The threads connecting nature and culture are sewn deeply into my life experience. My childhood summer vacations to the Philippines often coincided with the rainy season. Instead of considering it a hardship, we’d treasure the rain that refreshed us and gave us relief from the tropical heat. On trips to visit my husband’s homeland of Argentina, my kids and I savor the adventures in the forest filled with exotic plants, animals, and insects, so far removed from our everyday urban life. Beyond my own experiences, reading how culture and the natural world have informed and influenced other writers provides perspective, enlightenment, and inspiration. Here are six books that I’ve enjoyed in recent years.
World of Wonders by Aimee Nezhukumatathil
I was lucky enough to take a workshop with Aimee Nezhukumatathil on food writing, so I feel like I got to see the behind-the-scenes way she highlights the senses in her own writing. In World of Wonders, she thoughtfully interweaves stories and drawings of plants and animals with stories from her multicultural experience. (We both have Filipina mothers, so I especially enjoyed hearing about her childhood.)
“It is this way with wonder: it takes a bit of patience, and it takes putting yourself in the right place at the right time. It requires that we be curious enough to forgo our small distractions in order to find the world.”
The Overstory by Richard Powers
This Pulitzer Prize-winning book is kind of a beast, and hard to condense into a paragraph description. There is so much within it – story, science, sadness, activism, cultural questions, multi-faceted characters, and rich descriptions of the forest! You will learn about trees and also think deeply about the intertwining relationships between humanity and the natural world.
“You and the tree in your backyard come from a common ancestor. A billion and a half years ago, the two of you parted ways. But even now, after an immense journey in separate directions, that tree and you still share a quarter of your genes…”
Enchantment by Katherine May
Once in a while, books make their way into my bones, and when I think of them, I am taken back to the time I read them. Katherine May’s last book, Wintering, takes me back to the snow on my windshield, the gray skies, and the soft wool sweater against my skin on a long drive home. Enchantment is an extension of that. Again, I fell into her world, but also mine. She leads us through earth, water, fire, and air and you can’t help but follow along in the hope of rediscovering wonder and awe in your own life.
“The alchemy comes in understanding the truth that seems so easily hidden: that everything is interconnected. That there is only one whole. That we exist within a system that includes every degraded act and every beautiful one, every blade of grass and every mountain; that shines and snaps and varies like the surface of the sea.”
No One is Too Small to Make a Difference by Greta Thunberg
This little book packs a big punch. It is an anthology of Swedish environmental activist Greta Thurnberg’s speeches. It amazes me that at 15 years old she became such an outspoken advocate and leader for protecting the natural world. She speaks bluntly and scientifically about the human impact of climate change with a convicting sense of urgency.
“What we do or don’t do right now will affect my entire life and the lives of my children and grandchildren. What we do or don’t do right now, me and my generation can’t undo in the future.”
Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
I love the way Kimmerer interweaves native culture and science… motherhood and academic life…and many, many other things. Reading her writing feels best at a slow, reflective pace so I haven’t finished yet. I’m savoring each chapter for what it teaches and stirs in me.
“Sometimes I wish I could photosynthesize so that just by being, just by shimmering at the meadow’s edge or floating lazily on a pond, I could be doing the work of the world while standing silent in the sun.”
Devotions by Mary Oliver
Last but not least is the only book that holds a permanent place of honor on my nightstand. Devotions is an anthology of Oliver’s life’s work of poetry. When I first received the book, I got in the habit of dog-earring my favorite poems. Over time, different seasons of life made different poems resonate. Now practically every page is dog-eared. She is probably most famous for her poem “Wild Geese” and its line “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” but I often go back to “Invitation” and its goldfinches.
“Oh do you have time to linger for just a little while out of your busy and very important day…”
I would love to hear about your favorite books on nature and culture. Leave a comment below!