It is the responsibility of the nature writer, writes author and philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore, “…to bear witness, ring the church bell, trip the alarm, beat the warning drum…and sometimes, weeping, to write the condolence letters.”
This year’s collection of sustainable reads offers both warnings and hope in good measure. There are tools to help us navigate difficult environmental conversations. There’s inspiration in the symphony of nature. Additionally, there is mind blowing science wrapped up in memoir that prompts us to think differently about the world. Although each very different, these five books provide solace and encouragement to help us navigate the year ahead.
Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World, by Katharine Hayhoe
When Katharine Hayhoe first recorded her popular TedTalk, “The Number One Thing We Can Do About Climate Change: Talk About It,” the United States had formally decided to leave the Paris Agreement (a decision that has since been reversed), and fossil fuel companies were still funding climate denial. Since that Tedtalk, the Texas-based climate scientist has dedicated considerable time to speaking publicly about climate communication. Saving Us is a heartening compilation of her experience as well as a practical communication toolkit.
In addition to an accessible look at the latest climate science and available solutions, Hayhoe shares highlights from her many presentations to audiences ranging from students to rotarians to church congregations. A common thread is the importance of using shared values to anchor constructive dialogue, rather than pummeling someone with facts and figures.
“It’s nearly impossible to make someone care about climate change for the same reasons I do,” she writes. “But I don’t think I have to, and you don’t either.” She goes on to explain how everyone already has the values they need to care: they just haven’t connected the dots to what matters in their lives. Saving Us shows you how to help them do that.
From negotiating distrust, indifference and resistance, Hayhoe leaves readers with the tools they need to speak openly and compassionately about climate change. To do this, she draws on interdisciplinary research and personal stories as a scientist and a person of faith.
This book tops our list as one of the best reads of the year because it comes at a time when partisan divide prevents coherent conversation about a topic applicable to everyone. Perhaps because of its author’s ability to find common ground and speak without rhetoric, Saving Us has already reached bestseller lists. Hayhoe goes beyond the blame and facts to share how talking about climate change is the most important thing we can do right now–bar none.
Earth’s Wild Music: Celebrating and Defending Songs of the Natural World, by Kathleen Dean Moore
In his work to capture soundscape ecology and blend it into music, recording artist pioneer, Bernie Krause noted how “every wild habitat has its own unique auditory signature.” The sounds of wind, water, waves, and earth combine with vocalizations and noises from living things to make a sort of natural fingerprint.
In Earth’s Wild Music, Kathleen Dean Moore tells stories about nature’s imperilled symphonies through 32 essays structured into deeply moving vignettes. Visiting the Sonoran desert, Alaska’s ABC Islands, Canada, California, Oregon and Arizona, Dean Moore immerses us in the softness of rainfall, the cacophony of birdsong, desert nighttimes and even the sound of human longing. Her exquisite pieces celebrate the wonder of each while acknowledging the sobering reality facing these species and ecosystems.
With a deft hand she presents the rat-a-tat-tat of a sapsucker hammering a cabin roof, jellyfish oozing through the dark water of a shadowy bay. She offers up praise for the marsh, the headland, the whispering forest, while buffering this with grief at the loss of their corresponding songs.
Contemplating a fire-ravaged landscape near her Oregon home, she notes the resiliency of forests to regenerate. Within nature is the neverending drive to repair what’s been lost. But the silence in our lifetimes will be deafening if we are unable to avert biodiversity loss. Says the author: “What is morally necessary is to protect all the lives that are left and all the sinew and grace notes they bring to the world.”
The book is a plea to preserve the last of nature’s song. Calling on readers to rise like the dawn birds, Dean Moore inspires and encourages. “Each of us will emerge full-throated from the dark shelter of our private despair. We will find our cause. We will find our courage. We will find our chorus.”
Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest, by Suzanne Simard
When Suzanne Simard was a bright-eyed, twenty-something employee for a Pacific Northwest logging company, she noticed a brilliant interweb of yellow fungus wrapped around the roots of a subalpine seedling. The same fungus branched beneath the forest floor in other locations, anchoring pancake mushrooms and old growth firs to the rich hummus.
