News & Politics

Green Reads

Good books on the environment—from accessible science writing to page-turning narratives.

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?

Three Classics

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.’ ”

Animal Stories

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.

Special Places

Sean Saville, outreach coordinator for the National Audubon Society, was an undergraduate when he first read Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey. He has come back many times to Abbey’s 1968 account of working as a park ranger at Arches National Park in Moab, Utah. Says Saville: “It emphasizes the power of a landscape to evoke a sense of responsibility.”

Another place-based favorite is The Everglades: River of Grass by Marjory Stoneman Douglas. When Douglas wrote in 1947, people considered Florida’s Everglades a worthless swamp, and developers were rapidly draining it. Her book helped raise public support for the creation of Everglades National Park.

“The grass and the water together make the river as simple as it is unique,” Douglas writes. “Yet within that simplicity, enclosed within the river and bordering and intruding on it from each side, there is subtlety and diversity, a crowd of changing forms, of thrusting teeming life.”

For a book set closer to Washington, Flo Stone, founder and president of the DC Environmental Film Festival, praises William W. Warner’s Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs, and the Chesapeake Bay, a 1977 Pulitzer Prize winner. Warner reveled in the lives of the bay’s inhabitants, especially the Atlantic blue crabs.

In Virginia, Annie Dillard wrote about living in the Blue Ridge Mountains in her 1975 Pulitzer winner, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Dillard’s style is meditative, almost stream of consciousness: “Today is one of those excellent January partly cloudies in which light chooses an unexpected part of the landscape to trick out in gilt, and then shadow sweeps it away. You know you’re alive.”

Neal Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Audubon Naturalist Society, suggests picking up a copy of City of Trees: The Complete Field Guide to the Trees of Washington, D.C. by Melanie Choukas-Bradley. “We may have one of the most diverse collections of trees in the world because so many people have come here from all over the world and planted trees,” Fitzpatrick says. The book covers our arboreal history and tells readers where to find different species.

Warming Trend

Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature, published in 1989, was the first book about global warming for a nonscientific audience. “It had a very difficult conclusion for people,” says John Passacantando. “The End of Nature essentially said that anywhere you go on earth is now affected by man’s activity, so there is no longer any ‘away.’ ”

Environmentalists praise Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes From a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change, which grew out of a series Kolbert wrote for the New Yorker in 2005. In it, she tells stories of global warming already under way: a remote Alaskan village deciding whether to relocate because of melting sea ice; a species of butterfly that has moved north, as temperatures have risen, from central England to the Scottish Highlands; a once-majestic glacier in Iceland that now appears “merely forlorn.”

Passacantando also suggests Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet by Mark Lynas. After reading it, he says, you’ll know almost as much about global warming as the experts do.

Big Ideas

Will misuse of natural resources lead to catastrophe? In Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jared Diamond looks at examples of civilizations—the Maya, Easter Island, Angkor Wat, and others—that disappeared at least in part because of “unintended ecological suicide—ecocide.” Diamond seeks lessons that apply to today’s challenges.

Should the worst happen, author Alan Weisman explores what would follow in 2007’s The World Without Us, which looks far into the future at how nature would reclaim the earth if humans became extinct.

Sustainable-eating advocate Barton Seaver, executive chef of the restaurant Blue Ridge in DC’s Glover Park, likes The End of the Wild by the late Stephen Meyer, an MIT professor who argued that there are no more natural places free of humans’ influence.

“It’s not one of those self-flagellating, liberal books,” Seaver says. “It takes a more realistic approach to the way things are and doesn’t necessarily try to affix blame. It just says this is what happened and this is where we are.”

Another thought-provoking book is Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, which explores where our food comes from. The author visits a feed lot, large conventional and organic farms, and an innovative all-natural farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley called Polyface that supplies Washington restaurants and farmers markets.

Pollan followed that book with In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, advocating a return to old-fashioned, natural foods instead of what he terms “edible food-like substances” created in labs.

Finding Joy

Too much doom and gloom? Take a break with Good News for a Change: How Everyday People Are Helping the Planet by David Suzuki and Holly Dressel. The authors profile people and organizations working to save the earth.

Mark Tercek, who worked for Goldman Sachs before taking the helm at the Nature Conservancy, says he was inspired by Green to Gold: How Smart Companies Use Environmental Strategy to Innovate, Create Value, and Build Competitive Advantage by Daniel C. Esty and Andrew S. Winton. An easy-to-read business book, Green to Gold draws lessons from the successes and failures of companies such as Sony, BP, and Wal-Mart. “There are enormous win-win opportunities,” Tercek says.

Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution was another top recommendation. Written by Smith & Hawken cofounder Paul Hawken and Rocky Mountain Institute founders Amory and L. Hunter Lovins, it’s a denser, more theoretical book than Green to Gold. It seeks to provide a framework for transforming the economy in order to use resources more effectively.

Stewart Schwartz of the Coalition for Smarter Growth recommends two books on urban planning: The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape by James Howard Kunstler and Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck, who lives in DC. Says Schwartz: “Both books are really important to thinking about how we’ve designed our communities—the amount of land they consume, the amount of driving we have to do.”

In Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder, Richard Louv argues that children’s physical and emotional health suffers when they don’t spend enough time outdoors. He looks at ways we can help them reconnect with the natural world.

Speaking of connecting with nature, Barton Seaver suggests picking up a copy of Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbons, a 1962 book about foraging for wild foods. Gibbons “is engaging and fun to read,” Seaver says. “He was a total nut.” And eating wild foods is a pleasant reminder that all is not lost. “There’s a lot of joy in this,” Seaver says. “We still have a huge, wide, wonderful world around us.”

This article first appeared in the September 2009 issue of Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here. 

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