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I met nature writer Gail Folkins at a local Wine Walk event. Neither of us were drinking or walking, however. We were peddling our books. I quickly discovered Gail is as passionate about our landscape as I am, so I invited her to share some of her favorite nature reads. If you’re a nature lover, you’ll want to add these to your list of must-reads.
Nature surfaces as readily as the Douglas firs and hemlocks of western Washington or the sloping hills of the Palouse in many nonfiction books set in the Pacific Northwest. In each of these eight titles, landscape plays a character-sized role. Nature as home, adapting to a new environment, and preservation of place are among the topics these works explore.
In the Wilderness: Coming of Age in Unknown Country – Kim Barnes (Anchor Books, 1996).
In this coming-of-age memoir, Barnes shares her upbringing in a northern Idaho logging camp, chronicling a family journey of shifting economics and faith. Gender roles, a search for independence, and a rural landscape all play a role in this work.
From Kirkus Reviews: “Sad and beautiful…a book about humility, and how one is of one’s origins, no matter how far a person has traveled in imagination, artistry, and insight.”
What Gail says: Barnes’ poetic writing style pairs musicality with plot as the narrator grapples with identity in this wilderness setting.
Sample from the book: The last year we spent living in the hollow, the year I turned twelve, was the last year we would live in the woods, the last year I would sleep beneath the soft brush of pine against the tin roof, the last year I would remember our family as somehow whole.
Winter: Notes from Montana – Rick Bass (Mariner Books, 1991).
In journal entries, Bass describes a first winter spent in the northwestern corner of Montana. Winter follows the narrator and partner Elizabeth Hughes, who illustrates the book, as they prepare for and embrace the harsh winter their remote valley offers. Woven throughout Bass’s personal insights is a call to preserve the region and its plants and wildlife.
From Booklist: “This entrancing and candid journal celebrates life in the wild and the magnetism of the written word.”
What Gail says: The depth of feeling for place is evident throughout, with a narrator determined to both understand and defend the landscape.
Sample from the book: All through the forest, they say, you can hear the trees on the coldest of nights: cracking and popping like firecrackers, like cannons, like a parade, while rabbits, burrowed in the snow beneath them, sit quietly, warm and white, saved, having learned – having made the right bet.
Reclaimers – Ana Maria Spagna (University of Washington Press, 2015).
Reclaimers explores western regions in flux, such as the Condit Dam in Washington, which through ecological and cultural lessons learned are slated for return to a more natural (albeit not original) state. Rich with personal interviews, historical detail, and observation, Spagna, a naturalist, shares the timeline of each place – before and after – while examining the ethics of change, whether human-made or shifted by nature itself.
From Robin Wall Kimmerer, professor of Environmental and Forest Biology: “The premise of this book, that the urge for reclamation is a deep human need which is played out in our relationship to place, offers the potential for healing the apparent breach between people and the living landscape.”
What Gail says: Spagna reveals both personal and research journeys at every turn, building a moving case for reclamation on this narrative road trip.
Sample from the book: Sometimes I chided myself that the question I kept asking – How can we live right on earth? – paled in comparison with theirs: How can we stop destroying the earth?
The Good Rain: Across Time and Terrain in the Pacific Northwest – Timothy Egan (Vintage, 1991).
Profiling regions throughout the Pacific Northwest, from the rain-soaked Olympic Peninsula to the arid lands of eastern Washington, Egan reveals insights on the impact of growth and change. Not only informing readers about the region, he also decries the loss of its landscapes.
From Kirkus Reviews: A New York Times reporter and Northwest native, Egan writes about this land and “its icons—salmon and trees and mountains and water” with the nightmare of urban traffic at his heels.
What Gail says: The historical accounts are particularly engaging, sharing backstory that sets the stage for contemporary preservation or ongoing efforts.
Sample from the book: The secret of life in the Northwest runs in packs of silver; as with most mysteries, it lies below the surface, evident to anyone who thinks it important enough to look.
The Last Wild Edge: One Woman’s Journey from the Arctic Circle to the Olympic Rain Forest – Susan Zwinger (Johnson Books, 1999).
