Earth Day Book Review 2024

The poet Sydney Lea described himself as “a man in the woods with his head full of books, and a man in books with his head full of woods.” 

I suspect this resonates with many for whom the love of nature is inseparable from a love of books. Indeed, Earth Day encapsulates this. For many of us, it’s a day to be outside, whether enjoying a festival or taking a hike. It’s also an event that was in no small part initiated by nature writing such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac

Our selections this year show how the nature writing genre continues to evolve and surprise. From “climate fiction” to fresh reporting on charismatic species, from extreme wilderness travel to Central Park birding, we hope you find something here that resonates – and that inspires you to help protect the natural world.

Top 10 List

  • After World

    By Debbie Urbanski

    Be careful what you ask of Artificial Intelligence. In this wildly inventive novel, humans turn to AI for a solution to the world’s escalating environmental problems. AI comes up with a quick and decisive solution: eliminate all humans.

    After World centers around the last person left on earth and the AI writer tasked with documenting her final days—and AI’s complex (almost human?) feelings that arise out of that act. Urbanski’s debut novel is a dystopian novel that turns many of the tropes of dystopian novels inside out. (In fact, as the AI programs accomplish human extinction, they refer to and frequently mock the dystopian genre and its premise of human hope).

    The story is haunting, disturbing and often moving, a fresh take in what can seem a crowded genre. I continue to find myself pondering the uneasy questions it raises, including what we are trying to conserve, and why. (MM)

  • Eight Bears

    By Gloria Dickie

    Eight species of bears remain on Earth: Asiatic black bears, brown bears, giant pandas, American black bears, polar bears, sloth bears, spectacled bears and sun bears. In her new book, Eight Bears, author Gloria Dickie travels around the globe to visit these diverse species.

    Along the way she weaves together stories of human-bear interactions in life and literature. Dickie does not shy away from exploring just how fraught that dynamic is by citing troubling examples, from a young woman fatally mauled by a grizzly in Glacier National Park to polar bears doomed to slow starvation on melting sea ice.

    But as she draws on history, ecology, mythology and folklore to help us understand our undoubtedly complex relationship with these massive mammals, the importance of conservation efforts to preserve the remaining bear species—and the space they occupy in our collective imagination—becomes clear. (JW)

  • Colorado River: Chasing Water

    By Pete McBride

    Although his career has taken him to more than 75 countries, for photographer and Coloradan Pete McBride, documenting the Colorado River was a deeply personal journey to save an iconic piece of his own backyard.

    McBride has trekked, floated, swam and flown along the entirety of the Colorado to capture the wonder of this life-giving river and communicate the crisis it now faces. Essays and images intermingle to showcase the ways in which the Colorado, which starts as snowmelt in Rocky Mountain National Park and sustains more than 40 million people and myriad species along the way, is being gobbled up before it can reach its historic terminus in Mexico’s Gulf of California.

    The Colorado River: Chasing Water tells the somber tale of a diminishing resource—its stark beauty and extraordinary utility—and hints at what life could look like without its mighty flow to sustain us.  (JW)

  • Arctic Traverse

    By Michael Engelhard

    Craving solitude and a physical and mental test, backcountry guide Michael Engelhard undertakes a solo journey in one of the wildest places remaining in North America, a traverse of Alaska’s Brooks Range.

    Traveling by foot and raft, he covers nearly 1,000 difficult miles, enduring bad weather, difficult trails, plenty of injuries and even more bears. Traveling alone for 58 days gives plenty of time for reflection, and Engelhard shares those observations here. There are thoughts on the values of wilderness, Indigenous rights, natural history, the changing Arctic, personal philosophy and more.

    Engelhard captures the highs and lows of such an expedition, and he’s by turns cranky and euphoric. He doesn’t shy away from confronting his own contradictions, such as his acknowledgment that the synthetic fibers that make this trek more comfortable originate from the petroleum industry he despises.

    And what an adventure! Each day brings hardship and wonder, with dismal fog offset by the antics of foxes and caribou, slogging hikes rewarded with simple pleasures like blooming wildflowers. (MM)

  • Better Living Through Birding

    By Christian Cooper

    Christian Cooper was a Black, queer kid with a penchant for science fiction and nature outings. Watching and identifying birds became a source of solace and joy in a racist, homophobic world. As an adult, the spring migration at New York City’s Central Park became the year’s highlight. He’d skimp on sleep and risk being late to work to search each morning for stunning warblers.

    It was on one such spring morning that his life was thrust into the spotlight, as an encounter with a dog walker made Cooper a victim of weaponized racism. The video of the incident went viral, putting him in the spotlight.

    In this memoir, he reflects on his life as a birder who defies stereotypes. It’s full of the joy of travel, family, science fiction, and yes, plenty of birds.  Few memoirs so eloquently capture the everyday thrills of birding. He sprinkles the story with birding tips and his “joys of birding,” explaining what keeps him going back. It’s a passion that, for Cooper, even weaponized racism can’t diminish. Better Living Through Birding is funny, brutally honest and insightful, a look at a life where birding is not a “lifestyle”, but part of the fabric of living. (MM)

  • Of Time and Turtles

    By Sy Montgomery

    Turtles take life at a slower pace, and that unhurried cadence is baked into Of Time and Turtles: Mending the World, Shell by Shattered Shell. Author Sy Montgomery immerses readers in the day-to-day of Turtle Rescue League teammates doing their best to protect turtle nests, incubate eggs, rescue turtles and release hatchlings.

    Although the book is a skillful mix of science, philosophy and turtle lore, it’s about more than the hundreds of reptiles saved by two dedicated women and the team they built.

    By the book’s end, the motto of Turtle Rescue League foundaers Natashia and Alexxia, “Never give up on a turtle,” takes on a broader meaning that feels a lot like a testimony to the power of human compassion and the difference it can make in the lives of animals, no matter how unhurried. (JW)

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