You want nothing more than to go outside and breath fresh air, but instead you’re stuck inside, days filled with Zoom meetings and assisting your eleven-year-old to simplify fractions and arranging snacks and signing endless emails with “here’s to a better 2021.” By the time you emerge, finally at the end of your exhaustive list of pandemic duties, it’s dark outside and while you know a meditative walk through the trees would do your soul good even without sunlight, you are tired and your soul just wants to drink wine and rewatch Downton Abbey.
I live in the woods and still struggle to get outdoors and let the fresh air work its magic. Two weeks ago, my tiny Northern Minnesota town set the record for the coldest temperature in the state at -37 degrees. I’m worried my eyelashes will freeze, break off, and not grow back. Also, there was a recent wolf kill not far from my house and I don’t run very fast. For these reasons, I turn to books to escape my own walls. (Most often, I turn to memoirs and essay collections, because that’s how I roll.)
For those of us currently struggling to frolic in an actual field with Mother Nature, I’ve compiled a list of gorgeous books you can read to fill the nature-shaped void in your life. I hope these books will transport you and soothe you, and remind you that we’re a part of something much larger than our own living rooms—even if we haven’t left them for a whole year.
World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments by Aimee Nezhukumatathil
This best-selling and exquisite collection of essays by award-winning poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil should be in every human’s hands immediately. Not only is this book a dream to read, it’s stunning to look at with its whimsical illustrations. Writing about the natural world and quirky characters like dancing frogs, pink salamanders, and narwhals, Nezhukumatathil gleans lessons from their weird ways—like how to smile in the face of unkindness, and how to move gracefully through the world where you are Othered. But my favorite thing about World of Wonders is its gentle, joyful tone. After reading it, I smiled deeply. There is a generosity to Nezhukumatathil’s book that makes me feel better. This book is the perfect gift for everyone. The essays are short and digestible, but pack a punch and stay with you for weeks. I am delighted to see this essay collection on top of the world right now. All is as it should be.
Limber by Angela Pelster
This is a collection of wild and imaginative lyric essays devoted to trees and all their wonderment. Each essay is its own unique treasure, masterfully crafted with sentences that woo us and move us and knock us right off the couch. From “How Trees Came to Be in the World,” a quick eight pages chronicling the evolution of life, to the delightful “Meditations on a Tree Frog” which is less about frogs and more about love, to the mesmerizing “Moon Trees” (yes, trees grow on the moon—or they don’t; who cares? Just let it happen.), Pelster proves herself a deft shapeshifter, playfully pushing against the constraints of form while delicately handling topics of loss, grief, and sorrow. The writing is surprising and exhilarating. My own copy of the book is ripped and worn because I carry it with me everywhere. Limber expanded what I thought was possible within the form of the essay, and I am so grateful for it.
The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature by J. Drew Lanham
One of the most moving memoirs about place I have read, ornithologist and wildlife ecologist J. Drew Lahham shares beautiful stories about nature interwoven with memories of his childhood in the Deep South. As he wanders the same fields his ancestors were once forced to work, he questions his own sense of belonging while also leaning into the joy and contentment of exploring the beauty of the American landscape. In love with nature and a self-proclaimed “eco-addict,” Lanham waxes lyrically about the settings he observes with language and syntax that captivates. Reading The Home Place, I knew I was in the presence of not just a writer; this is the careful work of a brilliant professor and scientist, a keen observer, a willful wanderer. This is an important book that grapples with race relations and Blackness in America, and allows us to consider who this “place” truly belongs to.
Silver Road: Essays, Maps, and Calligraphies by Kazim Ali
Each book I read by Kazim Ali becomes my latest obsession, and Silver Road is no exception. Ali is a masterful poet, here exploring race, separation, frailty, and aloneness. This gorgeous, genre b(l)ending collection of essays will make you weep and wring your hands and then place them gently over your heart—all in the same paragraph. This book is about many things: it’s a book about human migration, about being, about borders and queerness and historical voices and quantum physics and lovers and territory and natural resources. Ali’s writing is symphonic and limitless in scope. Though it covers a lot of territory, fear not; Ali also knows how to give readers room to breathe in his writing. There is time to pause and consider our spiritual and physical connection to each other, our in-commonness. Kazim Ali is a writer who makes the essayist in me swoon.
