When Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published in 1962, it was one of the first books about what humans are doing to nature. She showed that pesticides, sprayed across the American landscape, were more poisonous than most people knew. A ban on DDT finally came ten years later.
Carson, who spent part of her life in Silver Spring, inspired legions of environmentalists. In 1992, a panel that included Jimmy Carter and Sandra Day O’Connor named Silent Spring the most influential book of the previous 50 years.
“Without this book,” Al Gore wrote in the introduction to a new edition, “the environmental movement might have been long delayed or never have developed at all.”
Many more good books about the environment have followed. Some grew from a writer’s love for a place or species; others cover sweeping topics such as the oceans, climate change, and the green economy.
We asked Washington environmentalists to name their favorites: Which books have inspired them? Which make scientific subjects accessible? Which are great reads?
Silent Spring was recommended more than any other title. Nearly 50 years after publication, Carson’s account is still shocking: In parts of the country at the time, dead birds littered yards, and streams were almost completely lifeless.
Carson does a good job of explaining the chemistry of pesticides, but she also has a poetic streak, describing “the sight and sound of drifting ribbons of waterfowl across an evening sky.”
Former Greenpeace executive director John Passacantando recommends another classic—Walden, Henry David Thoreau’s 1854 meditation on living alone in the woods, which has been required reading for generations of students. Passacantando suggests giving it another read. “If someone told me my house was on fire, I would grab Walden,” says Passacantando, who estimates he has 2,500 books.
Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There is another much-admired work. A conservationist who worked for the US Forest Service, Leopold wrote in the 1940s about wildlife in Wisconsin and other parts of the country. The book was published in 1949, a year after he died.
“It changed my life, the way he observed things and thought about them,” says National Geographic photographer Annie Griffiths Belt. She says the book inspired her to see the beauty in wild prairies: “It helped me to get on my knees and look at things.”
Leopold introduced new ways of thinking about conservation. In the essay “Thinking Like a Mountain,” he describes killing a wolf: “We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain.”
Science and Nature
For an introduction to environmental science, check out the writings of E.O. Wilson, a Harvard professor and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who is perhaps the foremost living naturalist. A good starting point is The Future of Life, Wilson’s call for conservation of Earth’s diversity of species.
“The totality of life, known as the biosphere to scientists and creation to theologians,” he writes, “is a membrane of organisms wrapped around Earth so thin it cannot be seen edgewise from a space shuttle, yet so internally complex that most species composing it remain undiscovered.”
Another good overarching science book is The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction by David Quammen. A science journalist, Quammen explores theories of island biogeography—a field that changed scientists’ thinking on extinction—in a way that’s accessible and entertaining.
A more philosophical approach can be found in The Practice of the Wild by Gary Snyder, another Pulitzer winner (for poetry) and a Zen Buddhist. The essay collection is often compared to Walden, and environmentalists say it’s important reading on the ethics of our relationship with nature.
Here’s Snyder on climbing Mount St. Helens at age 15: “To be immersed in ice and rock and cold and upper space is to undergo an eery, rigorous initiation and transformation. Being above all the clouds with only a few other high mountains also in the sunshine, the human world still asleep under its gray dawn cloud blanket, is one of the first small steps toward Aldo Leopold’s ‘think like a mountain.’ ”
For a gripping read, environmental-film producer and American University professor Christopher Palmer suggests Death in the Grizzly Maze: The Timothy Treadwell Story by Mike Lapinski. Treadwell spent 13 summers living among grizzly bears in Alaska before he and his girlfriend were mauled in 2003. Says Palmer: “He wanted to have this kinship with bears and thought that if he treated them gently, they would respect that and not attack him. But bears are bears.”
Palmer also likes A Society of Wolves: National Parks and the Battle Over the Wolf by Rick McIntyre. “This book captures wolves’ real character,” Palmer says. It also chronicles our decades-long attempt to eradicate wolves. “People looked on wolves the way we nowadays look at rats,” he says. “They just shot them relentlessly.”
Writer David Wilcove, an expert on endangered species, evokes “the sheer wonder and beauty of the world around us, the magic and the mystery of it,” says Carter Roberts, president of the World Wildlife Fund. Roberts especially recommends Wilcove’s The Condor’s Shadow: The Loss and Recovery of Wildlife in America and No Way Home: The Decline of the World’s Great Animal Migrations.
Michael Hirshfield, chief scientist at the advocacy group Oceana, says his thinking about marine conservation changed after he read Sea of Slaughter: A Chronicle of the Destruction of Animal Life in the North Atlantic by Farley Mowat. Published in 1984, it was among the first “environmental history” books, documenting damage that occurred long ago.
Hirshfield and others also recommend Callum Roberts’s 2007 book, The Unnatural History of the Sea. Roberts, a British scientist and storyteller, goes back to medieval records and explorers’ journals to show how much marine life has been depleted. He finds accounts of creatures that were fished or hunted to extinction, such as the “sea cow,” described as part buffalo, part fish, and up to 30 feet long.