Nature's Book Bag

Explore the places that call to us through the pages of a great book.

By Whitney Hall on July 03, 2017

Summer vacation offers the perfect chance to finally dig into the latest best seller or revisit an old favorite. Our summer books list includes titles that touch on the places in nature that call to us – mountains and forests, deserts and prairies, rivers, lakes and oceans. It's "beach" reading with a twist!

Check out our list of staff favorites below, and then share your own in the comments. Tell us about the books that have inspired or challenged you, that show a way forward for nature, or that evoke a sense of place so strongly that the natural landscape becomes a character all its own.


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Arches National Park near Moab, Utah. Photo © Chis Helzer / The Nature Conservancy

Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey (1968)

“This is the most beautiful place on earth.” So begins Ed Abbey’s reflections on life as a seasonal park ranger at Arches National Monument (now Park) in the 1950s. I was convinced Abbey was right by the time I’d vicariously settled into his government housetrailer near Balanced Rock, hauled a dead hiker away from Grand View Point, attempted to tame the Moon-Eyed Horse, and rafted through doomed Glen Canyon.

I remember the afternoon NPR announced Ed Abbey’s death the way some people recall JFK’s assassination. Over the next several years, I read, re-read, and taught Abbey’s books, especially Desert Solitaire. And I researched his life for my own writing projects, including an Abbey documentary that would be broadcast over those same NPR airwaves.

By happy coincidence, I did much of this work at the University of New Mexico, where Abbey had “won a degree” before heading deeper into the desert. In fact, I traced his steps all the way to Grand View Point and Balanced Rock, where a solitary raven perched near the former trailer site. I could almost feel Abbey’s spirit keeping watch over earth’s most beautiful place through that croaking bird’s imperious black eyes.

- Danny White

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Lupines on Cassel prairie in Sauk County, Wisconsin. Photo © Steve Meyer

A Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold (1949)

Completely insanely gorgeous descriptions of American landscapes, some beautiful, timeless ideas about land and nature and conservation and living. For me, this book crystallized a lot of what I was thinking, and I still often think about it.

- Lyle Solla-Yates



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The Irish Hills, in the heart of San Luis Obispo County, California. Photo © Douglas Steakley

The Luckiest Girl, by Beverly Cleary (1958)

Shelley, sick of Oregon winters and her mom treating her like a baby, gets the chance to spend the school year with her mom’s college friend in southern California. Experiencing the differences between the Pacific Northwest and warm, rural California is a huge part of this book’s appeal, especially to young girls who aren’t from either place.

To a girl in Georgia reading this book, watching Shelley discover olive trees – and why you don’t eat the olives off the trees – was completely exotic. The scenes where her new friends deal with the frost and its effect on their groves was foreign as well, and helped me understand how agriculture works – through the hard, hard work of people.

- Kay Summers

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Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park, California. Photo © Ian Shive

Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O’Dell (1960)

Call this story of survival the original Hunger Games. Karana is a young Native American girl accidentally left behind when her tribe is relocated from their remote island home off the coast of California. She learns the island's seasons and moods in order to survive years of solitude, and finds comfort and companionship in its wildlife.

Karana wasn’t much older than I was when I first read Island of the Blue Dolphins, and her ingenuity, bravery, and determination made her an instant hero in my eyes.

- Whitney Hall

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Hemlock tree at sunrise.  Photo © Kent Mason

My Side Of The Mountain, by Jean Craighead George (1959)

Escaping into the wilderness has been a defining theme in American literature from Rip van Winkle to Alexander Supertramp. Jean George’s classic version introduced me to my first literary hero.

Twelve-year-old Sam Gribley flees his family’s New York City apartment and creates a new home in a hollowed-out tree in the Catskill Mountains. Sam learns to live off the land, hunts with a peregrine falcon named Frightful, and befriends a weasel (literally) that he dubs The Baron. His human visitors, though, reveal Sam’s internal conflict between his desire to live in the wilderness and his need for family and companionship.

- Danny White

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Maryland's Bear Creek. Photo © Alan Eckert Photography

Bridge To Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson (1977)

"Here in the shadowy light of the stronghold everything seemed possible. Between the two of them they owned the world and no enemy ... could ever really defeat them."  Terabithia is the imaginary kingdom created by two young friends, Jess and Leslie.  This small patch of woods in rural Virginia becomes a haven where their fears, frustrations, and anger can gradually be overcome.  When a tragedy occurs, the stillness and quiet of Terabithia's forest offers a place to heal.

- Whitney Hall



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Cypress swamp, Lake Martin, Louisiana. Photo © Carlton Ward Jr.

