9 Nature Books for the New Year

A few years ago, I suggested to my mom that we should have a reading contest. We would keep track of how many books we read in a year, and how many total pages, and compete to see who could read the most.

My mom laughed and demurred, and when I pressed, she said, “I don't think that would be fair.” As in: She didn't think I stood a chance, given that she bought used books by the grocery sack.

And, yes, my mom was a trash talker.

I really wish she had agreed to the contest. I’m so competitive that I know I would’ve read a lot more with that added incentive—maybe tossing in some children’s books to bolster my chances. And when I lost anyway, I would’ve enjoyed that too. Losing to your mom isn’t losing at all.

My mom’s not around anymore (2016 really, really was the worst), but I read a lot anyway. For lovers of The Nature of Bend, these are nine of the books, new and old, that I read last year and recommend picking up at your local bookstore in 2017.

For Bird Lovers: That Quail, Robert, by Margaret Stanger  

A regal male quail. Photo by  Kim Elton

A regal male quail. Photo by Kim Elton

For my money, this short, sweet tale of an adopted quail is one of the best bird books around. Originally published in 1966, it tells the true story of a quail that was rescued on Cape Cod in the early 1960s and became a minor celebrity. Nothing extraordinary happens, but it’s such a charming book. It teaches you about quail behavior and about people who love animals for nothing more, or less, than who and what they are.


For Serious Thinkers: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert

How can I put this gently? The Earth is in a heap of trouble, and this 2014 book shows you why. It changed the way I see the world and the place of humans in that world. If you want to know more about climate change, species extinctions, and other serious topics—and prefer information delivered in an easy-to-read, personable style—this book is a must-read.

A cottontail not unlike those in  Watership Down.  Photo by  Susan Berger

A cottontail not unlike those in Watership Down. Photo by Susan Berger

For the Young at Heart: Watership Down, by Richard Adams

If, like me, you didn’t read this classic as a child, give yourself the gift of reading it now, in the weeks following the author’s passing. If you have younger people in your life who’ve yet to discover Hazel, Bigwig, and the other brave rabbits of the Sandleford warren, they won’t be disappointed either. The characters are vivid and the plot races along. There’s a reason it’s one of the most-loved nature books of all time.

For Buffalo Lovers: A Buffalo in the House, by R.D. Rosen

Yes, this is the story of a buffalo that became something of a pet. But it’s not just that; Rosen is a strong writer, and he uses the moving story of that one memorable buffalo as a platform for exploring the history of the species in America and particularly in Yellowstone.

A bumblebee native to Central Oregon. Photo by Rich Hatfield

A bumblebee native to Central Oregon. Photo by Rich Hatfield

For Bee Fanatics: A Sting in the Tale, by Dave Goulson

Ever wonder how bumblebees spend the winter or how they mate? Or how much danger they’re in because of pesticides, captive breeding, and more? Goulson is the perfect guide. He’s a professor and founder of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust in the U.K. And he’s an amiable writer—self-deprecating, funny, and informative.

For Tree Huggers: Nature’s Temples, by Joan Maloof

What’s so special about old-growth forests? Maloof, a scientist and founder of the Old-Growth Forest Network, lays out the answers, step by step. It’s not an elegantly written book, but it taught me a thing or two about the differences between managed forests and old-growth forests—and why it’s so important to preserve the latter.

For Harry Potter Fans: Wing & Claw #1: Forest of Wonders, by Linda Sue Park

Let’s pretend I read this young adult book because … um … research? Really, I just wanted a fun, engrossing story, and this 350-pager (first in a trilogy) by a Newberry Medal winner definitely qualifies. It’s about a gifted young boy who lives near a mysterious forest. An injured bat comes into his life, and the boy uses his skills as an apothecary to treat the bat—and give it special powers. The bat becomes the cutest animal character you’ll ever meet, and the boy and his friends are soon caught up in an adventure that'll teach them some lessons about messing with nature.

For Cephalopod Groupies: The Soul of an Octopus, by Sy Montgomery

Probably the odds of a nonfiction book about octopuses becoming a New York Times bestseller are not good—at all. But this book pulled it off because it's smart and has a big heart (you'll learn that octopuses have three hearts, by the way). Montgomery somehow manages to teach us about octopus biology and ecology, make us fall in love with several specific octopuses, and tell a very human story about herself and other people who care deeply about these highly unusual animals. I read it in two days; it's fantastic.

For Anyone Who Has Been Sick: The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, by Elisabeth Tova Bailey

This quirky memoir from 2010 won several awards for the quality of the writing, and it surely deserves another for best book title. The author recounts a debilitating illness at the age of 34 that left her isolated, bedridden, and frustrated. One day a friend brings her a pot of violets, with salvation in the form of a snail tucked under the leaves. From her bed (and after she heals), the author studies the snail and is comforted by the small, calm life it leads. It’s a sweet and touching story, and I guarantee you’ll never see snails (or think of snail sex) the same way again.