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Compiling a list of reading favorites is always a challenge. Since there’s no book that suits every reader, there’s no ‘best book’ list that meets everyone’s criteria. Thankfully this year’s picks share the essential elements of a cracking good read: they inform, entertain, and—dare we say it—expand the mind.

Previously our book lists have focused on top-notch works that connect us to nature or tackle issues related to sustainability. The following selection includes all that, plus a little bit more.

Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth’s Most Awesome Creatures

book cover for Spying on Whales by Nick PyensonAs technology evolves and alters our lives, it also changes the way we see the world around us. For Nick Pyenson, a paleontologist and curator of the Smithsonian’s fossil marine mammal collection, technology is permitting discoveries into the little-known world of Earth’s largest creatures.

Moving like fish but breathing as mammals, whales can live for 200 years, grow to 300,000 pounds, and travel half way around the globe in an annual migration that inspires scientists and thrills onlookers. But many facets of these creatures’ lives remain unknown. That’s because they live and thrive beyond the reach of humans. In his new book, Spying on Whales (Viking), Pyenson explores the rich history of these mysterious leviathans, unraveling new discoveries and telling stories of the people who spend their lives trying to understand where whales came from—and where they’re going.

Rooted in Pyenson’s journeys to Antarctica, Chile, Panama, Iceland, and Alaska, the book reveals the surprising evolutionary ancestor of modern day whales—a four-legged, land-dwelling mammal who lived fifty million years ago. But his stories don’t just illuminate the wondrous complexity of these long-feared species, now revered. They show us how our own trajectory from whalers to environment manipulators is altering the future of whales along with our own.

Already gray whales are testing the newly exposed Northwest Passage to access Atlantic waters they haven’t frequented since being extirpated in the 18th century. Could this be the first step towards reclaiming and expanding their range? Nearby, a proliferation of prey draws other whales to the Arctic. While acidic oceans may quickly change this situation, there’s no question that some whales are increasingly feeding in these abundant waters. Positive or negative, Pyenson asserts that climate change is the greatest human impact to affect whales—even greater than industrial whaling, plastic pollution, fishing gear entanglement, acoustic disturbances and collisions caused by marine traffic. What’s uncertain is what these changes mean for the long term.

Racing against time, Pyenson and his fellow scientists use technology to uncover clues that may lead them to answers: laser scanners examine and preserve a singular whalebone graveyard in the Atacama desert; temporary radio tags help chart the nature and depth of whale travel in the Antarctic. Spanning the ancient past to an uncertain future, Spying on Whales brings us closer to the Earth’s largest creatures and along the way, ourselves.

Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore

book cover for Rising by Elizabeth RushIn the intense discussions about climate change, one important voice is often missing from the debate: that of the people affected by the planet’s rising sea levels and eroding shores.

Part travel guide, part meditation, Elizabeth Rush’s Rising (Milkweed Editions) shares the stories of some of those voices, along with strategies they’re employing to survive as our melting sea ice irrevocably alters the American shoreline. Many have lost homes and the people they love. Others grieve a way of life that is already disappearing. From New York and Louisiana, to Rhode Island, Florida, California, and Maine, the water is coming, and those who haven’t already retreated are feeling its effects.

One of the questions Rush poses is about our capacity to do what is needed in the face of rising sea levels. Will this be a disaster beyond our ability to cope or a chance for massive cultural change? The problem lies within the various human time frames, which Rush sums up as “flawed”: the four-year term of a politician, the thirty-year term of a mortgage; the five years it takes for a developer to build or flip a house. Without a long-term vision or understanding, there’s little motivation for those who hold the cards to act. Says Rush, “…the belief that we can design our way out of this is part of the same set of addictions we must learn to give up.”

Magnifying dynamics already in play, sea level rise will deepen social and economic inequality, says Rush, and more than humans will suffer. Species like the tupelo tree are dying along the Rhode Island coast, poisoned by salt water drawn up from rising seas. Other species are shifting homes, moving towards familiar conditions that may be deeper or farther than ever before.

Voted as one of the ten best books of the year by the Chicago Tribune, and winner of the National Outdoor Book Award, Rising offers a testimony to resilience of people on the front lines of the climate shift. Rush’s moving portrait brings to life a subject too often ignored: the human face of our communities as we consider the prospect of a future in retreat.

Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm

book cover for Wilding by Isabella TreeSeventeen years ago, Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell, decided to stop farming their large British estate. After pouring money into tractors, seeders, and conventional fertilizers, they realized they couldn’t sustain the model their land had suffered for generations. Instead the couple let the land recover, and then introduced grazing animals to mimic the footprints of wild fauna that had lived there 5,000 years ago. What transpired (and continues to astonish) was the complete enlivening of a farm that now functions with minimal human intervention.

Wilding (Picador) is the author’s chronicle of that process, a ‘restoration by letting go.’ Knepp estate in West Sussex, the couple’s home, now supports 2% of the entire UK’s nightingale population. It also welcomes other British rarities like turtledoves, peregrine falcons, and purple emperor butterflies. Its rocketing biodiversity a mere 44 miles from London shows that rewilding denuded ecosystems can and does work, benefitting both the creatures and people who live there.

Understanding the importance of projects like Knepp requires a look at history and a people’s relationship with the land. To that end Tree deftly connects the threads of her country’s past with its present situation. Rewilding attempts to reverse a trend that began in the 1940s. Like North America, Britain’s industrial agriculture intensified after the Second World War, but since rationing stayed in place for nine more years, people clung to wartime reforms. Hoping to supply food for 50 million people threatened with starvation, the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign saw much of England’s forests and meadows transformed by the plough. A subsequent assault of pesticides and fertilizers attacked soil and remaining islands of trees.