Swamp Thing, by Brian K. Vaughan (2001) 

Swamp Thing is a poetic tale of environmentalism, a comic about a scientist who is transformed into a plant elemental after he is the victim of an explosion in his lab. Mostly vegetation himself, the Swamp Thing is deeply connected to the natural world through a force called “the green,” feeling the wounds of humankind’s abuse to Mother Nature.

The natural world is the story’s superhero, embodied as the Swamp Thing, struggling with humans' disregard for both the environment and for one another. While the original Swamp Thing was written by Alan Moore (of Watchmen fame), subsequent iterations have featured talented writers such as Brian K. Vaughan (Y: The Last Man, Saga), Jeff Lemire (Sweet Tooth, Descender), and Scott Snyder (Batman, American Vampire).

- Lindsay Renick Mayer and Matt Kane



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Old farm house in the Appalachian highlands of West Virginia. Photo © Kent Mason

The Little House, by Virginia Lee Burton (1942)

When my children were born, I eagerly sought out several favorites remembered from my childhood to read again (and again!) with them.  The Little House is near the top of the list.

Author and illustrator Virginia Lee Burton tells the story of a stout little house built atop a hill, surrounded by apple trees, and a brook with a little pond. The house watches the stars at night, the sun by day, and through the year sees the children that live in her play under the apple blossoms, swim in the brook, return to school with the falling leaves, and skate over the frozen pond. All the while, the once far away lights of the city come closer, horses give way to automobiles, and finally the little house is a forgotten little eyesore squeezed between two skyscrapers, with a subway below and an elevated train above.

It is a poignant tale of how a series of nearly imperceptible changes combine with a few big ones to radically alter the character and quality of the setting we call home.  When the little house is rediscovered by the great-great-granddaughter of the man who built her, we get to experience the joy of reconnecting with a place and time once lost.

- Judy Dunscomb



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Louisiana live oaks (Quercus virginiana). Photo © Erika Nortemann / The Nature Conservancy

Wild To The Heart, by Rick Bass (1990)

Rick Bass has written better — and better-known — books. But Wild to the Heart is like that album you loved before the band blew up and became the next big thing. Sure, the stories are fun. I mean, when Rick takes off on that kamikaze road trip spanning from Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains, you’re riding shotgun in the VW Rabbit, aren’t you?

Then you stop off for a strawberry shake and you slurp it slowly, under the shade trees. And then you ride and ride. Because the language flows over and through you, cool and fresh as the mountain air blowing through your window, tangling your hair.

- Danny White



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Northern goshawk.  Photo © Bruce D. Taubert

H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald (2015)

Following the loss of her father, writer Helen Macdonald’s grief led her back to a passion for falconry and a goshawk named Mabel, as she recounts in this wonderfully written memoir. 

Macdonald simultaneously tells the story of author T.H. White’s efforts to tame a goshawk, weaving together two very different accounts of individuals turning to nature to process pain and retreat from society.  As Macdonald and White’s sadness and isolation lead them to start seeing the world through the eyes of their hawks as much as their own, the story becomes an unpredictable meditation on nature itself; flitting between beauty, brutality, and poetry as quickly as Mabel cuts corners in the air to capture her prey.

- Matt Kane  

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Waves crashing against the rocky coast of Acadia National at sunset in Maine. Photo © Nick Hall 

Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout (2008)

Olive Kitteridge is a novel made up of related short stories about a retired high school math teacher slow to adapt to change and grappling with her own mortality. The 13 stories weave together the shared tale of the residents of the town of Crosby, Maine, which itself becomes an additional character.

Even years after reading the book, I can vividly recall the scenes set against the beautiful backdrop of coastal Maine: the crashing waves, the steep cliffs, the salty air. It is a poignant and sad story, one that forces the reader to reflect while yearning to do so in the kind of peaceful setting so vividly captured in the book.

- Lindsay Renick Mayer

More Recommendations
  • Looking for more non-fiction or a little science?  Explore Cool Green Science's Nomad's Bookshelf for a list of nature and travel writing.
  • Are you a birder who wants to bulk up their bookshelf?  Check out Essentials for the Well-Read Avian Enthusiast.
  • Curious about places The Nature Conservancy has helped to protect - and the great American authors these lands and waters inspired?  Read Writers by Nature, from Nature Conservancy magazine.
Tell us about your favorite books that bring the outdoors inside in the comments section below.

Categories: Summer Reading, Nature, Landscapes

Whitney Hall is a Digital Marketing Specialist for the Conservancy based in Richmond, VA.

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