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10 Trailblazing Environmental Books for Earth Day


Earth Day is April 22. It began in 1970 and is now celebrated in more than 150 countries. The day is intended to raise awareness about the environmental issues facing the world. Writing on the environment and nature has a long legacy. A History of British Birds by Thomas Bewick, published in two volumes in 1797 and 1804, was the first field guide for birds. In 1854, Walden by Henry David Thoreau sparked the back-to-nature movement. On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin founded evolutionary biology in 1859.

The genre took a dramatic turn in the 20th century with the publication of a series of books that highlighted the dangers faced by various environments and species. The 19th century themes of appreciation and understanding were joined by concern for the environment’s future and demands for conservation and preservation.

Silent Spring resulted in DDT being banned

 Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962)

Subject matter: Carson documented how unregulated use of pesticides adversely affected the environment and also humans, and, in doing so, she challenged America’s chemical industry at a time when environmental activism was unheard of.

Impact: The book was met with fierce criticism from major chemical producers. However, it sparked the start of the US ecological movement, and led to major media coverage about the harmful use of pesticides. The use of DDT was eventually banned in the US in 1972 and a worldwide ban followed.  The book is still controversial today with many critics blaming Carson for hampering agricultural production around the world and allowing millions to die from malaria. DDT was originally intended to control malaria among soldiers in World War II. This book is worth reading today in order to discover how far corporations can go when unregulated.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas started campaigning at age 79

The Everglades: River of Grass by Marjory Stoneman Douglas (1947)

Subject matter:  Published in same year as the opening of the Everglades National Park, this book describes how the Everglades were suffering and in need of restoration and preservation.  The book positions the Everglades as a national treasure at time when many people thought it was just a swamp.

Impact: Douglas lived to 108. She campaigned for women’s and civil rights before becoming an environmental activist at the age of 79. Douglas was a relentless campaigner who used her skills as a freelance journalist to get her messages across. Her work was attacked by businesses looking to develop the Everglades. She spent five years researching the fragile and unique ecology of the Everglades for the book, which sold out within a month of being published.

Farley Mowat was accused to exaggeration

Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat (1963)

Subject matter: Mowat describes his experiences after being assigned to the Canadian sub-arctic in 1948 by the Dominion Wildlife Service to investigate the declining caribou population and whether wolves were to blame. He discovered wolves existed mostly on small mammals such as mice. He found that when wolves did hunt caribou, they killed the weaker, older and sick animals, which benefited the herd by allowing the fittest animals to breed and increased the speed of the herd’s migration. He blamed human hunters for the decline in caribou.

Impact: This book has been widely published and has been credited with discouraging the practice of culling wolves. As with most environmental books, Never Cry Wolf has its critics, who claim Mowat exaggerated the facts in order to deliver a good story. Several Canadian government bodies saw Mowat as a disruptive influence at the time. Today he’s regarded as an environmental pioneer. This book is highly readable and ideal for young readers brought up on children’s fiction where the wolf is big and bad, and eats Grandma.

John Muir first observed the Sierra Nevada as a shepherd

My First Summer in the Sierra by John Muir (1911)

Subject matter: Muir describes his first trip to California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains in what is now Yosemite National Park in 1869. The young Scottish immigrant joined a crew of shepherds and kept a diary while tending sheep over four months. He details vistas, flora and fauna, and other natural wonders.

Impact: No-one has advocated more for the preservation of wilderness in the United States than Muir. His 12 books and hundreds of articles mark him out as a key naturalist and nature writer. This book has helped to bring numerous visitors to Yosemite with four million people now visiting the area each year. The Sequoia National Park was also created partially thanks to his work. Muir co-founded the Sierra Club which campaigns on conservation issues.

Aldo Leopold advocated for a “land ethic”

A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold (1949)

Subject matter: Leopold describes the land around his home in Sauk County, Wisconsin, in a series of essays. He advocates for a responsible relationship between the land and people. He writes about striking a balance and reveals the negative effects of removing one species, like a predator, from the natural order.

Impact: The author coined the term “land ethic” and asked that humans develop a new ethic in order to preserve ecosystems. The book’s influence has mostly been in the United States.

Gavin Maxwell’s book was turned into a film

Ring of Bright Water by Gavin Maxwell (1960)

Subject matter: Maxwell describes his experiences with otters at his remote house in Scotland. It’s an account of humanity living with wildlife, and coming to understand nature.

Impact: The book was turned into a film starring Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna in 1969. Ring of Bright Water shows that no matter how advanced we feel that we can always learn more about nature and animals.

This diary was never intended for publication

The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady by Edith Holden (1906/1977)

Subject matter: This is an amateur naturalist’s diary for the year 1906 where the changing seasons are shown by changes in plants and animals in the English countryside. Holden uses text, including poetry, and illustrations of birds, plants and insects.

Impact: The book was first published in 1977 and became an immediate publishing sensation. It was a personal diary and never intended for publication. But this book shows almost anyone can have an appreciation for nature if they just take the time to look carefully.

Edward Abbey was against national parks where visitors could drive everywhere

Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey (1968)

Subject matter: Desert Solitaire is a collection of essays about life in the wilderness based on Abbey’s activities as a park ranger at the Arches National Monument in Utah in the late 1950s. He writes about damage caused by over development and tourism. The book is also philosophical as Abbey dwells on the power and ruthlessness of the desert such as when a search and rescue team are required to recover a dead body.

Impact: Abbey’s book put the Arches National Monument on the map. He heavily criticized the US Parks Service for developing parks filled with highways where visitors could drive-in and drive-out without truly experiencing the surroundings. He revealed how a desert area can be as fascinating as a forest or coastline. He showed how modern American culture was not in the least aligned with nature.

This book was inspired by John Cheever’s fictional short story, The Swimmer

Waterlog: A Swimmer’s Journey through Britain by Roger Deakin (1999)

Subject matter: Waterlog describes Deakin’s experiences of wild swimming in British waterways. It was inspired by John Cheever’s short story, The Swimmer, which was eventually adapted into a film starring Burt Lancaster.  Deakin’s mission was to swim across Britain from Cornwall to the east coast, and he swims through bays, rivers, canals, lakes, ponds and one swimming pool.

Impact: Deakin advocates for open access to the countryside and waterways. Waterlog was the only book that Deakin published in his lifetime, but it was a bestseller in the UK and helped create the wild swimming movement. The book goes beyond swimming and looks at English history, woodland, rights of way and ancient hedgerows.

Dian Fossey was murdered… almost certainly for her work against poachers

Gorillas in the Mist by Dian Fossey (1983)

Subject matter: Fossey’s book describes her efforts to study and preserve mountain gorillas in Africa from the mid-1960s to her death in 1985. She strongly opposed both tourism and poaching.

Impact: Fossey was murdered, almost certainly because of her efforts to protect gorillas. Slain in her bedroom, no valuables were taken from the room leading to the conclusion that poachers killed her. She highlighted that poaching was a major problem and started the movement for African parks to do more to protect their animals. She wasn’t just a campaigner but also raised money for her own anti-poaching patrols in Rwanda. Fossey made numerous scientific discoveries about gorillas and their complex social hierarchies. No-one did more to highlight the problem of poaching. Her critics accused her of loving gorillas more than humans.

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