Frontlist | 7 books about nature & animals that bring the outdoors to you

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So, this year has been … challenging.

However, throughout the months of the pandemic, wildfires, long-overdue reckonings about race, and a contentious election, 2020 has also offered up great writing about natural science, landscape and exploration.

These books bring the outdoors inside and remind us of the pleasures — and ongoing existential challenges — happening out in our world. Also, some of these books are just fun to read.

Here are some recent books about nature, wildlife and the environment we can recommend:

“The Book of Eels” by Patrik Svensson

You can’t imagine many people were waiting for a book that’s literally about slick, slimy eels, and yet “Eels” is already a worldwide phenomenon, one even more unlikely than 2015’s “H is for Hawk.” Svensson, a Swedish newspaper journalist, writes about the eel’s enduring mysteries (despite our best efforts to study them) and fishing for the creatures with his father. Brisk, funny and informative, the book hooks you and pays off with eel-related stories about Aristotle, Sigmund Freud and the intrepid Danish marine biologist Johannes Schmidt, who used the financial backing of the Carlsberg breweries to scour the seas for the eel’s breeding grounds — and find them.

“Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures” by Merlin Sheldrake

In this engaging book about a topic you probably can’t imagine being interested in, Sheldrake, who appeared in a memorable chapter of Robert Macfarlane’s “Underland,” unearths the magic of mushrooms and the whole wild range of fungal networks. Whether describing the problem-solving abilities of fungi or tramping through Italian forests in search of treasured truffles, Sheldrake’s an engaging writer, a dedicated researcher and a total character who quotes Prince and describes tripping on LSD (in a controlled setting) to better understand his fungi. Oh, and he grew oyster mushrooms on a copy of the book and filmed himself cooking and eating them.

“Fathoms: The World in the Whale” by Rebecca Giggs

The book begins with (and returns to) the author describing the slow, painful death of a humpback whale beached on the Australian shoreline, and the response of onlookers powerless to help but drawn in large numbers to watch. It’s also an apt metaphor about humans’ impact upon these mammals, the world’s largest animals. Giggs explores natural history, science, philosophy and poetry to provide deft and memorable details: a whale found with an entire greenhouse in its stomach; the Victorian “health” practice of soaking in the stinking, freshly slaughtered carcasses of whales; a Tudor England version of doughnuts cooked in whale fat; and the dubious practice by some of passing whale bones off as proof of sea monsters. As well, she writes that as late as 1960, long past when you might think of whaling as a major industry, whales were the most valuable animals on the planet (worth more than a quarter of a million dollars in today’s money). She observes that we once fought to save the whales, only to find that we are creating new ways to harm them with plastics, pollutants, climate change and more.

“The Lost Spells” by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris,

“Ghostways: Two Journeys in Unquiet Places” by Robert Macfarlane, Stanley Donwood and Dan Richards

Macfarlane and Morris created something magical with 2017’s “The Lost Words,” which combined Morris’s inspired images of the natural world with Macfarlane’s poems (inspired by news that many words from nature were being left out of new dictionaries). This compact “little sister” to that oversized volume creates gorgeous visual and lyrical music with passages on red foxes, jackdaws, jays and moths. “Lost Words” became a favorite in schools, retirement homes and hospitals, and this volume is a worthy successor and book for every age. As well, Macfarlane, whose books such as “The Old Ways” and “Underland” we are on record as liking a lot, is nothing if not prolific, so his just-published “Ghostways” combines two earlier short works, “Holloway” and “Ness,” by the author and collaborators, the illustrator Stanley Donwood and “Outpost” author Dan Richards.

“Vesper Flights” by Helen Macdonald 

Macdonald’s “H Is for Hawk” was a global bestseller, and this collection of essays and reporting is a wonderful follow-up. In these short, beautifully written pieces, Macdonald explores a fascinating range of experiences in the natural world. In “Tekels Park,” she revisits a wild meadow she played in as a free-range child while in “High-Rise” she ascends to the top of the Empire State Building to watch migrating birds pass high over New York City. Throughout she creates moments of intelligence and beauty that make these compact pieces ideal for pandemic-shortened attention spans.

 

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