One Environmentalist's Essential Reading List
By Carolyn Raffensperger My friend and SEHN board member Rebecca Altman posted this comment after the blog entitled the Respectful Generation Standard:
“Carolyn, … I feel like my interaction with SEHN to date has been like a mind-blowing, eye-opening reading list. I would be interested, and perhaps other readers here, too, might love to read your list of essential readings, a post, perhaps to build on your Letter to a Young Person (re: hope). I haven’t read Susan Griffin’s work, but tonight feel so grateful for the introduction. After visiting her website, I am so eager to get to reading: I like that she merges explorations of the body and the body politic, a dual project I am stumbling through, too, as I plot out –terribly slowly, I fear– my own work on being pregnant, studying biomonitoring science and human body burdens of persistent chemicals, and following the hypothetical path these molecules travel from factory to the Circumpolar north. I think Susan’s examples might be both an inspiring and productive read. Thank you, as always.”
The Essential Library The backbone of the environmentalist’s library is comprised of a few great classics. These books are timeless, poetic and cross-disciplinary.
Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac might be the most essential book because he is working out a new ethic that translates across all environmental issues. Leopold is a household name in the conservation and sustainable agriculture communities but less known in the environmental health/toxic chemical movements.
Everyone should read something by Rachel Carson. While Silent Spring is best known, any of her works that meld poetry with science are worth the money and the time.
Edward Abbey’s two books, the Monkey Wrench Gang and Desert Solitaire transformed my understanding of how environmentalists could go about their work. You may not agree with Abbey, but he never writes a boring sentence. He also shows how fiction and humor can galvanize a movement, as the Monkey Wrench Gang did.
Wendell Berry’s poetry and many of his essays are so expressive and so full of heart that his words have become part of my cellular structure. His Collected Poems, especially the Mad Farmer poems, or his essays on economics, many of which are available on the web, rise to the level of sacred texts for most environmentalists.
Every book by Barry Lopez has a treasured place on my shelf. I particularly loved Winter Count, Arctic Dreams and Crossing Open Ground. If you only read one book by Lopez read The Rediscovery of North America.
The poetry of Mary Oliver rarely makes its way into my speeches or writings but it is the single place I turn to for comfort in the dark night of the environmental soul. Many of her poems are more familiar to me than the color of my own eyes. Start with her poem Wild Geese.
Books that showed up at the right time: The next ring out from the heart of my library contains books that showed up at exactly the right time for the questions I was asking.
Keith Basso’s Wisdom Sits in Places continues to inform my understanding about how people can live in one place for a very long time. Basso describes the White Mountain Apache cultural practices that tie ethics and stories to a place, that guide right living. They have something that European Christian immigrants cannot reproduce on this continent because their spiritual and ethical life is anchored to the land.
Albert Camus’ writings for the French resistance’s periodical, Combat during World War II are a sideways glance into the philosophy of activism. I am fascinated by this existentialist’s struggle to resist the Nazis and find meaning. The analogue to the environment is self-evident. There are several translations out that do justice to Camus' writings.
The Harvard scientist Dick Levins thinks more interesting thoughts per square inch than almost anyone else. He thinks systemically and ethically. His book The Dialectical Biologist is a good starting place.
Gretel Ehrlich’s writings are eclectic and reflect a gritty, beautiful, feminine perspective. I first read her fiction and then books that might be more appropriately found in the travel section. They were particularly useful to me as a younger woman with an ecological sensibility finding my way in the west.
Michael Ventura and James Hillman's book We've had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World is Getting Worse was revelatory. It was the impetus for integrating my spiritual life, especially dreams, with my environmental work. Hillman's other works reach far into interesting, unexplored territory. It is always worth reading.
I read every single book about Arctic and Antarctic exploration. I’m not going to explain why, because there is no good reason except they make me remember what I am trying to protect. I particularly enjoy books that were illustrated by good artists like Rockwell Kent.
Place specific books: I am always reading fiction to answer some question that follows me relentlessly. The question I’ve been trying to answer for the longest time is, “what is the impact of the landscape on either the soul or the community?”
Louise Erdrich’s novels about North Dakota and Minnesota are some of the most vivid and evocative of any fiction I’ve ever read. Love Medicine is in my top 20 books of all time.
Bless Me Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya is an exquisite and tender story of a little boy in Northern New Mexico.
Terry Tempest Williams book Refuge: an Unnatural History of Family and Place describes the desecration of both the land and her mother’s body from the nuclear bomb testing in Utah.
Gary Snyder’s book the Practice of the Wild, or any of his essays describing the etiquette necessary for humans to behave well in the wild, are just plain Zen beautiful.
Jim Harrison’s novels about Michigan’s Upper Peninsula are entrancing. He can get his Y chromosome to swagger with the best of them, but he has a deep love of the land, of food, and a tenderness for all of his characters, flaws and all. Start with True North or anything else that jumps off the shelf at you.
John Nichols' the Milagro Beanfield War trilogy is a rich tribute to New Mexico and the struggle over water. Lots of good guys and bad guys and beautiful descriptions of land.
Rebecca Solnit is another person who can weave more disparate thoughts together than a mortal should be able to do. Her book Hope in the Dark is one of the best for the activist facing the inevitable losses in our field.
My friends: Another category of books are by my peers and friends who serve the environmental community as public intellectuals. I read these books and come from those pages thinking new thoughts that I use shamelessly in my work. All of these people are dear personal friends.
Susan Griffin has one of the widest-ranging minds I’ve ever encountered. A Chorus of Stones was my introduction to her work.. Excerpts can be found on-line. But buy the book. Her recent book Wrestling with the Angel of Democracy is a tour de force.
Caroline Casey has one book out, but I’m going to recommend her radio program the Visionary Activist, or her Bioneers’ talks as more nutrient dense than a green smoothie. She has a capacity to use language in ways that only the Gods had before her.
Sandra Steingraber, is another poet scientist. Any of her books from Living Downstream to her book of poetry or her forthcoming book Raising Elijah will change the way you see the world around you.
Derrick Jensen has an intellectual depth that is unparalleled. One of the joys of reading, say, A Language Older than Words, is that you don’t have to agree with him, but if you accept his premises, it’s pretty difficult to explain why you disagree with him. He’s worth reading because of the clarity of his prose and his crystalline logic.
Last Category: the Important Books I haven’t read yet
I am always hunting for books that will change the way I see the world, the way I think about environmental problems. These are rarely environmental books. But I operate on the belief that the right books, the best authors will find me when I need them. These books are almost always in another discipline, music or medicine, fiction or poetry. I am always hunting for the beautiful phrase, the paragraph that pulls together paradox or wonder. If you need books like this, they will find you too.