OK, I confess, I’m a sucker for really good nature writing. Aldo Leopold’s essays, Loren Eiseley’s poetry, Rachel Carson’s sea books, and other writers who can take science and observation, blend it with poetry, and produce wonders never grow old. Natural history is one of those fields I’ve always aspired to write and have never felt good enough to dare.GIlbert White’s The Natural History of Selborne is one of the early, widely available, natural histories in English. White was a vicar in the parish of Selborne, and spent a great deal of his time outdoors, observing the birds and plants (botanizing), and theorizing a little about why the Lord made things the way they were. He was writing at the time that biology was becoming a respectable hobby for the educated amateur, and he wrote very detailed descriptions of his parish and its inhabitants. He’s not exactly the father of natural histories, that would be Pliny, but he’s up there.
Charles Darwin’s two main books, Voyages of the HMS Beagle and On the Origin of Species both include lovely sweeps of nature writing. Darwin was an observer and categorizer before he was a theorist, with an eye for detail, and his writing shows it. Alexander von Humbolt also has lyrical passages, although he contributed far more to the field with his discovery of life zones and the importance of latitude and elevation on floral and faunal communities. Some of Humbolt’s work is available in translation, but his style is academic and a touch stiff, as you might expect from a 19th century German professor.
When botany, zoology, ornithology, and entomology became “sciences” in the late 19th and early 20 the centuries, nature writing shifted a little in scope and origin. Generalists including Aldo Leopold, a forest ranger and predator control officer, took up the pen, and nature writing shifted away from the older dirt-up descriptive tradition. Leopold’s writing combines a gift for knowing the biology with the ability to write it in a lyrical, visual way. Anyone who appreciates good writing, hunting, or conservation, will find the original Sand County Almanac a delicious treat. His other essays lean more toward what would become called ecology, notably those pieces that describe his idea of a “land ethic.”
Loren Eiseley is best known as an anthropologist, unless you grew up in Nebraska or the surrounding states. He was also a poet, and wrote about the plains of Nebraska and the fossils of the Nebraska Sandhills, where he worked as a dig assistant. Nebraska is rich in paleo-mammals of all sizes, and he was present in the 1930s when paleontologists discovered two saber-toothed cats, their jaws locked together just as they had been when they died. From that came the poem (and book) “The Innocent Assassins.”
I know some people love Annie Dillard and hold up Pilgrim of Tinker Creek as a model of nature writing. I never got into her work, and I’m not certain why. She’s certainly gifted in how she describes the land around her. Ditto Thoreau’s Walden – too much author, not enough pond and woods for my taste. Other people love it, reread it, and donate to help pay for the preservation of the pond.
On the other hand, I love the astronomer Chet Raymo’s writing, and he can be as philosophical as Dillard at times. The Soul of the Night and Honey from Stone are essay collections that blend hard science, personal observations, and meditations on faith and the loss thereof. Raymo’s 365 Starry Nights is a great book for budding astronomers and star gazers. I’d recommend having it spiral bound or put in a three-hole binder, because I wore my copy out and the pages have come loose, which is the last thing you want at night in the boonies.
Rachel Carson is frustrating. She’s a great writer. I enjoyed her books about the sea and sea life immensely. But Silent Spring is problematic. Important in many ways, but problematic.
John Madson’s writings about the tall grass prairie sing. They just sing. I could read Where the Sky Began over and over. It’s almost one of my “desert island books.” He knows the science, he knows the territory, and he loves both. It shows. He comes very close to writing like Aldo Leopold at times, with a lyrical fondness for the past and a sense of optimism about what could be. His other books are harder to find, but are equally entertaining. The story about canoeing under the heron rookery will have you trying not to laugh (because for Bog’s sake, you do NOT want to startle the herons!)
A few years ago I discovered Collins Press’s New Naturalists series, about Britain. The individual volumes cover places, rivers, and plants and animals. The quality seems to be uniformly high, and I really enjoyed Dartmoor by Ian Mercer and Southern England by Peter Friend. They include geology, plants, animals, people, and usually have very good maps and illustrations. Alas, they are not inexpensive, even used. If you can find them at the library, I would encourage you to do so, unless you really need the research material or have a true abiding love for a pocket of Britain.
Natural history may be making a come back. For a while it faded out, dividing into often New-Agey paeans to the spirit of place without much science beneath them, and overly academic analyses of small patches of soil. Which I think is a real loss. Why preserve something if you can’t understand what value it has? Leopold and Madson, among others, caught both the importance of things and the love, without beating the reader over the head. A good natural history writer knows his stuff, knows the place, and loves it. He wants the reader to love it too, or at least to understand why this place (or thing) is loveable. And if you, the reader, get a dose of science in the process, it’s painless and might even tempt you to learn more about how the tall-grass prairie functions, and inspire you to go visit a patch of it some day.