Seven Books That Will Make You Rethink Your Relationship to Nature

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Written By Pinang Driod

Reading can be a powerful method to reconnect with the planet we all live on. I learned this after I moved away from home, which was next to a wildlife reserve. To anchor myself, I reached for nature as a grounding wire, and usually found it through books. Writers such as Rachel Carson, Lucille Clifton, Aldo Leopold, and John McPhee brought me into their narratives in urgent ways, and their work made understanding, and preserving, the environment imperative. Even when they turned to subjects such as carcinogens or atomic waste, I kept reading. I hadn’t been seeking books about climate or ecological disasters, but as in the refuge, where I ate wild raspberries next to mylar balloons wrapped around tree branches, the danger existed alongside the beauty.

The genre’s most compelling authors show us what’s at stake in vulnerable places by tethering us first to their own love and appreciation for them. Below are seven books that act as conduits between readers and the Earth. They are neither idealized nor fearmongering. Instead, the titles are all deeply personal, reminding us that nature is inescapably entwined with our bodies and our homes.

St. Martin’s

Mill Town: Reckoning With What Remains, by Kerri Arsenault

“Rivers are living bodies that need oxygen, breed life, turn sick, can be wrecked by neglect,”  Arsenault asserts at the beginning of her book, “like human bodies, which we often think of as separate, not belonging to the landscape that bore them out.” Mill Town is an account of one rural community’s difficult history with a paper mill that both sustained and devastated its citizens, water, and land. The author grew up in Mexico, Maine, a place nicknamed “Cancer Valley,” witnessing the hope that industry inspired collide with a dark environmental reality. The mill functions as a kind of haunted house on the hill, as the source of food on the table as well as toxic waste. Before she started reporting for Mill Town, Arsenault had moved away and built a solidly middle-class life in a farmhouse in Connecticut, but after her father became ill and died—the result of four decades of asbestos exposure from working at the mill—she decided to return home and make the case that what happened in her small Maine town matters to the entire country. Through meticulous precision, fact-finding, and excavation, Arsenault tallies the losses and ends up with a complicated love letter to the town that raised her.

Mill Town – Reckoning With What Remains
By Kerri Arsenault
Nine Ways to Cross a River

Nine Ways to Cross a River, by Akiko Busch

In 2001, living in the Hudson Valley and closing in on her 50th birthday, Busch, who writes about design, culture, and nature, decided she wanted to “find a divide that could be crossed,” and set her sights on the Hudson River. Along with four friends, Busch swims across a half-mile narrow in the river in New Hamburg, New York, two weeks before planes crash into the World Trade Center. The experiment is transformative, and, as an attempt to keep alive the “small portrait of optimism and oblivion” it inspired in her, she endeavors to keep swimming, ultimately traversing eight other American rivers over the next four years. In the memoir’s nine chapters, Busch blends archival research, meditation, interviews with naturalists and locals, and accounts of her immersion in each body of water to tell the stories of rivers such as the Ohio, the Susquehanna, and the Mississippi. Through each portrait, Busch shows us the ravages of “waste from arms factories, timber operations, paper mills, and tanneries” while drawing on the ebb-and-flow nature of water to deliver notes of rebirth and, ultimately, hope that the rivers and the communities surrounding them can eventually renew themselves.

Nine Ways to Cross a River – Midstream Reflections on Swimming and Getting There from Here
By Akiko Busch
The Home Place

The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair With Nature, by J. Drew Lanham

Known for his canonized Orion essay “Nine Rules for the Black Birdwatcher,” Lanham, an ornithologist and the winner of a MacArthur genius grant, tackles here at book length the same tricky helix of identity, race, and birding found in that lauded work. He begins by recounting the Lanhams’ multigenerational past in Edgefield County, South Carolina, along with the history of slavery in the state. The “home place” of the title is the author’s 200 acres of family land, a space where he was “the richest boy in the world, a prince living right there in backwoods Edgefield,” he writes. A self-professed “eco-addict” since he was a child, watching birds appealed to Lanham first as an antidote to chores and the solitude of rural life and later as a balm for the awkward loneliness and outright danger that would follow him when he was frequently the only Black person in these circles. Lanham’s moving memoir elevates his birding from a passion to a calling, inviting all of his readers into natural spaces and insisting that they all belong.