Zwinger, who has a background working for the National Park Service, describes her journeys starting as far north as the Arctic Circle and ending up closer to home in the Olympic Rain Forest. She depicts interactions with nature effectively, from a curious raven to glaciers becoming part of the sea and landscape.
From Gary Paul Nathan, agricultural ecologist: “What happens at the edge of the earth happens to Susan Zwinger, a tenacious supporter and acute observer of all things wild.”
What Gail says: Zwinger shares what’s at stake in our loss of natural habitat while also finding power and hope in the smallest lichen or conifer needle.
Sample from the book: I am struck by the immense ability of these forests to retain moisture. The mist, heavy as a burlap shroud, catches on the tree canopy, coating each needle with a pillowcase of water. Enough moisture to water a city is captured by every two mountains.
Through a Green Lens: Fifty Years of Writing for Nature – Robert Michael Pyle (Oregon State University Press, 2016).
This compilation of Pyle’s work chronicles a lasting relationship with the natural world, and includes essays set in the Northwest. A biologist and naturalist, Pyle shares his discoveries through a combination of narrative, research, and vivid insights, whether rescuing a dampened Cecropia moth or championing a lesser-known part of Lake Washington in Seattle.
From Michael P. Branch, professor of literature and environment: “Through a Green Lens is a remarkable, career-spanning collection by a gifted writer who has, for a half century now, helped us to observe, understand, and love the fields, forests, and rivers, and to better know the wild things that make their home there.”
What Gail says: Throughout this collection, Pyle’s works bloom anew with a spirit of advocacy and a lasting sense of wonder.
Sample from the book: In most instances, we create our own remoteness from nature. Overcoming isolation from the real world – that of glaciers, petals, feathers – presents a challenge. Barriers must be surmounted, nictitating eyelids opened for good, imagination stoked and fanned.
This House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind – Ivan Doig (Mariner Books, 1980).
The sweeping style of this memoir matches the Montana landscape it describes, shared from Doig’s experiences growing up in a ranching family. The introspection of the narrator is an apt fit for the terrain he describes – deceptively tranquil until a storm reveals its internal power. Several incidents shift the family into a restless geography, finding home in this breathtaking but uneasy terrain ¾ an enduring theme.
From The Washington Star: “This House of Sky is a book of deep love and grace, of painful and gallant rhythms. Mr. Doig’s sense of the land and his marvelous sensitivity to the lives that touched his own make This House of Sky a work of art.”
What Gail says: This elegant memoir depicts both a region and a way of life in flux, along with the changeable nature of home.
Sample from the book: Day by day as autumn tanned the valley around us, now with bright frost weather, now with rain carrying the first chill of winter, my father stayed in the dusk of his grief.
The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New – Annie Dillard (HarperCollins, 2016).
This collection of essays, several of which take place in the Pacific Northwest, captures Dillard’s perspective of the natural world in equal parts harsh and benevolent. Essays such as “Total Eclipse,” set in eastern Washington, use fresh metaphors that capture the otherworldliness of a solar eclipse.
From Robert Pinsky, poet and essayist: “The pleasurable voyages of Dillard’s prose are grounded in alert observation –springing into levitations of surprise and lit by eruptions of discovery.”
What Gail says: Dillard blends research with pinpoint observation, encouraging readers to pay attention not only within the narrative, but also within the places we immerse ourselves.
Sample from the book: A piece of sky beside the crescent sun was detaching, a loosened circle of evening sky, suddenly lighted from the back. It was an abrupt black body out of nowhere; it was a flat disk; it was almost over the sun.
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Gail Folkins often writes about her deep roots in the American West. She is the author of a Northwest memoir titled Light in the Trees, which was named a 2016 Foreword INDIES finalist in the nature category, and Texas Dance Halls: ATwo-Step Circuit. Folkins teaches creative writing at Hugo House in Seattle.
Blog: The Nature of Writing: http://gailfolkins.blogspot.com/
***If you’re a writer and would like to contribute to my “8 Favorite Reads” guest blog series, please send me a note. Happy reading!***