Since discovering that “traveling…assuaged something in me,” Barry Lopez has gone all over the world; in his extraordinary Horizon (Knopf, $30) he revisits places that have meant the most to him in North and South America, Africa, Australia, and both poles. As he’s done in previous work, notably his classic Arctic Dreams, Lopez not only writes brilliantly about the natural world, he also refl ects on what life really means in particular locales. He considers things from an anthropological perspective, asking how the earliest native peoples might have experienced their land, sky, and sea, then struggles to do likewise. He combines insatiable curiosity with a profoundly moral sensibility, looking to ancient cultures for answers to today’s challenges, especially climate change, violence, and human rights. He deeply believes that the answers are there, and that if we listen carefully to our own and the planet’s past, we can rediscover what the elders of traditional cultures knew: “the wisdom of what works.” If this sounds naïve or superficial, read this book. Lopez grounds his ideas in specific places, and his descriptions of these deserts, seas, jungles, and coasts—and especially his near-mystical experiences while watching flamingos on the Galápagos and penguins on the Ross Ice Shelf--are heartstoppingly lucid and beautiful, and there’s no better definition of truth than that.
Profoundly rooted in the landscape and spiritual traditions of the American West, Terry Tempest Williams has long been one of our most passionate and eloquent advocates of the natural world. In forums ranging from children’s books and memoirs to congressional testimony and acts of civil disobedience, she’s mounted a tireless campaign to redirect our priorities from exploiting natural resources to appreciating natural beauty, urging us to understand that “the outer wilderness mirrors our inner wilderness”—if we destroy one, we destroy the other. Written since 2012, the essays of Erosion (Sarah Crichton, $27) redouble the urgency of this message, showing how much we’re losing as the Trump administration cedes public lands to oil companies and cuts the Bears Ears National Monument by 85%. As she witnesses the immense damage of these policies, Williams doesn’t despair but continues to draw strength from the land itself. While statements like “we are one with the land” and “What if the survival of the fittest is the survival of compassion?” may sound like platitudes, over and over, Williams demonstrates their substance. In one of the most moving parts of this affecting book, as Williams mourns her late brother, she takes her grief to the Utah desert that formed her, finding in its red sandstone consolation and even a measure of hope.
Jamie is generally described as a poet and a nature writer, but these categories only begin to convey her remarkable range. The twelve keenly observed and graceful—yet tensile—essays of this collection take us around the world, from the Arctic to Scotland to China during the Tiananmen uprising, and through time from today to the Neolithic era 5,000 years ago. The collection’s two longest pieces explore archeological sites in Quinhagak, Alaska, and Westray, an island off the Scottish coast, reflecting on change and continuity in both local and global contexts. While some technical aspects of the digs are similar, more striking are the contrasts: few of the Scots would go back to the short and difficult life of those distant days, but for the Yu’pik, the excavations are vital to their daily lives, providing one of the few tangible sources for the culture the Europeans nearly destroyed. For Jamie, the sheer proximity of the past is exhilarating and sobering. It teaches her—as the Indigenous people themselves do—the importance of “noticing” her surroundings, and it sparks some of her most sensitive reflections on the meaning of our earthly existence. So add philosopher to her list of titles, and read her book—as she listened to the Yu’pik’s talk—not for the sake of “information,” though there’s plenty here on native ways, landscapes, and more, but for its ways of “coming at a subject sideways,” that is, beautifully and memorably.