In May our staff explores Nature and Science at the library—subjects that inspire wonder, attention, exploration, and care.
Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks, alternating between reflections on place and language and regional glossaries of natural phenomena in the British Isles, is a transformative look at human relationships with nature. Macfarlane offers gems like blinter (“dazzle, but with a particular sense of cold dazzle: winter stars or ice splinters catching low midwinter sunlight”) alongside crittlecronks, fireflacht, and hundreds of other culturally specific words that fly off the tongue with delight to form visions. The foundation of Landmarks is one of reciprocity: our relationships with our landscapes are shaped by our language but, so too, our language is shaped by the earth, sea, sky, and land—by the particularities of the places where we rise, walk, settle, or gripe about geeve (“almost imperceptible fine rain that nevertheless gets you wet and cold quickly”). Within the treasure trove of reader-submitted words that end the book lies that which best sums up what happens when we attend to our natural surroundings:
cynefin place of belonging Welsh
If Landmarks inspires you to engage in the act of noticing, Mary Holland’s Naturally Curious is the ultimate field guide to alert the inquisitive investigator to signs of seasonal change and natural life in New England. Maybe after some trips out with Holland’s month-by-month guide, you’ll feel attentive and empowered enough to compose your own glossary of the land.
I’m grateful for the athletes and artists who capture the beauty of extreme mountain environments. Check out Meru and Free Solo, two breathtaking documentaries in the PPL collection, both co-directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin. They could be seen as films about human accomplishments, but truly, they are odes to the mountains themselves, and to the unforgiving intensity of nature.
When I moved here, years ago, after a life in Chicago, St. Louis and Atlanta—places I loved for many reasons, yet steeped in billboards, developments, malls, concrete and traffic—Maine’s coasts and forests, mountains and lakes, wildlife and wetlands felt precious and rare.
My three picks are newer books that celebrate the ocean, relationships, and interconnectedness:
As an adult, I love children’s book author and illustrator Andrea Tsurumi’s candid, thoughtful gaze at life and her reflections in pen and ink and color and words. Her new picture book is a recent favorite, and, curious, I read about what inspired her. “Why did I make Crab Cake? A picture book about a cake-baking crab confronting a huge ecological disaster?” she reflects wryly, quietly. “As a kid, I [was often] overwhelmed by giant, complex and messy problems…but in the face of disaster, people can respond with love and action.”
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s novel The Dragonfly Sea celebrates one woman’s relationship with the sea, her loved ones, and Pate, her island home off the Swahili Coast; in its lyricism Owuor’s work also carefully examines foreign states and the government in modern Kenya and their impacts on individuals, communities, and the environment. The story came to Owuor while “Loving the ocean, dreaming of its many lives…[and] the other question of what China’s return to Eastern Africa through the seas might imply for small intimate histories, and what the responses of the ‘ordinary people’ might be.” An engrossing, brilliant novel.
Susan Hand Shetterly’s The Seaweed Chronicles is a must-read about seaweed in Maine (and beyond) and the many lives tied up in it—from phytoplankton to eider ducks to our own.
PBS American Experience’s Rachel Carson is a short and sweet introduction to the famous environmentalist. While it offers key biographical information around her education, career, and the writing of Silent Spring, much of the documentary is devoted to her time living on Southport Island. Her relationship with Dorothy Freeman takes center stage; while they were only neighbors during the summer, their relationship stretched throughout all seasons through their devotional letters. If you are a fan of Rachel Carson and enjoy stories of female friendship and romance – all set on the picturesque Maine seaside – this is a documentary for you.
Do you love nature but aren’t good at remembering the names of any flora or fauna? In The Sense of Wonder, A Celebration of Nature for Parents and Children, Rachel Carson says, don’t worry about it! “I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel.” I loved this slim volume, with beautiful photos by Nick Kelsh, for its wisdom, encouragement and inspiration.
Cooking, gardening, home repair. Birding, rock hounding, star gazing. Trebuchets, parachutes, flight. At the heart of it all, there is science. There are explanations to be found, logic to be had. We can find them by moving backward through the known or forward into the surprising inevitable.
For me, understanding most often treads on the heels of words that I find beautiful, not a hallmark of most textbooks. This precondition made me a disappointment to my longsuffering science and math teachers, and proved detrimental to my grade point average.
Despite this, there are books that mark my place in comprehending small fractions of the world and the science that makes it tick. Exhibit A in my continuing education is a mercilessly truncated list of titles that have eased me happily into relationship with the natural world. What they have in common is that I engaged them willingly and they filled spaces in me that needed filling: gaps in knowledge, holes in holistic understanding, dark corners full of not much.
A Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold (Just beautiful.)
Hope is the Thing With Feathers: a Personal History of Vanished Birds, by Chris Cokinos (Transporting. Gripping. Heart breaking.)
Ravens in Winter, by Bernd Heinrich (Science as adventure. So much tree climbing!)
Reading the Forested Landscape: a Natural History of New England, by Tom Wessels (Seeing the past hidden in plain sight.)
Naturally Curious, by Mary Holland (Bite-sized pieces about so many things.)
Exhibit B demonstrates that I am a sucker for the whimsical and possibly tasteless possibilities available. Just one title here, not because I don’t tread the path of silliness with embarrassing regularity, but because it is my most recent random find. It is light in tone and weight, informative and answers my favorite kind of question: the one I don’t know I have.
Does It Fart?: the Definitive Guide to Animal Flatulence by Nick Caruso and Dani Rabaiotti. I probably won’t be bulk buying it for gift giving, but it is fun. Now I can respond with authority when someone asks me if cockroaches fart. I won’t spoil it for you in case you want to read it. By all means, do read it.
My wish for everyone is that they find themselves comfortable with wondering how the natural world works. Not with knowing, but with wondering. And then I wish for them the time and will to assemble their own pile of books that make them forget that science isn’t their thing.
Each book takes me by the hand and delivers me to the next. Thank heaven for that. It means this merry chase can go on forever, tumbling headlong through a world that is, after all, all about science.
More Resources: Nature and Science Booklists
- Climate Change, Biodiversity, and Extinction
- Bird, Beast, & Beyond: Explorations in Nature
- Forest Bathing: Celebrating Trees
As always, thanks for reading.