The following five books bring us closer to nature from different aspects of this journey: from ornithology and poetry to neuroscience and children’s literature, these books crack open a deeper understanding of wildness and our connection to it that lingers long after we turn the last page.
The Inner Life of Animals
Following up on his New York Times bestselling book, The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben applies his careful observations to the The Inner Life of Animals (Greystone Books) and comes up with some surprising conclusions. Occupying territory previously reserved for humans, the animals in Wohlleben’s universe possess emotions, intelligence, and feelings. Ravens express gratitude. Mice exhibit empathy. Deer grieve and horses feel shame.
And then there are creatures that refuse to conform to science’s neat categories of plant and animal. The slime mold, that single-celled organism with multiple nuclei has edged itself out of the realm of fungi only to approach, but not quite fit into, the world of animals. This gelatinous yellow creature can trace its own movements and navigate a maze lured by oatmeal. As Wohlleben notes, this is quite a feat “when you don’t have a brain.”
Throughout his explorations of the latest research into animal emotions, Wohlleben intersperses anecdotes about his own interactions with animals to put forward the idea that all is not what it seems. His self-stated goal is to introduce readers to the latest discoveries in animal behavior, and turn on its head the notion that feelings and emotions are the unique biological property of humans. Since “the genetic programming of our ancestors still works in us, and all the other species whose family trees branched off from our lineage in the past few million years,” these commonalities are not so hard to believe. And believing has benefits, the author states, since “the similarities between humans and animals reassure us that we are not alone in this world.”
But there’s the rub: if animals think and feel as we do, should we change our behavior towards them? On this question, Wohlleben is straightforward. Although he doesn’t call for a world of vegans (plants have feelings too—see The Hidden Life of Trees), he does suggest an adjustment in our attitude. What would it cost us to decrease our comforts and reduce the amount of biological goods we consume? What other benefits might such an adjustment bring the planet and us? While he isn’t advocating for revolution, the shift in consciousness Wohlleben proposes has far-reaching implications, ones that might just help us find solutions to the other dilemmas troubling us.
The Lost Words
When the Oxford University Press revised its junior dictionary in 2015, it sparked an outcry from writers who noticed some glaring omissions. Words like “blackberry,” “acorn,” and “kingfisher” had disappeared. In their place stood “broad band,” “cut and paste,” and “analogue,” continuing a progression that started with the dictionary’s revision in 2007.
A subsequent letter from 28 writers urged the press to reconsider its word choices, noting that in contrast to those taken out, many remaining words were associated with a childhood spent indoors in front of a computer screen. “In light of what is known about the benefits of natural play and connection to nature…” the authors wrote, “we think the choice of words to be omitted shocking and poorly considered.”
Robert Macfarlane was one of the letter’s signatories; he later told the Guardian that there was an “alarming acceptance” in the publisher’s response, and a troubling assumption that “all childhoods are urban, that all cities are denatured, and that what exists beyond the city fringe or the edge of the computer screen need not be named.” As the author of several books focussed on naming the natural world, Macfarlane set about reclaiming some of the dictionary’s ‘lost words.’ This sumptuous book of the same name (published by Hamish Hamilton Ltd) is the result.
Selecting 20 of the previously culled words, Macfarlane created acrostic poems to be read aloud as spells that restore these words to our children’s lexicons. Otter, magpie, adder, wren, and kingfisher emerge from the page and into the world, along with 15 others dazzlingly illustrated by Jackie Morris. A portion of the profits go to Action for Conservation, a youth organization that works with secondary schools in the UK to inspire the next generation of nature conservationists. Speaking on behalf of nature because “we do not know what we cannot name,” Macfarlane and Morris return these concepts to the world of children, along with some of the wonder and amazement we might feel when encountering them ourselves.
Before mindfulness was a buzzword, Mary Oliver distilled our grief, joy, and longing into mindful meditations deftly camouflaged as poetry. The iconic American writer, now in her 82nd year, has won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in her lifetime. She is widely considered to be the country’s bestselling poet.
Gathering together more than 200 poems from the last 50 years, Devotions (Penguin Press) brings readers often-quoted Mary Oliver poems like “Wild Geese” and “The Journey” along with lesser-known and more recent works that continue her tradition of quietly astonishing. At more than 400 pages, the book is a voluminous testament to the power of Oliver’s work: her fans span countries, genders, and economic classes, and her work connects old and young to something essential carved out by words.
Pursuing inspiration by walking in nature, Oliver sees aspects of the self in the wonders around her. Yet her meditations are more than they appear: layered themes emerge from surface observations. Conversations with birds or streamside, moss-covered rocks bring us closer to ourselves and cause us to look deeper into our souls than we were perhaps intending. It’s this deceptively simple language that catches us off guard. As in her “Morning Poem” we encounter questions we hadn’t thought to ask:
there is still
somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted
each pond with its blazing lilies
is a prayer heard and answered
whether or not
you have ever dared to be happy,
whether or not
you have ever dared to pray.
