A Summer Reading List for Outdoors People
In an earlier post, I gave a short list of recommendations of books related to hunting and the outdoors. Some of what I consider to be the best books for people interested in the outdoors are not necessarily immediately apparent as outdoors writing. Others are quite explicitly hunting writing. I particularly enjoy those books that speak to the complex interaction of hunter, angler, naturalist, environmentalist, and conservationist that defines many of us.
Here are three books, all quite different from one another, that I would recommend to anyone interested in engaging writing that invites us to critically reflect on the meaning of natural places, wildlife, and our relationship with the outdoors.
1. Heartsblood, by David Petersen
In one of those moments of serendipity, I came across this book somewhat by accident and ordered it on a whim. Heartsblood is a collection of thematically connected essays that explore the ethics, politics, and socio-cultural place of hunting in our world. Petersen is one of the most stimulating and thoughtful hunting writers I have come across. He challenges readers, offers his opinions, and is deeply insightful about some of hunting’s most important ethical questions. When I first started reading this book, I was concerned that it would be too academically weighty to allow for personal reflection. On the other hand, I worried that it would be too opinionated to allow for an intellectual debate on the topics of its subtext: “hunting, spirituality, and wilderness in America.” However, I was immediately drawn to the mix of personal storytelling and intellectual reflection Petersen offers. Don’t expect easy answers from Petersen, but do yourself a favour and delve into Petersen’s well-balanced world of hunting politics and spirituality. As I say, the chapters are connected with a thematic thread. My personal favourites are Chapters 4 & 5, in which Petersen examines the inner workings of the minds of hunters and anti-hunters, through the eyes of the other. Often, both hunters and anti-hunters are presented as homogenized groups that all share the same motivations. Contrary to what is perhaps popular belief, there is much more depth and nuance between these two groups, and even some common ground, a topic I have explored in previous posts. I have found myself returning to sections of this text frequently and have thought deeply about many of its topics since reading it.
2. Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson
The subtitle of Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking 1962 book literally credits the work as “the classic that launched the environmental movement”. Rachel Carson was a scientist from the 1930s until her early death in 1964, working for recognition at a time when women were not taken seriously or given the same validity as their male counterparts. She took on a booming post-war chemical industry at a time when many of the scientific and technological advancements in pesticide development were being celebrated for their contributions to the war effort and heralded as the panacea for agricultural production. Carson sounded the global alarm about the widespread ecological and human health impacts of DDT and other agricultural chemicals. Nowadays, the harms of DDT are well known (many people are particularly familiar with the impacts of DDT on birds) but in 1962, Rachel Carson was a trailblazer, and we owe much of the momentum of the environmental movement to her efforts and this book in particular. One of the things that made Rachel Carson so well known and respected as a writer was her ability to talk about complex scientific topics in a way that was accessible to the public. As hunters and conservationists, this book represents an important turning point in our culture’s awareness of environmental threats and our motivation to act. As hunter-conservationists, we celebrate the cutting edge work of figures like Theodore Roosevelt and Aldo Leopold for their efforts to implement successful systems of land protection and wildlife management. We need to add Rachel Carson to that list and celebrate her work in thinking about the connection between environmental and human health. Indeed, Carson directly addresses hunters in her book, warning that the effects of water pollution “could have consequences felt by every western duck hunter and by everyone to whom the sight and sound of drifting ribbons of waterfowl across an evening sky are precious.”
3. Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn
A novel that is not explicitly about wildlife, hunting, or conservation in the conventional sense, Ishmael would probably not make it onto a typical list of outdoors writing. However, this book is about saving the world. Ishmael tells us, “I have amazing news for you. Man is not alone on this planet. He is part of a community, upon which he depends absolutely.” This book is a powerful examination of the history of our culture’s way of seeing our place in nature and the foundational beliefs upon which this way of seeing the world rests. It is not a political manifesto or some kind of romanticized notion of utopia. Rather, Ishmael is a poetic expression of what all outdoors people know innately: we are one species on this planet involved in a long and complex set of interactions with wildlife and the rest of our surroundings. It is about an understanding of reality that hunters are well accustomed to facing: survival, on an evolutionary level, is about competition in a harsh but fair world defined by natural processes that involve life and death. But it is also about what environmentalists know and try to teach us: humans move through this planet as if it were put here for us to own and conquer, and this is physically and spiritually self-destructive. Anyone with an interest in conserving not only the physical resources of the natural world but also gaining a perspective of humanity’s place in the natural world that is an honest and poignant reflection of our evolutionary and spiritual origins needs to read this book. It might terrify you, but it sure will motivate you.
“There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with people. Given a story to enact that puts them in accord with the world, they will live in accord with the world. But given a story to enact that puts them at odds with the world, as yours does, they will live at odds with the world.” – Daniel Quinn, Ishmael