The World in Words: Nature Writing

January 22nd, 2021Posted by Nancy

I admit that I’m a sucker for beautiful words about the natural world (anyone who has ever read one of my books can likely tell, as I probably write far too much description of such things). Some of my favourite non-fiction books deal with the natural world and human mysteries and the intersection between the two.

Here are the books that have lingered in my thoughts long after reading them.

H is for Hawk and Vesper Flights by Helen MacDonald

Both of these books made multiple “year’s best” lists (in 2014 and 2020). The first is stunning meditation on grief, an account of training a goshawk, and what the author calls a “shadow biography” of T.H. White. The second is a collection of essays that covers everything from watching a songbird migration from the top of the Empire State Building to watching the solar eclipse from a beach in Turkey to looking at the stars from the Atacama Desert – and what all those things mean to the people she encounters.

Here’s a brief sample from Vesper Flights. I had to stop and read this bit out loud to my husband, as I do with things I think are amazing. He’s very patient about it.

“Above me, the Southern Hemisphere stars are all dust and terror and distance and slow fire in the night, and I stare up, frozen, in frozen in wonderment.”

The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant

A masterful book about the conflict between human encroachment into the wilds of far eastern Russia and the great Amur tigers who live there, focusing on a series of killings and the ensuing hunt for the creature responsible. You learn about tigers and about this remote part of the world in equal measure. I always remember a section about the difficulty the solitary men in their remote cabins had speaking about anything beyond the practical, because they didn’t have the words for it. It always reminded me of some of my great-relatives, who seemed unable to answer questions about how they felt about things that had happened to them. For the Russians, there was vodka instead of words. I’m not sure what there was for my very proper Ontario great-aunts.

Here’s a section that’s also stayed with me, about our ancient fear of the dark.

“… during the 1960s and ’70s, (Charles) Brain spent time observing a troop of cliff-dwelling baboons that lived nearby. On particularly cold nights, the troop of about thirty baboons would retire to the caves that run deep inside the cliffs. One night, Brain did something no modern human had ever done. “I hid inside the cavern,” he wrote, “making my presence known only after the baboons had taken up their sleeping places. Although pandemonium broke out in the cave, the baboons could not be induced to leave the place in the dark.”

Owls of The Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl by Jonathan C. Slaight

2020’s trip the Far East of Russia, this time in search of a huge, fish-eating owl that looks a bit like a muppet goblin. There’s vodka, bad driving, remote places, locals who likely washed up there on the run from something, rapidly melting ice, and lots of beautiful writing.

Sadly, no way to quote this one, but I did love what the researchers discovered about the birds they were able to trap and band (a story in itself). Once they were caught, they tended to passively allow themselves to be weighted and measured and banded. Or at least the males did. The females would try to tear your face off with their talons.

Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology by Lisa Margonelli

An entertaining tale about termites, scientists, defense possibilities, AI ambitions, and more. A fascinating look at a very complicated creature (the termites) and some rather confused – and confusing – ones (the scientists who make their notes in black notebooks vs. computers, the luckless grad students who have to spent their days trying to count termites, and the people who will go to the ends of the earth to check out a good termite mound).

“In the mound, it is possible to see the entire order of the terrestrial sphere or, in more modern language, the progress from local to global. First there is the teeming world of the termite’s gut, processing grass; then the world of the termites, digging and grooming in their great social pile; then the world of the termites and their fungus, communicating in the mound through waves of chemistry and water vapor; and then the world of the plants and geckos on the surface. Way up in the air, a giraffe obliviously munches on a tasty leaf. And from the air, a regularly ordered carpet of fertility and superfertility becomes evident. And finally, a planet with an atmosphere.”

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