A Second Summer Reading List of Outdoors Books
There are far too many great outdoors books to keep up with, but I like to do a couple of these posts each year to highlight some of my favourites. Summer is a great time to catch up on novels, and while the two novels in this list are moving pieces of writing, they are not exactly light-hearted. But if you are looking for outdoors books that dig into the depths of human morality and offer vivid descriptions of landscapes, they are wonderful.
Click on these links for my Introduction to Hunting and Outdoors Writers, my first Summer Reading List for Outdoors People, and Three Book Recommendations for Hunter-Conservationists.
While I didn’t choose these three books because they share any obvious thematic connections, there are some common threads that run through them. Each story deals with a sense of searching – for self, identity, escape, or understanding and meaning. In each of these books, you see through the characters the profound impact that experiences in nature have on the people we become.
1. Three Day Road, by Joseph Boyden
The first book in this list is one of my favourite books of all time. I think there are two kinds of readers in the world: those who re-read books and those who don’t. I’m not a re-reader; however, I can think of a very small handful of books I will re-read and Three Day Road is one of them. This is a book that is as symbolic as it is literal, as raw as it is tender, and as personally powerful as it is culturally expansive. The main story follows an Oji-Cree man named Xavier Bird and the physical and emotional trauma he deals with when he returns home from WWI. As his Aunt Niska paddles him in her canoe back to their home in northern Ontario, she reflects on her own life and the history of her community. The underlying story is one of understanding how we navigate the cultural and political legacies of the past, or in Boyden’s metaphor, “We all fight on two fronts, the one facing the enemy, the one facing what we do to the enemy”. In our current environmental and political climate, this story has much to offer us as we try to understand the kind of impact we want to have on the world and the way we want to relate to each other and the natural world. Joseph Boyden paints a beautiful picture of the boreal forest landscape and the naturalist reader will notice its painful contrast with the environmentally destructive landscapes of war. Along with Ishmael, few novels had the kind of lasting impact on me as Three Day Road.
2. Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy
The full title of this novel is Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West. The contrasting poetics of the two halves of the title is a perfect microcosm of the juxtaposition that defines this book. Blood Meridian has been described as one of the most important pieces of American literature and one of the most influential Western novels. Steven Rinella recommends that everyone read McCarthy and says that within his moral code “you will find clues to living an honorable life”. Blood Meridian, Rinella says, will “leave you gutted”. While I don’t necessarily share his perspective that through McCarthy one will learn the morals of life, Blood Meridian is a powerful glimpse into the potential the darkness of humanity. It is the most violent novel I have ever read.
The central character of the story is the Kid, who escapes his own violent home situation to join a series of other characters and travels around the American West. As the characters travel through mountains, desert, and plains ecosystems, McCarthy oscillates between expansive beauty and meticulous rawness, describing in vibrant detail the colours, light, and barren landscapes of the 1850s Texas-Mexico border region. In fact, the singer Ben Nichols found Blood Meridian‘s characters so memorable and iconic that they inspired him to compose an EP dedicated to the novel, called “The Last Pale Light in the West“, after a line in the book. Nichols’s gritty, raspy voice is a perfect reflection of the mood of the novel and the eerie darkness of the minds of its characters. Nichols sings, “And I ask for no redemption, In this cold and barren place, Still I see a faint reflection, So by it, guide my way”. Some of the events in the book are the stuff of nightmares but McCarthy unleashes some aspects of our imagination that, while we are probably sometimes too terrified to admit exist, he uses to give a glimpse into the violence, politics, and scenery of the 19th century American West.
3. The Invention of Nature, by Andrea Wulf
Humboldt is perhaps the most famous person you might never have heard of. He is also one of the most remarkable and influential naturalists and scientists to have lived. Today, we take for granted an idea of nature as a living system of interrelated parts that together make up a “unified whole” that functions at both the microscopic and global scales. Nothing happens in isolation and without impact, including human actions. Alexander von Humboldt was one of the early thinkers who expressed the vision of nature that we know today as a “system of active forces”. In this book, Andrea Wulf follows Humboldt’s life and the experiences that inspired him to articulate a new vision of nature that was radically different from the more mechanical idea of nature common in scientific thinking at the time.
Humboldt was a revolutionary thinker in many ways. Most inspiring to me was his lifelong criticism of colonialism and slavery, his early observations of the devastating environmental impacts of colonial land-use changes and production, and his belief that science and imagination belonged together. Humboldt spent his life trying to understand the connections across the world. However, he also believed that understanding nature was not a purely intellectual exercise; it also required imagination, art, and poetry.
“How glorious these sunbeams are!” Humboldt’s dying words, May 6, 1859.
Humboldt inspired some of history’s most well-known naturalists, including Henry David Thoreau, who might never have completed his pivotal work of American nature writing, Walden, without Humboldt’s influence. Charles Darwin, who credited Humboldt as his inspiration for boarding the Beagle and later developing his ideas of evolution, admired Humboldt for his ability to create a “rare union of poetry with science”. The image at the top of this post is a painting by American artist Frederic Edwin Church called “The Heart of the Andes” which was inspired by Humboldt’s scientific and personal reflections from his travels through South America in the 1800s. The Invention of Nature is required reading for anyone who wants to understand why we think of conservation as we do today. Our concept of ecology was named for Humboldt’s ideas. It will inspire you all over again to appreciate and understand the natural world.