Already intimate with the backwoods thanks to a childhood growing up wild, she wondered how replanting results would improve if seedlings were allowed access to the fungal layer. This observation launches Finding the Mother Tree, along with Simard’s explorations as a forest ecologist and researcher.
Since books like Peter Wohellben’s The Secret Life of Trees popularized the idea that trees communicate, it’s easy to forget that until recently, theories of tree-to-tree parlance would get you laughed out of the room. Simard’s persistence to understand the network of interdependence beneath our feet by which trees ‘talk’ to one another, led her to find ‘mother trees’. Located at the center of each vast fungal network, these trees are responsible for organizing a complex web that heals and sustains other life in the forest.
Just like human parents, old trees nurture their young. Both young and old trees perceive, communicate and respond to one another by emitting chemical signals along the network, much like our own neurotransmitters travel in the brain. These signals can warn of danger, as well as help with healing.
But though Simard’s science is widely published and peer-reviewed, Finding the Mother Tree is the story of her journey, and how her searching led to groundbreaking new truths that would blow the lid off the forest industry. “The industry had declared war on those parts of the ecosystem–the leafy plants and broadleaf trees, the nibblers and gleaners and infesters–that were seen as competitors and parasites on cash crops, but that I was discovering were necessary for healing the Earth.”
Told with all the sensuous detail you’d expect from a seasoned memoirist, the book illuminates the beautiful interweb of soil, fungus and microorganisms beneath our feet feel as intimately as if they were old friends.
Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future, by Elizabeth Kolbert
Humans have a long history of changing the Earth. Our influence is so pervasive, we’ve even named a geological epoch for the results of our planet-engineering: the Anthropocene. In Under a White Sky, Pulitzer Prize winning author, Elizabeth Kolbert, asks if we can change nature again–this time in order to save it.
Structured like a tour of projects (and problems) across the globe, Kolbert seeks to understand how humans have altered the landscape, and in that altering, created new challenges. Sharing the work of biologists and engineers, physicists and researchers, Kolbert explores how each is trying to reverse the impact of some human-caused environmental disaster.
There’s the influx of Asian carp in the Midwest, and the herculean effort of electrical currents and bubble nets required to keep them from infiltrating the Great Lakes. There’s the sinking Louisiana coast, along with the system of dykes trying desperately to keep it afloat. At the Great Barrier Reef, scientists experiment with a new breed of heat- and acid-tolerant coral, bioengineered to survive our changing oceans.
The ultimate project explores how scientists are trying to reverse global warming. One solution involves firing diamond-like particles into the atmosphere to deflect the sun’s rays and cool the Earth. Will it work? We don’t yet know, but Kolbert takes us into each stop on her tour with vivid descriptions and immersive detail.
Laced with ironies and dark humor, Under a White Sky asks the essential question, can we rectify our mistakes? Or does travelling down the path of tampering with nature necessarily end with us back where we started, in the same kind of trouble, this time with nowhere to turn?
Rooted: Life at the Crossroads of Science, Nature, and Spirit, by Lyanda Lynn Haupt
If human-altered environments are the problem, then wild nature is the answer, according to Lyanda Lynn Haupt. In her previous award winning books (including Mozart’s Starling) Haupt explores the connection between humans and other species. Rooted expands on this theme, reminding us that at the intersection of humans, spirit and the natural world lies hope.
Through 12 meditations, Haupt introduces readers to different ways to reclaim our wild heritage. Walking barefoot–in addition to prompting humility–causes us to slow down and observe. Wandering means following our ‘wonder,’ and temporarily letting go of schedules and goals. Being alone in the wilderness helps us embrace our fears of solitude and boredom.
“When I venture into wild places for periods of solitude, it always takes me a while to sink into the presence of little but my own mind and its experience of the world…but after settling in, I find myself serene for a time, a lioness in the sun, basking in the sweet, rare space, my thoughts roaming wild, my connection with the life around me bearing peace and enchantment.”
In the penultimate section entitled ‘Create,’ Haupt acknowledges the difficult challenges of being human at the present moment. “With so many pressing concerns, no wonder we feel such paralysis. And yet we are called to act anyway, within this paradox of the many and the one.”
Ultimately, Haupt says, we are stardust. We will return to the Earth. And in the constant unfurling of life, we can’t know exactly where we’re headed, but we can be mindful, connected and walk with grace.
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