Things That Are: Essays by Amy Leach
Dr. Seuss meets his match in this dazzling essay collection of all things strange and magical. With its sing-song voice and made-up words, Things That Are transports us to a colorful world that we never want to leave—until we realize, with utter delight, that we’re already living in it. Leach contemplates the tiniest earthly dwellers to the vast cosmos. She spins and reorders the world, taking the reader on the silliest of rides, orchestrating language like a mad conductor. Once, while I was camping with my young boys, I read the glossary of terms in the back of the book aloud and we laughed into the wee hours. Our lives are much brighter now that we know about Mouldywarps, Whimwhams, Dragon Gaggers, and Fireflakes. My favorite essay, “Comfortless,” is about a down comforter stuffed with chocolate mints, from which comes my most favorite quote: “The closest thing to serenity, for you, is laughing.”
The Unlikely Thru-Hiker: An Appalachian Trail Journey by Derick Lugo
This book is a breath of fresh everything. A Black comedian from Brooklyn hikes the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine on a whim. A laugh-out-loud page-turner, The Unlikely Thru-Hiker has all the adventure you’d expect from the hiking-a-great-big-hike genre, and is told from the perspective of a Black man charging through what has historically been white literary territory. Mr. Fabulous, as Lugo calls himself, is affable, optimistic, and delightfully endearing as he plows through over two thousand miles of Appalachia, goateed and ill-prepared. This book charmed my pants off, inspired me, and punched me in the gut. Read it.
H Is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald
Grieving over the unexpected loss of her beloved father, poet and historian Helen MacDonald turns to her childhood obsession: hawking. She holes herself up in her living room with a giant, feisty goshawk named Mabel, and she proceeds to train the bird while simultaneously grieving, or not grieving, her father’s passing. Training the hawk is solace, preoccupation, distraction, and a high. It offers MacDonald somewhere to put her body and mind while her spirit retreats in order to right itself. This is a fierce memoir filled with vivid language that circles and soars, not unlike its subject. Being holed up during a pandemic is the perfect time to read this book. (I was so moved by H Is for Hawk that I chose an epigraph from it for my first book.)
Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer
While this phenomenon of a book needs zero shout-outs from little ol’ me, it absolutely must be included on this list. Braiding Sweetgrass is written by botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, a question-asker, and a nature-lover of the deepest degree. One of my favorite aspects of this book is how Kimmerer threads together all of her identities (Indigenous/scientist/woman/mother) to illuminate how these identities speak to and honor each other. Kimmerer delves into the natural world on a micro and macro level, reflecting on the tiniest plants and animals to the broadest global ecosystems. This is a robust and generous book, full of wisdom to savor over time, and makes me want to be a better human, mother, writer, ally, advocate, and lover of nature.
The Museum of Whales You Will Never See: And Other Excursions to Iceland’s Most Unusual Museums by A. Kendra Greene
Is this not the most gorgeous title of a book ever? I’m completely obsessed with whales, so when I came across this book I needed to have it. Part memoir, part travelogue, part guide book, A. Kendra Greene cracks open and lays bare an Icelandic treasure trove for the world to savor. Each chapter is its own delicious story, chronicling many of the country’s 265 oddball museums. (For perspective, Iceland’s population is only 330,000, so the museum saturation is quite heavy.) From the Icelandic Phallological Museum (yes, a museum of penises), to a museum of rocks, to a museum of witchcraft, Greene visits them all and, even after indulging in a bite of questionable whale blubber, lives to tell these tales. The Museum of Whales You Will Never See is escapism and a delight for sentence-obsessed nerds like me. The writing is colorful, funny, precise, at times journalistic and at times whimsical and wandering, but always surprising and generous. This book will transport you, making you feel like Alice in Wonderland—except this wonderland is filled with fjords and museums and volcanoes instead of Cheshire cats and Jabberwockies.
And to close out this wonderful list, we just had to include Jessica’s debut collection of essays, Sound Like Trapped Thunder, out now from Seneca Review Books! – Ed.
Sound Like Trapped Thunder by Jessica Lind Peterson
Jessica Lind Peterson’s debut essay collection, Sound Like Trapped Thunder, is the winner of the 2020 Deborah Tall Lyric Essay Book Prize, selected by Jenny Boully. In essays on subjects ranging from seahorse mating rituals to an urgent letter addressing a grizzly bear, from a wounded hummingbird to an old woman following the call of a lonely whale, Jessica Lind Peterson explores tensions between domesticity and wildness, often discovering latent elements of magic within the mundane. Full of lyrical sentences, stylized prose, and moments that are by turns funny and poignant, and often both at once, Sound Like Trapped Thunder troubles the distinction between the human and the animal, calling into question such tidy categories we rely upon to help make sense of ourselves and the world we live in.