A box of nature books arrived today. Packed and sealed a year and a half ago, they were left in storage on a hilly, stony street near the waterside in Staten Island.
These are the books I sought in the mega-city. They brought me reminders of the ocean that lapped the edges of that island and the rest of New York’s rocky verges, drawing out my awareness of nature as I gained Lower Manhattan by salt-sprayed ferry each day and sat at a desk as part of a website’s editorial staff.
Having since moved to the Rocky Mountain West, I live on a hill in an old neighborhood in one of the larger cities in this region, making my living in a similar trade. Here I breathe easier looking out my kitchen window at the inspiring hump of a foothill, and I walk the shoreline trail in cool temperatures with long views of high mountains. Sage grows on foothills above the neighborhood, and a grassy hiking trail circles the valley on the shores of a prehistoric lake. Beyond the hills, gray, jagged peaks rise—snow-covered in winter, creating stark images of the giants around us. For part of the summer, sun beats upon the valley.
It’s undeniable that Western cities and Western towns—like their counterparts elsewhere—have affected the landscape in many ways. Also, I know many who find nature in New York, Chicago, Paris through birdwatching, studying marine invertebrates, participating in oyster planting programs, planting trees or photographing them. But I am finding it important to have nature within view, and I tally happily each sighting--even if I sometimes wish the high, cool canyons here were a bit nearer, reached by public transit and bicycle lane as they would have been in the early part of the 20th century. Still, within 35-40 minutes' car travel, streams gurgle beneath leafy undergrowth under conifers. It's a beautiful thing.
When the books arrived, I opened the box—with the salty expectation of words of the sea. I treasured them at the time, but I read only parts of those books; I was too busy seeking nature in the everyday. Now I am happy the books have arrived, reminding me of the natural-history nest I established for myself and can continue to build elsewhere. I’ll also read such books set in the West, and seek out authors, naturalists, biologists, and others of the Intermountain Rockies and the West Coast.
Here are some from the box:
Narrow Edge: A Tiny Bird, An Ancient Crab & An Epic Journey, by Deborah Cramer. This concerns a seabird, the red knot, whose main food source is horseshoe crabs; it also migrates 20,000 miles. It's an inspiring, beautifully written book. “One warm May night, around midnight, I drove out to an empty beach on Delaware Bay. The summerhouses nearby were dark and empty, the only light the full moon shining on the bay and the only sound the waves gently lapping against the sand. Just before high tide, horseshoe crabs began emerging from the water. Their shells, some as large as dinnerplates, were dark and scuffed.”
Coastlines, by Patrick Barkham. By a British natural-history writer, this covers walks along 742 miles of coastline in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. It begins, “No cars glittered in the large tarmac car park. Seafront razzle dazzle was locked away inside boxy grey amusement arcades shuttered for the winter. The little shops on the stone-and-slate high street betrayed a seaside town’s weakness for punning: Born and Bread, Sophisticut and Cloud Nine. Opposite a derelict patch of weedy concrete, a tiny lane twisted upwards between dainty terraced homes, their chimneys pluming wood smoke from living-room fires.”
The Incidental Steward: Reflections on Citizen Science, by Akiko Busch. “Mohonk Mountain is only 30 miles from where I live in the Hudson Valley, but the ascent always makes it seem farther, mist hugs the ridge and drifts over the valley. The trees have long since shed their foliage, but for those few leaves still lingering on some oaks, and those will hang on for most of the winter.”
The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2015 (edited by Rebecca Skloot and Tim Folger). The essay “At Risk” by Jourdan Imani Keith, first published in Orion magazine, begins: “The torrential rain in the first week of September pummels the youth crew’s tents at night, depositing mud and sediment in the creek where they pump water for drinking. For 17 days the teenagers I recruited to build trails for the Northern Cascades National Park are camping during one of the heaviest storms in 100 years.”
Beginning Again: People and Nature in the New Millennium, by David Ehrenfeld (founding editor of the journal Conservation Biology, a biology professor at Rutgers University, and author of The Arrogance of Humanism). “The beginning of my introduction to places was not in Tutuguero at all, but in Gainesville, Florida where I had come to study zoology with Dr. Carr. It was my first day there, and it was summer, hot and humid. My new medical diploma from Harvard was in my suitcase and I was wearing a tie and jacket. I was terribly out of place, the way only a person who doesn’t have a good feeling for places can be.” (Shortly afterward, Ehrenfeld’s advisor takes him to look at an alligator nest.)
Lacking a connection to the sea but telling plenty about naturalism and nature, is A Butterfly Journey: Maria Sybylla Merian, Artist and Scientist, by Boris Friedewald. This beautifully illustrated little book deserves to be better-known, about a woman in the mid-seventeenth century who functioned as a scientist and artist: She collected, observed, and sketched caterpillars and butterflies and their foliage plants. Also, her work took place at a time when her interests could have led to her being suspected of witchcraft. “It was a strange, wondrous and immensely eventful era into which Maria Sybylla was born on 2 April 1647 in Frankfurt am Main. The Thirty Years’ War was still raging. It had pitted the Protestant and Catholic powers against each other and turned nearly all of Germany into a battleground. It came to an end with the Peace of Westphalia, signed in the year after Maria’s birth.”
There’s also Ian Frazier’s Nobody Better, Better Than Nobody, his 1997 roundup of essays. These are not overtly nature-oriented, but Frazier’s writing is always about both land and people, whether the setting is post-Hurricane Sandy Staten Island or reservation North Dakota, or upstate New York in one of his first pieces, about fishing there (arriving by bus) after obtaining guidance from a Manhattan-based fly shop.
It is a lot of inspiration for one box. More soon, on some Western books on my bedside table and some dear people here too.