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As humans, we are part of the natural world, a stitch in the rich tapestry that is global biodiversity. Yet so often, and at an increasing rate that couples with biodiversity loss, we see ourselves as something separate from nature. The pace of our lives has increased beyond sustainability, and the impact of our existence is out of balance. Exploring our connection with the natural world has never been more vital, especially in the UK, which now stands as one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. Plans to restore nature are weighed on cost, both financial and the perceived inconvenience to human life. But a healthy healthy human life requires a healthy natural world.
I am drawn to literature that cements humans as a part of nature and stories than use the natural world to anchor our lived experiences, to explore what it means to be human, to help to understand ourselves as a part of the ecosystem. In my own writing, I explore my changing relationship with the sea, how nature has both hurt and healed my body and mind, and how wild creatures have provided waypoints along a physical and emotional navigation.
The following books explore how nature can help us understand the human experiences of addiction, illness, loss, loneliness and allow us to find solace, sanctuary, connection and subtle wisdom in the wild.
1. Wild: An Elemental Journey by Jay Griffiths
A singular book written by a singular talent. It is an inspired journey of the world, the wilderness and the spirit, truly exploring what it means to be wild across cultures. Her exploration started in a search for something to pull her from depression, and grew into a compulsion that she followed for seven years, from the Arctic to the Amazon to Australia. The book itself is as wild as its subject, spanning travel writing, feminist discourse, deconstructing colonial narratives and campaigning for the environment, and for the wilderness in all of us.
2. Death of a Naturalist by Seamus Heaney
One of the future Nobel laureate’s earliest poetry collections, this explores the transition from childhood into adolescence, family ties, heritage, love, loss and the passage of time through vivid and occasionally visceral imagery from the natural world; all shaped by his upbringing in rural Ireland and his family’s reliance on the land.
3. Losing Eden: Why Our Minds Need the Wild by Lucy Jones
Jones takes the reader on a thoroughly researched and enlightening journey, as she explores the connection between mental health and the natural world, from education practices, to therapy techniques to neuroscience. Jones’s message is clear. We need nature to be well and we need to work for and with nature.
4. Phosphorescence: On Awe, Wonder & Things That Sustain You When the World Goes Dark by Julia Baird
This book is inspired by an otherworldly glow in the surf on her home beaches in Australia, a phosphorescent light released by marine organisms, bright blue, streaking, sparkling, vivid. When faced with life-threatening illness and the darkness that brings, Baird began to explore sources of light. From physics, philosophy, people, places and experiences in nature, she shares her own sources of light, and invites the reader to examine and explore their own. Wise and thoughtful, I read again and again.
5. The Salt Path by Raynor Winn
The author walks the length of the South West Coast Path, from Somerset to Dorset. The journey is inspired by loss; of her home, her livelihood and the health of her life partner as he is diagnosed with terminal illness. Step by step along the path, they find hardship, hope and healing as the natural world becomes somewhat of a panacea.
6. The Outrun by Amy Liptrot
Liptrot’s memoir seamlessly blends her childhood on the windswept, salt-streaked Orkney islands, and her present, as she returns aged 30 from London to begin to piece herself and her future together after alcoholism in the city. Nature is a part of the glue in this process, as she stalks clifftops, swims in a bracingly cold sea with pinniped companions, and spends her nights searching fervently for the corncrake, a bird facing extinction.
7. Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
Owens’s debut novel tells the tale of a girl abandoned by her family and by society, left to be raised by and in the wild of the marsh in North Carolina. The marsh is a transitional place, where land becomes water, a place where organisms must adapt to survive. The protagonist Kya is no different as she navigates the twisting, shifting waterways and makes a life for herself. Nature becomes her family and her teacher, as she finds companionship with birds, learns how to feed herself, how to survive, how to stave off the loneliness that accompanies her and develops incredibly astute biological and ecological observations.
8. Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
A professor, a botanist, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, a mother. Kimmerer draws on her scientific background and Indigenous wisdom to teach us how to listen to the natural world, and reinforce our place in it, as part of a whole. The author has used all of herself, her background, her training, to deliver a book that is ecologically complete, vital in its message, its intelligence, its argument, its celebration.
9. Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver
This work is both grounded and grounding. The poetry is centred by nature, and as Oliver says, nature is in its own way poetic. As observant as a scientist, Oliver, who died in 2019, delivers subtle insights into the connection between living things and finds inspiration in the wild places, in turn celebrating the wildness of life.
10. Time on Rock: A Climber’s Route into the Mountains by Anna Fleming
This manages the impressive feat of grounding while ascending; Fleming takes us up mountains and cliff faces as she ascends, clinging to rocks, anchoring herself to the world through the climbing gear to hold herself safely. Each climb invites us into ancient wild places, pushing the limits of human accessibly. Through her physical connection with the rock, she explores their history, their geology, unlocking memories in the stone.