The Home Place – Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair With Nature
By J. Drew Lanham
Body Toxic

Body Toxic, by Susanne Antonetta

In her environmental account of the boglands of southern New Jersey, Antonetta describes the natural, industrial, and socioeconomic forces that shaped her girlhood home in southern Ocean County. She begins with the immigrant impulse to build—and protect—home by tracking the hopes of both sides of her family, who came to New Jersey from Barbados and Italy respectively. Then, to illuminate the story of the land—and of generations of mental and physical illnesses—she jumps ably between surprising, unsettling topics such as the childhood-cancer cluster in neighboring Toms River, an 1860s phrenology chart, and the myth of the Jersey Devil. She sensitively identifies the emotional toll of fear, anxiety, and hypervigilance that environmental degradation breeds. In the haunting chapter “Radium Girls,” Antonetta describes women who worked in a factory in Orange, New Jersey, during World War I, painting watch and clock dials—and sometimes, playfully, their teeth—with glow-in-the-dark radioactive radium paint. Five of the thousands of women, by then extremely ill, took U.S. Radium to court and died of radiation sickness, one by one. Much of what Antonetta writes about happened when “New Jersey was a cow pasture,” yet the resulting toxicity still permeates today’s casinos, strip malls, and boardwalks.

Body Toxic
By Susanne Antonetta

Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, by Terry Tempest Williams

This seminal book is a taxonomy of nature, loss, longing, and resistance across the branches of one family in Utah. In it, Williams, a Guggenheim fellow and conservationist, identifies her home, in the Great Salt Lake region, and its natural landscapes as places of both fear and comfort. Williams connects her mother’s breast-cancer diagnosis—she’s one in a long line of a “clan of one-breasted women”—to their exposure to fallout from the 1950s atomic tests in the West. Meanwhile, the book charts the lake’s rising levels from unusual rains and the subsequent flooding of the nearby Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, exploring the many lives, both bird and human, at stake—indeed, the book’s three dozen chapters take their names from local birds (“Snowy Egrets,” “Long-Billed Curlews”). Grief permeates the prose, yet Williams’s firebrand spirit (she gets arrested during a 1980s protest against underground nuclear tests) inspires readers to look to the land for strength, even when the environment poses threats. “How can hope be denied when there is always the possibility of an American flamingo or a roseate spoonbill floating down from the sky like pink rose petals?” she asks.

Refuge – An Unnatural History of Family and Place
By Terry Tempest Williams

Ecology of a Cracker Childhood

Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, by Janisse Ray

“I carry the landscape inside like an ache,” Ray writes of the “vast, fire-loving uplands of the coastal plains of southeast Georgia,” the place where she was born “from people who were born from people who were born from people who were born here.” Ray grew up poor in her father’s junkyard, and her memoir makes beautiful what most others, sometimes the author herself included, believed wasn’t worth a second look. In her prose, mental illness, poverty, and fundamentalism churn against the startling, holy attention Ray brings to the old-growth longleaf woodlands surrounding her, forests edging on extinction because of irresponsible timber companies. Combining the personal with the natural, Ray observes honor in even the most broken humans and places. Chapters called “Shame” and “Poverty” are interspersed with chapters called “Flatwoods Salamander” and “Bachman’s Sparrow,” so that the table of contents reads as a list of the cumulative effects of the disappearing canopies of pines. There is power in acknowledging both beauty and pain, and Ray shies away from none of it. “If you stay in one place too long, you know you’ll root,” she promises and cautions.

Ecology of a Cracker Childhood
By Janisse Ray
The Day the Earth Caved In
Random House

The Day the Earth Caved In: An American Mining Tragedy, by Joan Quigley

Quigley, the granddaughter of coal miners, grew up in Centralia, Pennsylvania, home of the nation’s worst mine fire. In her fascinating book, she returns as a trained journalist to investigate the origins of the still-ongoing burn, which began in 1962 after, some believe, a spark in a coal-mining shaft used as a makeshift garbage dump instigated an out-of-control blaze. For nearly two decades, Centralia’s residents seemed committed to collectively ignoring the fires, sulfurous steam, and fissures beneath their feet—until Valentine’s Day in 1981, when a 12-year-old was swallowed by an old tunnel that became a sinkhole in his grandmother’s backyard. The book exposes the background of the tragedy, taking in the perspectives of a local cook turned activist, a coal-magnate senator, and the handful of people who decide to remain while the town smolders. As an insider, Quigley can get the thorniest players talking while unpacking generations-old layers of working-class pride, corporate conspiracy, and the stakes of survival when an emergency becomes normalized. Ultimately, Quigley shows the collateral damage of living with a threat that is impossible to extinguish.

The Day the Earth Caved In – An American Mining Tragedy
By Joan Quigley

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