While some scientists urged post-war farmers to return to a less intensive mixed-farming system, government subsidies reigned and the English landscape fell under the continued influence of intensive agriculture. Today less than 1% of Britain is conserved for nature. National parks exist, but are preserved primarily as ‘cultural landscapes for human recreation,’ meaning that sheep graze park hillsides and moors are ‘managed’ for grouse.

The Knepp experiment, written with stunning detail and hopeful revelation, reveals how those in a place of privilege can impact ecosystems on a large scale. While the author’s estate is an island in a sea of altered landscapes, it provides homes for ‘exuberant scrub,’ pollinators, and endangered species. Both rare and common plants thrive together with long-forgotten insects, bats, and birds.

“Rewilding—giving nature the space and opportunity to express itself—is largely a leap of faith,” writes Tree. “It involves surrendering all preconceptions, and simply sitting back and observing what happens.” Along the way, it also teaches that conservation doesn’t have to be difficult, that species don’t necessarily behave the way we expect, and that we still have much to learn about ourselves.

Life in the Garden

book cover for Life in a Garden by Penelope LivelyWhen a writer has been around for 80 odd years, she accrues a long-term view of things. Such is the case for Penelope Lively, the award-winning novelist who is the only person to have ever won both the Booker Prize for fiction and the Carnegie medal for children’s writing.

In her latest work, Lively crosses genres by blending memoir with history, achieving a stunning meditation on the one activity that seems to bring joy to all who attempt it: gardening.

More than an autobiography crossed with a gardening book, Life in a Garden (Viking) is a deep rumination on questions essential to the human psyche. What have gardens meant to us over time? Why and how do we garden? Are we seeking to conquer and control nature, or to somehow achieve immortality?

To answer these questions and more, Lively notes that, “I shall have to get personal.” And so she does, taking us through the places she has loved, from a childhood in Egypt, where the flower garden was “an intimate paradise, intensely personal, with private hiding spaces…” filled with rose beds, poinsettias, lily ponds, and pergola walks, to the suburban plot she shared with her husband.

Intertwined with these autobiographical details are fictional gardens from some of the West’s best-loved authors. Quoting Virginia Woolf, Carol Shields, Vita Sackville-West, Philip Larkin, and a host of others, Lively notes that such fictional gardens are ‘nearly always deliberate,’ adding layers to setting and character and a deeper understanding about what gardens mean.

Today, pottering in her postage-stamp yard, Lively tends garden planters and “pots of snowdrops I can see from the window.” A sore back restricts her activities, but doesn’t restrain her masterful exploration into how and why gardens touch us, lure us, and nourish our weary souls—essential reading for any gardener, and those who live with them. Says Lively, “We garden in expectation, and that is why it is so invigorating.”

Educated

book cover for Educated by Tara WestoverTara Westover’s much-discussed memoir begins in a remote Idaho homestead where her survivalist parents are always preparing for the end of the world. Working in her father’s scrap yard without adequate protection—other than God’s divine hand—from flying shards of metal, careening stacks of cars, rusted iron pipes, Westover and her siblings suffer a disturbing array of accidents. Her father is a self-styled prophet who eschews basic safety measures, noting how ‘The Lord will protect us’ on more than one occasion.

Her mother is a talented healer and unlicensed midwife, birthing not only the neighbourhood’s children, but also her own thriving business selling essential oils. Along the way she struggles with her alliances, which too often come down to supporting her children OR her husband on matters many would consider critical to their survival.

When Westover’s brother announces he’s going to college, she asks, “What’s college?” “College is extra school for people too dumb to learn the first time around,” her father says. When her grandparents implore her father not to begin a twelve-hour drive home in the evening, in an uninsured vehicle where nobody ever wears seat belts, he refuses because he “can’t afford to lose any more work days.” The resulting car crash bloodies every passenger and leaves Westover’s mother with a brain injury. This doesn’t get treated at the hospital because “She was in God’s hands.”

If you haven’t already guessed, Westover’s parents avoid many of the things most of us take for granted: doctors, dairy products, government services, school, modern medicine, birth certificates. Their form of Mormonism is particularly extreme, but Westover clarifies from the outset that “This is not a book about Mormonism. Neither is it about any other form of religious belief…” Instead it’s a book about trying to make sense of her experiences and the nature of reality, something she does with respect, confusion, and even love for the people who raised her. And it’s not an easy task.

Throughout the book, Westover questions her own memories, partly because her family has trained her to do so by disbelieving her recollections of events—some of which they witnessed. But also because the nature of memory is flawed. She eventually becomes a student of history, earning a PhD at Cambridge University, so she understands the power of selective reporting.

Ultimately the author’s passion for education goes against the will of her family, leaving her on the margins of her own identity. This powerful book prompts us to ask deep questions: What is reality? Who gets to define its terms? When our family chooses another path, are we cast adrift, or can we remake our family among those who choose to see the world in all its glory and faults?

Westover’s incredible writing and unique experiences are the main reasons this book is flying off the shelves. But the spell it casts over its readers may also have to do with the state of America. When the power of education can create understanding, empathy, and compassion in someone who has spent so much time living with extreme views, there’s hope—and just possibly salvation. If only her parents could see it that way.

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