Environmental writing has a long history. Thomas Bewick's A History of British Birds, published in two volumes in 1797 and 1804, was the first field guide for birds. In 1854, Walden by Henry David Thoreau sparked the back-to-nature movement.
The genre took a dramatic turn in the 20th century with the publication of a series of books that highlighted the dangers faced by various environments and species. The 19th century themes of appreciation and understanding were joined by concern for the environment’s future, and demands for conservation and preservation. Our list features 10 environmental books, in no particular order, that have raised important issues about the world around us.
Trailblazing environmental books
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962)
Subject matter: In Silent Spring, Rachel Carson documented how unregulated use of pesticides adversely affected the environment and humans. She challenged America’s chemical industry at a time when environmental activism was unheard of.
Impact: Silent Spring was met with fierce criticism from major chemical producers. However, it sparked the start of the US ecological movement, and led to major media coverage about the harmful use of pesticides. The use of DDT was banned in the US in 1972 and a worldwide ban followed.
The book is still controversial today with many critics blaming Carson for hampering agricultural production around the world and allowing millions to die from malaria. DDT was originally intended to control malaria among soldiers in World War II. This book is worth reading today in order to discover how far corporations can go when unregulated.
The Everglades: River of Grass by Marjory Stoneman Douglas (1947)
Subject matter: Published in same year as the opening of the Everglades National Park, The Everglades describes how this wetlands area was suffering, and in need of restoration and preservation. The book positions the Everglades as an American national treasure at time when many people thought it was just a swamp.
Impact: Marjory Stoneman Douglas lived to 108. She campaigned for women’s and civil rights before becoming an environmental activist at the age of 79. She was a relentless campaigner who used her skills as a freelance journalist to get her messages across.
Douglas' work was attacked by businesses looking to develop the Everglades. She spent five years researching the fragile and unique ecology of the Everglades for the book, which sold out within a month of being published.
Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat (1963)
Subject matter: In Never Cry Wolf, Mowat describes being assigned to the Canadian sub-arctic in 1948 by the Dominion Wildlife Service to investigate the declining caribou population and whether wolves were to blame. He discovered wolves existed mostly on small mammals such as mice. He found that when wolves did hunt caribou, they killed the weaker, older and sick animals, which benefited the herd by allowing the fittest animals to breed and increased the speed of the herd’s migration.
Impact: This book has been widely published and is credited with discouraging the practice of culling wolves. As with most environmental books, Never Cry Wolf has its critics, who claim Mowat exaggerated the facts in order to deliver a good story. Several Canadian government bodies saw Mowat as a disruptive influence at the time. Mowat blamed human hunters for the decline in caribou, and this was unpopular with rural communities.
Today he’s regarded as an environmental pioneer. This book is highly readable and ideal for young readers brought up on children’s fiction where the wolf is big and bad, and eats Grandma.
My First Summer in the Sierra by John Muir (1911)
Subject matter: My First Summer in the Sierra describes John Muir's first trip in 1869 to California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains in what is now Yosemite National Park.. The young Scottish immigrant joined a crew of shepherds and kept a diary while tending sheep for four months. He details vistas, flora and fauna, and natural wonders.
Impact: No one has advocated more for the preservation of wilderness in the United States than Muir. His 12 books and hundreds of articles made him a key naturalist.
This book helped raise awareness about the beauty of Yosemite with millions of people now visiting the area each year. However, this popularity now presents challenges in maintaining this unique environment. The Sequoia National Park was created partially thanks to Muir's work. He also co-founded the Sierra Club which campaigns on conservation issues.
A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold (1949)
Subject matter: In Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold describes the land around his home in Sauk County, Wisconsin, through a series of essays. Leopold advocates for a responsible relationship between the land and people.
Impact: The author coined the term “land ethic” and asked that humans develop a new philosophy to preserve ecosystems. Leopold writes about striking a balance and reveals the negative effects of removing one species, like a predator, from the natural order. An entire chapter is dedicated to explaining land ethic and its benefits.
One of the first campaigners for wilderness systems, Leopold is considered to be the father of wildlife ecology in the United States. Leopold died in 1948 but the Aldo Leopold Foundation continues to support his legacy. It is a nonprofit conservation organisation that works for an ethical, caring relationship between people and nature.
Ring of Bright Water by Gavin Maxwell (1960)
Subject matter: In Ring of Bright Water, Gavin Maxwell describes his experiences with otters at his remote house in Scotland. It’s an account of humanity living with wildlife, and coming to understand nature.
Impact: The book was turned into a film starring Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna in 1969. Ring of Bright Water shows that no matter how advanced we feel that we can always learn more about nature and animals.
Maxwell's legacy is a greater understanding of otters. A previously unknown sub-species of otter is named after him. On the Isle of Skye, where Maxwell lived, you will find the Bright Water Visitor Centre.
The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady by Edith Holden (1906/1977)
Subject matter: The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady is an amateur naturalist’s diary for 1906 where the changing seasons are shown by changes in plants and animals in the English countryside. It includes poetry, and illustrations of birds, plants and insects.
Impact: This book was not published until 1977 and became an immediate bestseller. It is a personal diary and was never intended for publication. The book shows that almost anyone can have an appreciation for nature if they just take the time to look carefully.
Edith Holden shows how one person can find amazing detail inside a humble hedgerow. Her paintings show a naturalist's eye for detail. Her poems, thoughts and observations show a keen interest in rural Britain.
Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey (1968)
Subject matter: Desert Solitaire is a collection of essays about life in the wilderness based on Abbey’s activities as a park ranger at the Arches National Monument in Utah in the late 1950s. He writes about damage caused by over development and tourism.
Impact: Abbey’s book put the Arches National Monument on the map. He heavily criticised the US Parks Service for developing parks filled with highways where visitors could drive-in and drive-out without truly experiencing the surroundings.
The author revealed how a desert area can be as fascinating as a forest or coastline. He showed how modern American culture was not in the least aligned with nature.
The book is also philosophical as Abbey dwells on the power and ruthlessness of the desert such as when a search and rescue team are required to recover a dead body.
Waterlog: A Swimmer’s Journey through Britain by Roger Deakin (1999)
Subject matter: Waterlog describes Deakin’s experiences of wild swimming in British waterways. It was inspired by John Cheever’s short story, The Swimmer. Deakin’s mission was to swim across Britain from Cornwall to the east coast, and he swims through bays, rivers, canals, lakes, ponds and one swimming pool.
Impact: Deakin advocates for open access to the countryside and waterways. Waterlog was the only book that Deakin published in his lifetime, but it was a bestseller in the UK and helped create the wild swimming movement.
The book goes beyond swimming and looks at history, woodland, pollution, rights of way, ancient hedgerows, and some of the notable figures to have embraced wild waterways.
Waterlog was published for the first time in the United States by Tin House in 2021 with an afterword by nature writer Robert Macfarlane – it’s more relevant than ever.
Gorillas in the Mist by Dian Fossey (1983)
Subject matter: Gorillas in the Mist describes Dian Fossey's efforts to study and preserve mountain gorillas in Africa from the mid-1960s to her death in 1985. She strongly opposed both tourism and poaching.
Impact: Fossey was murdered, almost certainly because of her efforts to protect gorillas. Slain in her bedroom, no valuables were taken leading to the conclusion that poachers killed her. She highlighted that poaching was a major problem and started the movement for African parks to do more to protect their animals.
She wasn’t just a campaigner but also raised money for her own anti-poaching patrols in Rwanda. Fossey made numerous scientific discoveries about gorillas and their complex social hierarchies. No-one did more to highlight the problem of poaching. Her critics accused her of loving gorillas more than humans.