Thursday, April 23, 2020

Reading in Place

Good Books from Wild Places to Help Us Through Bad Times

Entodon cladorrhizans. ©Northern Forest Atlas Foundation

If you must “shelter in place”, the North Country is a good place to do so.  Those of us fortunate to live in New York’s great Adirondack Park are already accustomed to “social distancing”, and generally have ample space to get fresh air and exercise – thanks to the good work of the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation and regional land trusts in protecting millions of acres of wild lands and waters. We are also fortunate to have thousands of brave neighbors continuing to go to work to provide us essentials, like groceries, heating fuel, and health care.

Still, even we lucky Adirondackers – nearly as much as our fellow New Yorkers down-state wishing they could be up here – likely have more time alone now than we usually have.  Quiet time affords us chances to read. Here is a quick list of books of regional interest and/or environmental bent that I’d suggest to neighbors sheltered at home through this upsetting pandemic.

The on-line publication I help edit, Rewilding Earth ( compels me to spend much of my reading time on books about wilderness and wildlife protection and recovery, but rambling occasionally off my usual paths, I repeatedly turn to the encyclopedic yet inspiring Northern Forest Atlas Project, headed by Jerry Jenkins, with expert assistance from Brett Engstrom, Sue Williams, Larry Masters, and fellow biologists.  In NFAP field guides, posters, charts and website (, you’ll find state-of-the-art photographs, simple illustrations, and lucid descriptions of most of our botanical neighbors.

To better understand what a rapidly changing climate and growing numbers of invasive species may mean for our forests, read Charles Canham’s new book FORESTS ADRIFT: Currents Shaping the Future of Northeastern Trees

We are fortunate to have here in Adirondack Park hundreds of thousands of acres of old-growth forest – more than any other region in the eastern United States.  To better understand its wonders, read Joan Maloof’s beautiful book Nature’s Temples: The Complex World of Old-Growth Forests.

The books of Native American author and biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer, especially Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses and Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of the Plants are some of the wisest writing our region has ever produced. If all scientists could communicate as beautifully as Kimmerer does, even presidents and senators might believe in science!

When the mountain trails have dried and we are allowed to carpool or take public transit again, carry a copy of Nancy Slack and Allison Bell’s beautiful Field Guide to the New England Alpine Summits: Mountaintop Flora and Fauna in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont.  Our High Peaks summit flora shares most of its plants with the highest mountains in the northern New England states and almost nowhere else south of Canada and east of the Rockies.

The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a Word Out Of BalancePandemic-related reads

While in the realm of science, you really should learn more about how this tragic pandemic stems from our global industrial economy’s fragmentation of natural habitats and marketing of wild animals. 

The first popular book to address the connections between disease and ecological destruction was Laurie Garrett’s The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a Word Out Of Balance, which warned two decades ago that we were headed toward this sort of public health emergency.

More recent is David Quammen’s book on zoonotic diseases (those that people get from other animals, including Lyme, which sickens so many people in the Northeast) Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic.

Rewilding North America: A Vision for Conservation in the 21st CenturyEcology and conservation

To regain hope, and find answers to the ecological crises that are now hurting people, as well as wildlife, read Dave Foreman’s conservation classic Rewilding North America: A Vision for Conservation in the 21st Century and Reed Noss and Allen Cooperrider’s similarly fundamental Saving Nature’s Legacy: Protecting and Restoring Biodiversity

Read also Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, in which eminent biologist EO Wilson explains why we must preserve for wildlife at least half the area of land and water on Earth to halt the extinction crisis. 

For an account of people working with scientists to address ecological concerns, read Mary Ellen Hannibal’s Citizen Science: Finding Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction.

