Got a nature lover or natural sciences fan on your gift list? Here are a few titles – some old and some new – that spoke to me both as a writer and a certified interpretive naturalist. I dig them and think the recipients will, too. Buy from your local independent bookseller or order online from bookshop.org.
Gift ideas for book and nature enthusiasts
Books on climate change
The Geography of Risk – Epic Storms, Rising Seas, and the Cost of America’s Coast by Gilbert M. Gaul. North Carolinians of a particular vintage grew up hearing tales of Hurricane Hazel, which ravaged the state as far inland as Chapel Hill, where my mother rode it out. Her tales, plus my career as a business journalist, led me to this book. It’s an investigation into and explanation of the impact of more (and more intense) storms on seaside communities and how federal funds (tax incentives, flood insurance, etc.) fail taxpayers, residents and the environment. Gaul, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, presents the facts straightforwardly with storytelling that blends data with historical and contemporary accounts from people on the frontlines. This book is a must-read for owners of coastal properties, coastal conservationists, policy wonks and beach lovers.
Before the Streetlights Come On – Black America’s Urgent Call for Climate Justice by Heather McTeer Toney. It’s a talent to take on difficult subjects like climate change, environmental justice and systemic racism in a way that doesn’t bum readers out to the point of being unable to take action. Toney possesses that talent. Her voice is clear and relatable, making you feel like you’re sitting on the front porch or kitchen table listening to your well-informed, experienced and funny friend. The book includes mini-profiles of community environmental activists, and each chaper concludes with a glossary of terms and – crucially – a short list of tangible actions you can take today to address our climate emergency. I especially recommend this book for young readers because it's approachable, intersectional and action-oriented.
Books about conservation and habitat restoration
Looking for Longleaf by Lawrence Earley. Published 21 years ago, this natural and economic history of the Southeast and Gulf States is still the authoritative work on the Longleaf Pine (pinus palustris), which isn’t but should be our state tree. (At least it’s mentioned by name in our state toast!). Earley’s style is engaging and not too scientific. He eloquently describes the factors that drive habitat loss, the practices that hurt restoration — both largely at the hands of white settlers, colonists and their descendants – and the challenges of restoration and conservation. The book includes perspectives from habitat restoration and conservation experts working to protect and propagate this stately pine. Despite the challenges, the book ends more hopefully than you might think. A good choice for people interested in the Southern economy and natural history, fans of the big pines and anyone looking for conservation role models.
Saving the Wild South by Georgann Eubanks. The Southeastern U.S. is one of the most biodiverse places in the world – and it’s under siege from climate change and development. Eubanks attacks this big problem by zooming in on a single plant or habitat in each state in the region, connecting us to plants, places and the people who care about them. Showcasing their work to reverse the trend engenders hope from the progress that is being made. She – and her subjects – inspire us to keep going, too. Anyone interested in native plants or looking for environmental heroes will love this book.
Novels with a nature theme
Weyward by Emilia Hart. I don’t read a lot of fiction and I am so glad Keebe recommended this one to me. It’s a terrific tale of one family’s heritage told through three intertwined narratives from the 1600s to the present day. Beautifully written and expertly told, the book is at once a look at the gifts of the natural and supernatural worlds and our connections to them and an almost feminist manifesto showcasing the marginalization of women through the ages. But I promise it's not a heavy or difficult read. In fact, it's an absolute page-turner that reaffirmed my own relationship with the mystical and magical world around us.
Collections of nature poetry
American Wildflowers: A Literary Field Guide by Susan Barba and Leanne Shapton. This book was gifted to me last Christmas and it's kept me enchanted all year. Barba has curated a collection of poetry, essays and other prose about wildflowers from diverse writers from the 1700s to today. Shapton adds compelling watercolor illustrations for each entry. Organized by species and botanical family, it’s the kind of book you’ll revisit time and again. Perfect for lovers of flowers and literature plus all the folks on your list who are, as Barba writes, “witnesses to wild beauty”.
Sparrow Envy by J. Drew Lanham. This book of verse by this MacArthur Fellow and Clemson wildlife ecologist is like a walk in the woods with a friend. Thoughtful, perceptive and honest, it’s a lovely little read. One of my favorite lines is from Nocturne: “I thought them at first dreams/but for the words they left/in echoes of their wings.” If you’re looking for a narrative work, I also recommend his book, The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man's Love Affair with Nature. It's part personal history, part outdoor adventure, part nature writing – a blend that is all good. Lanham's perspective is especially relevant to anyone interested in rural life, Black history and/or upstate South Carolina.
Essays on nature
The Anthropology of Turquoise by Ellen Meloy. I discovered this book during a writing residency at the Highlands Biological Station this past summer and was struck by Meloy’s beautiful way with color, which she says is “the first principle of place”. She deftly conveys the chromatic nuances of the world she encounters, from California to the desert Southwest to the tropics, with terms like “vain pinks”, “irresponsible yellow” and “crayons as blue as devotion”. This nature-focused memoir is a chronicle of a woman of a certain age’s outdoor and artistic life and is perfect for gals of any generation.
The Comfort of Crows: A Backyard Year by Margaret Renkl. This latest from one of my favorite nature writers and New York Times columnists does not disappoint. So much more than a mere phenology, this collection of short essays, astute observations and thoughtful devotionals is also a look into a year in Renkl’s life. She explores occurrences we experience daily – birds singing, for example – with prose that elevates these common experiences to a higher level. And she brings attention to other phenomena we easily overlook – like tadpoles and night-blooming plants – with descriptions that will motivate you to seek them out yourself. All the deep dives support more meta topics, like climate change and recurring patterns. This book is a tonic.
Natural science books for the general public
This Is Your Brain on Nature by Eva M. Selhub and Alan C. Logan. I've always known that going outside made me feel better and Selhub (an MD) and Logan (an ND) explain why -- and you don't need a medical degree to get it. They explore everything from forest bathing (shinrin-yoku) to gardening to just looking out the window – and break down the evidence showing how these activities impact our physical, emotional, cognitive and mental health. A terrific gift for a friend or family member who loves to be outside and others curious about the benefits of time in nature.
Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake. This fascinating read digs into the kingdom below our feet: fungi. Super engaging, the book investigates the wonders of mushrooms, of course, plus slime mold and the mycelium, which Sheldrake calls “ecological connective tissue”. But this isn’t a science textbook and you don’t need a biology degree to enjoy it. His engaging style and plain language make it an easy and entertaining read. It’s a great gift for a gardener or mushroomer and anyone with the slightest curiosity about what lies beneath.
The Creative Act: A Way of Being by Rick Rubin. I know this seems like a weird choice for a nature lovers’ book list but hear me out. In this distillation of the legendary producer’s approach to creativity, Rubin repeatedly cites the benefits of being in nature and the its vital role in sparking creativity and innovation. There's so much in there, in fact, that I'm developing an entire nature journaling workshop around it (stay tuned!). I'd give this book to anybody – nature lover, maker, artist.