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5 Books for Those Who Love all Things “Natural, Wild, and Free”

A stack of books

As our staff has adjusted to the realities of working from home and social distancing, there has been a significant amount of time freed up for those of us occupying the Future Leaders Center to get to all of the books that have been piling on our to-be-read shelves. Since starting my fellowship last June (2019), my pile of to-be-read books has grown and spilled out from a single shelf to stacks around my room, and with the new free time, I no longer had a viable reason to put off climbing this mountain.

Once I started though, I found the climb was easier than I could have anticipated. As someone who primarily reads fiction, the piles and piles of nonfiction reads that were recommended to me seemed an insurmountable challenge. However, I should have placed more trust in the recommenders, because almost every book I read was so interesting I devoured it in a matter of days. Now I feel that it is my duty to pass these recommendations on to you, my unsuspecting reader, to delight in and devour like I did. So without further ado, here are the 5 nature books I’ve enjoyed immensely in the past months.

1. Braiding Sweetgrass – Robin Wall Kimmerer

“It is not enough to weep for our lost landscapes; we have to put our hands in the earth to make ourselves whole again. Even a wounded world is feeding us. Even a wounded world holds us, giving us moments of wonder and joy. I choose joy over despair. Not because I have my head in the sand, but because joy is what the earth gives me daily and I must return the gift.”
Braiding Sweetgrass sitting on Leopold Bench

In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer describes various pieces of indigenous wisdom, other times referred to as traditional ecological knowledge, and outlines how this wisdom can be recognized more and encouraged in higher education and the Western scientific tradition. Of all the books I’ve read so far this year, fiction and nonfiction, Kimmerer’s book is by far my favorite, and I would highly recommend if you haven’t read this yet that you pick it up soon.

Her work lays out the different lessons that indigenous wisdom imparts both from a scientific as well as a spiritual/health perspective. All of this information is conveyed through stories ranging from Kimmerer’s own life to oral histories, to traditional stories.

What was so special, and relatable, about Braiding Sweetgrass is the intense love and respect with which Kimmerer describes every element of the environment, from the most complicated concept to the most common of species. Being surrounded by Leopold knowledge myself, I couldn’t help but see the connections between Braiding Sweetgrass and A Sand County Almanac. Robin Wall Kimmerer and Aldo Leopold both opened up the environment and connected with readers around a common love for, as Leopold would say, “all things natural, wild, and free.”

2. Seventh Generation Earth Ethics – Patty Loew

“The Native people whose lives are depicted here understood the cultural gravity that kept their people rooted to their ancestral lands and acted in ways that ensured the growth and success of future generations.”
Seventh Generation Earth Ethics sitting on railing overlooking prairie

In Seventh Generation Earth Ethics, Patty Loew has collected biographies of 12 people representing each of the twelve Indian nations of Wisconsin. These activists, educators, and advocates have been extremely important figures in the effort to guarantee the success of future generations, in line with the Seventh Generation philosophy.

This book highlights personal heroes of mine, and it was exciting to learn more about their lives. Through my thesis research in college, I became fascinated with Walt Bresette’s work exercising and enforcing treaty rights in northern Wisconsin, and it was a real treat to read about the vast wealth of advocacy work he did all around the Midwest. I think Loew hit the nail right on the head when she said,

“Bresette’s legacy is the legion of environmental activists and treaty rights supporters who continue to carry on his work.”

Each person she featured has inspired and informed communities around the broader Midwest. I’m excited to take the lessons she has imparted, and the knowledge of the people she showcased, and pass that information on to those in my own network. This book is so important in recognizing the work that has been happening “behind-the-scenes” in the broader environmental movement to ensure that Native American sovereignty is recognized and Native American communities are supported.

3. The Colors of Nature – Alison Deming and Lauret Savory

“American culture… is an ecosystem, an entangled bank where native and introduced cultures struggle to sustain their distinct inheritances while becoming interdependent with the very differences that give their separateness definition.”
The Colors of Nature resting on a sandy/grassy area

Alison Deming and Lauret Savoy give voice to the relationships, experiences, and cultural ties people of color have to the environment in their collection of essays and memoirs, The Color of Nature. The essays within this book cover topics in the United States’ ranging from our not-so-distant past to our not-so-distant future.

The pieces are written about the “human relationships with place and the natural world, suggesting that (the authors) might examine how lifeways, homeplace, and identity of an individual or a community are tied with the environment.” This book gives space for voices from a wide variety of cultures, identities, and experiences to speak on their relationship with the environment, while also having these voices align along with this similar topic. Each piece is different, yet they fit together in a cohesive puzzle.

4. Trace – Lauret Savoy

“To inhabit this country is to be marked by residues of its still unfolding history, a history weighted by tangled ideas of ‘race’ and of the land itself.”
Trace resting on blanket and grass

Weaving together personal narratives with historical events, Lauret Savory provides an in-depth look at what living in and being from the United States means in her powerful piece, Trace. Savoy’s exploration of her own identity and how it has been shaped and affected by the troubled and tumultuous past is hard-hitting.

This piece reads like poetry, despite it being composed of stories, both from Savoy’s own life and from the broader history of the United States. By adding personification into these historical narratives, Savoy adds a level of interest to each piece that keeps the reader captivated. The engaging descriptions and imagery transport you to the locations she is describing and helps the reader place themselves in the scenes she is occupying.

As someone with an interest in A Sand County Almanac, it was exciting to read the chapter on Leopold, “Alien Land Ethic.” In this section, Savoy tells the reader about her own interest in Leopold’s ideas, while also analyzing who he includes as members of the biotic community. She compares Aldo Leopold’s land ethic to a book her father had written, Alien Land, about his experiences with race and the discrimination he faced growing up.

For me, it was refreshing to see how Savoy’s admiration for Leopold wasn’t a blind trust, she truly thought about his ethics and how they applied and pertained to her. Applying Leopold’s thoughts to more than just an ecological context is exactly what he would have lauded and praised, and this chapter in Savoy’s work helps the land ethic “evolve in the minds of a thinking community.”

5. The Home Place – J. Drew Lanham

“The Home Place year was defined by falling leaves, gobbling toms, muggy thunderstorms, and frost-covered fields.”

Drew Lanham paints an inspiring picture of his journey from inquisitive child to conservation-minded adult in his work The Home Place. The book follows Lanham’s life growing up on a farm in the rural South. In it, he describes the journeys he took both physically and mentally as his thoughts and feelings about the environment evolved over time.

Lanham’s honest and open look into his own life allows the reader to take this journey with him, and discover how societal and familial pressures can impact a person’s life. However, by the end of the book, you discover that you end up in much the same place Lanham has, with a deep and abiding love of nature. One theme throughout the book is Lanham’s fascination with birds. I myself am not a birder, and am embarrassingly horrid at bird ID, but I somehow felt myself wishing along with Lanham that I could take off in flight.

I think that’s one of the beauties of not only this book, but of all the books I am recommending to you; while these stories come from different perspectives, cultures, and experiences, each of them moves the reader to feel for the world around them, and for the people who occupy it.