Local reads

We are also fortunate here in Adirondack Park to have plenty of home-grown literature.  At least some of these classic Adirondack books should be available from your local library, or through inter-library loan:

Anne LaBastille’s Woodswoman series;

Adirondack Wild Guide, by Mike DiNunzio and Anne Lacy

Adirondack Nature Guide, by Sheri Amsel

Protecting Open Space: Land Use Control in the Adirondack Park, by Richard Liroff and Gordon Davis 

The Adirondacks: Wild Island of Hope, by Gary Randorf

Wildlife and Wilderness: A History of Adirondack Mammals, by Philip Terrie

Defending the Wilderness: The Adirondack Writings of Paul Schaefer, by Paul Schaefer

The Great Forest of the Adirondacks, by Barbara McMartin

The Great South Woods: Rambles of an Adirondack Naturalist, by Peter O’Shea

Adirondack: Life and Wildlife in the Wild, Wild East, by Edward Kanze

Field Notes from the Northern Forest and other books by Curt Stager

To shamelessly promote my own work, I commend local publisher Essex Editions for turning my rambling words into a handsome little book: Split Rock Wildway: Scouting the Adirondack Park’s Most Diverse Wildlife Corridor.  Essex Editions also publishes Rewilding Earth’s annual best-of print anthologies, which I co-edit with Susan Morgan and Essex friends George Davis and Katie Shepard — the upcoming edition of which has cover art by another Essex friend, Steven Kellogg.

Essex happens to have a surprising concentration of Adirondack Park’s many fine writers.  Others here include these luminaries:

Steven Kellogg, author and/or illustrator of scores of wonderful books for children, many if which star wild animals, including The Invisible Moose and The Mysterious Tadpole;

Kristin Kimball, celebrated farmer and author of The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love and more recently Good Husbandry: Growing a Family on a Community Farm

Katharine Preston, author of Field with a View: Science and Faith in a Time of Climate Change;

George Davis, author of the poetry collection 40 X 41: Midlife Crisis Postponed and, with Katie Shepard,  Essex, New York Architecture: A Doodler’s Field Guide;

Gordon Davis (same Gordon Davis as above, and George’s father), author also of A Natural History of the Tribes of Mutant Thoughts: Poems and Doggerel;

McClain Jeffrey Moredock, author of Poems from Essex and Elsewhere.

Even a quick glance at Adirondack environmental literature must credit Bill McKibben, who now leads global campaigns to avert the climate crisis (largely through but is also one of the most widely read environmental writers in the world.  His early book The End of Nature was the first popular treatment of the climate crisis. His Wandering Home is an insightful trek from his home in Vermont’s Green Mountains to his home in central Adirondack Park (for which I had the honor of rowing him across Lake Champlain).  Leading the way, as he so often does, Bill has recently ventured into eco-fiction, with Radio Free Vermont: A Fable of Resistance.  

With all of us facing the consequences of our kind failing to give other species the space they need, this would be a good time for more writers to enter the emerging genre of eco-fiction.  Good stories can help us better understand and respect our neighbors, human and wild.


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Westport resident John Davis is a land steward in Split Rock Wildway and editor of Rewilding Earth.

8 Responses

  1. Susan Morgan says:

    Very nice, John!

  2. Jim Fox says:

    Add to John’s “Reading in Place” list, “Stillwater Fire Tower, A Centennial History … and Earlier”. Log onto make a tax-free donation, and a backorder copy of the book will be mailed when the printing press is back to business.

  3. Sherry says:

    Excellent, John. Merlyn and I thank you for this.

  4. Katie says:

    Thank you for this list. The Red Hourglass – Lives of Predators by Gordon Grice. Also excellent.

  5. John Davis says:

    Please keep adding good books to the list, friends.
    Please forgive my misspelling of Schaefer the second time I use it above. The esteemed Paul Schaefer deserves to be spelled correctly!
    Looking out on an unusually calm Lake Champlain this morn reminds me that our greatest lake has also generated some fine books, including Mike Winslow’s Natural History of Lake Champlain.
    Happy natural readings all
    John D

  6. Don’t leave out “The Great Experiment in Conservation: Voices from the Adirondack Park” edited by William F. Porter, Jon D. Erickson, and Ross S. Whaley.
    Very informative and gives good context to the natural and social aspects of the Adirondacks.