on the bottom shelf at a discount. Knowing I hadn’t read this one of his, I had to pick it up – spilling all the other books in the process. “Well, damn, now I have to buy them all. Oh nooo.” I thought sarcastically, justifying the purchase of too many books.
Still, this was the first one that I began reading when I arrived home, and it didn’t leave my side until I had finished it. Far more “food-y” than I would typically read, I was absorbed by this book within the first page or two, both repulsed by the system’s details and fascinated by the intricacy in which it was created.
In the Omnivore’s Dilemma, we learn about three aspects of our diet in the modern day (well, in 2007) – Corn, Grass, and the Forest.
In-between these pages, we learn about corn reproduction, the inefficiency of industrial farming, food policies enacted and the policies around it, organic farming versus industrialized organic, the experience hunting and gathering, as well as, ultimately, the omnivore’s dilemma in being able to eat a variety of foods versus a specialized eater, and how it affects us, the ecosystem, and our diet.
WILDLIFE AND ECOSYSTEMS
10. The Field Guide to Dumb Birds of North America (Matt Kracht)
Just find a copy of this. This is the comedy relief of your bookshelf; the book you toss onto the coffee table when guests come over, or the book you read when you’re sad and need a good giggle.
This is definitely the book you get family or friends who are interested in birding and have a good sense of humor, but maybe not someone whose easily offended by fowl (haha) language.
In The Field Guide to Dumb Birds of North America, expect some vulgar language as Matt details a short story of how he found himself writing the book, and just how dumb some of these birds can be. Each page is filled with satirical humor, helping you identify the White-Breasted Buttnugget, or the Stupid-Ass Stellars Jay. In addition, he also provides some excellent birding advice that you can benefit from in the field if you ever do want to go look at some of these dumb birds for yourself.
11. The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms (Amy Stewart)
This is a book I picked up and read years ago, but I could not get over how spectacularly good it was. After this book, I took up building a worm bin for my garden and had worms living in my house until we moved later that year. Spectacular creatures, they are. The earthworm is the hero we don’t deserve, these squiggly lines of mucous membrane will soon have a spot on my ecological tattoo sleeve.
Detailing well-researched accounts of what goes on underneath our feet, Amy depicts a wonderous image of the earthworm in The Earth Moved. She also utilizes many of Charles Darwin’s accounts of the earthworm to tell an engaging story that helps you remember that there is a childlike curiosity within each of us, finding magic in the mundane.
Every creature has its benefits to the planet – we surely would not be here without them – and their waste runoff is one of the healthiest things you can put in a garden. They help aerate the soil and break down organic matter, creating the very soil they live in – but take them to the wrong ecosystems, and these now-invasive creatures can pose a habitat risk to the native organisms. Amy details how worms migrated (with human help) to forests where they don’t belong, creating systemic problems for the environmental health in those areas.
Overall, an engaging read that I remember years later, and have recently re-purchased with the intent of reading again.
12. The Rise of Wolf 8: Witnessing the Triumph of Yellowstone’s Underdog (Rick McIntyre)
What a thrilling journey. In The Rise of Wolf 8, Rick details the journey of a young pup, Wolf 8, during the Yellowstone Gray Wolf Restoration project. You’ll follow Wolf 8 through his drama-filled life, catalogued by true observations in the field, as he struggles to survive, finds love, becomes a step-father, has rivetingly close encounters with bears, and tries to live his best wolf life.
Overall, this is a wonderful book to transport you right into the heart of Yellowstone, seeing a hidden aspect of a wolf’s life that goes on around those distant howls. So long as you are careful not to put this book down as it can get confusing towards the middle as Rick details the actions of multiple wolves – identified by number – this book will keep you on the edge of you seat, cheering Wolf 8 on.