Her early poems reflect inspiration from the woods and shoreline in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where she lived from the 1960s until relocating to Florida in 2005. Animals feature large as characters, and there’s a current of transcendence in all her work. Compared to Emily Dickinson for her solitary monologues, Oliver is more joyous and questioning, lovingly doling out advice and just as quickly asking for it. “From the Book of Time”:
Have I walked
Where the sea breaks raspingly
All day and all night upon the pale sand?
Have I admired sufficiently the little hurricane
Of the hummingbird?
For those who love language, seek solace, or search for inspiration, Devotions offers an ever-hopeful reminder that we are part of a larger universe, and that the small things around us are doors into something more sacred.
The Nature Fix
Aristotle walked in the woods to clear his mind. Darwin and Einstein sought nature’s solace in “gardens and groves” before creating groundbreaking theories that changed the world. Mary Oliver (see above) used nature as a balm to heal her heart and bring forth a torrent of inspired words.
In The Nature Fix (W.W. Norton & Company), Florence Williams explores the restorative powers of wild places, taking our knowledge about the human-nature connection to the neural level. Delving into the latest science measuring nature’s effects on our moods and wellbeing, Williams gives us a close-up look at studies around the world. From forest bathing in Japan, a practice routinely prescribed by medical doctors; to the green hills of Scotland where ‘ecotherapy’ helps care for the mentally ill; to a river trip in Idaho where veterans suffering from PTSD attempt to heal, Williams lands on the front lines of science’s attempts to quantify the healing powers of nature. She shares their stories in accessible, entertaining prose that tracks her own experience moving from the wilds of Boulder, Colorado, to Washington, D.C.
According to Williams, there are reasons forested glens are the stuff of sonnets. Having evolved in a wild, biological environment, our brains respond powerfully to natural stimuli. Habitats likely to provide food and safety trigger a “neural bath of happy hormones,” the same way we react with alarm when we see a spider or a snake: we’re wired to survive. But to thrive we also have to recover from stress. The field of environmental psychology posits that nature was always around to help us do this—and we shuck off this relationship at our peril.
“We don’t experience natural environments enough to realize how restored they can make us feel,” Williams writes, noting the proven benefits include less reactivity, more empathy, and more focus, to name a few. Yet despite these benefits, we’re losing our grip. Beyond mere busyness, “we’re experiencing a mass generational amnesia enabled by urbanization and digital creep.” American and British children spend half as much time outdoors as their own parents did, even though the results of too much time inside are well known. The author was already familiar with what Richard Louv called ‘nature deficit disorder’ before beginning her book, but she wanted more proof. Was there science to support it?
Through her explorations Williams makes a compelling case for getting a regular nature fix and conserving the wild places we need to accomplish this. That includes tracts of wilderness, yes, but also urban parks, nature corridors, and city greenaways—anything that people can access on a daily basis, since even small amounts of exposure can improve our creativity and enhance our mood.
If you are birder from North America, there’s one bird you’ll likely never seek out: the lowly European starling. Transplanted to New York’s Central Park in 1890 by a Shakespearean fan keen to introduce birds mentioned in the bard’s plays to North America, the starling has now invaded every part of the continent.
Known for stealing the nesting sites of native birds, reducing agricultural crops to stubble, and taking down the occasional passenger jet with massive migratory throngs known as murmurations, starlings in North America are much maligned and often despised. Yet across the Atlantic, in their native territory, these feathered beauties are struggling to survive.
In the tradition of animal-rearing naturalists, Lyanda Lynn Haupt adopts a starling chick destined for destruction to better understand her subject in Mozart’s Starling (Little, Brown and Company). She wrestles with the endearing and clever qualities of her little pest, whose species is otherwise known in North America as the “rat with wings.”
Throughout the book, little Carmen becomes the author’s muse and springboard for understanding. She also connects book’s present day narrative to its biographical element: Mozart owned a pet starling, and, as the story goes, was drawn to the bird when he heard it singing a version of his new concerto. The virtuoso was presumably inspired by its song, and connected with the bird enough to pen an elegy when it perished three years later.
Haupt’s bird is an equally gifted mimic, anticipating the author’s greeting each morning with a “Hello Carmen!” followed by a convincing rendition of the coffee grinder. It’s the clever but conflicted nature of the bird that prompts Haupt to ask questions and point to solutions. Many of these include actions individuals can take to increase the diversity of native birds in their own backyard.
The journey from those first 80 starlings to the 200 million now estimated to live in North America didn’t happen overnight, but it presents us with much fodder for soul-searching. Says the author, “The place we are left to inhabit our thinking about starlings is a complicated one, but one that we are equal to. Carmen and her kin invite us to experience the poetic dissonance and multilayered understanding that is one of the hallmarks of our creative intelligence.”
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