5 Nature Books to Read in 2012

Posted by The Nature Conservancy

What’s the best book you’ve read lately?

We put that question to a cadre of scientists and staff at The Nature Conservancy. Their responses ranged from young adult literature to classic environmental reading and covered topics from climate change to scientific exploration to food systems.

Here are 5 suggested reads and our staffers’ reviews. Ring in the New Year with a good book!

The Species Seekers. Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth (non-fiction) By Richard Conniff

Richard Conniff’s latest work of natural history presents a cast of scientific explorers who spend years away from home and family, and who freeze, overheat, starve, endure violence and ridicule and sometimes die in their passion for biological exploration.

The Species Seekers recounts tales from the “golden age” of biological collecting and study, largely in the early to mid-1800s. It was a time when natural history was not just science but a genuine craze, with middleclass Europeans collecting taxidermy, eggs and other specimens.

Some of the stories here will be very familiar to readers of science history, particularly the chapters dealing with Darwin and Wallace. However, Conniff succeeds in making this more than a random collection of stories. Rather, he shows how biological collecting spurred the evolution of ideas—often in fits and starts—that led directly to the foundations of modern biology and ecology.

Reviewed by Matt Miller, director of communications, The Nature Conservancy in Idaho

La Ciudad de Las Bestias [City of the Beasts] (young adult fiction) By Isabel Allende

This is the biodiversity expedition adventure for young adults I’ve always wanted to write, but would never be able to release myself from the shackles of empiricism and embrace magic realism enough to start.

This first of a trilogy is set in the Brazilian Amazon and races 15-year-old Alex Cold and 13-year-old Nadia Santos through a coming-of-age story fraught with the added perils of human-munching wildlife, viral epidemics, violent industrial conspiracies and, of course, the brought-to-life legendary bestias.

Charming, intriguing and surprising, the book brings Rachel Carson’s child’s sense of wonder up to the speed of Gen Y and beyond. For all the wild imagination, though, the personalities and logistics of field work and the on-the-ground issues of conservation for people and nature are right on the money. They brought me straight back to my days of doing biodiversity expeditions in similar tropical wilderness areas, but with an adolescent perspective that is a breath of fresh air.

Reviewed by Jensen Reitz Montambault, applied conservation scientist, The Nature Conservancy

(Image: Reading outside. Source: Flickr user enlaciudadsubterranea via a Creative Commons license.)

Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction (non-fiction) By David Quammen

If there’s a single book that everyone interested in nature and conservation should read—besides The Lorax—it’s Song of the Dodo.

Read it and you’ll know:

  • why Alfred Russell Wallace was greater than Darwin in fieldwork and deductive reasoning.
  • why islands upsize some animals like Komodo dragons and downsize other animals like Sumatran rhinoceros.
  • the places in the Indian Ocean where there are giant tortoises just like those on Galapagos.
  • what happened to the dodo and what its meat tasted like.

Perhaps most importantly, read Song of the Dodo and you will know how the major themes in conservation emerged. You’ll see how far and how fast we have come in conservation.

A richly rewarding read.

Reviewed by Craig Leisher, senior advisor on poverty and conservation, The Nature Conservancy

A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest (non-fiction) By William deBuys

If you want to know what climate change will bring to the Earth’s aridlands, look to the North American Southwest. A Great Aridness offers an eloquent account of how rising temperatures and extreme events—drought, mega-fires, forest die-off—are transforming ecosystems and society in this transcendently beautiful region.

The thoughtful scientists and managers who are deBuys’ protagonists testify that, to sustain the beauty and function of ecosystems and society, we must set qualitatively different goals, such as resilience and sustainability, that are difficult to define but better fitted to a no-analog, no-equilibrium world.

After recounting the toll taken on people and nature by the recent spate of extreme climate-driven events and identifying the prospects for even greater transformation ahead, deBuys lays out a climate adaptation agenda for the Southwest. This “unfinished business,” he writes, amounts to “what we should have been doing all along”: achieving water security, rehabilitating forests, and devising a responsible program for dealing with displaced and work-starved populations.

A Great Aridness provides a glimpse of what’s to come for regions that haven’t yet been significantly affected by climate change, and a prescription for responding with grace when the inevitable changes arrive.

Reviewed by Patrick McCarthy, director, Southwest Climate Change Initiative, The Nature Conservancy

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (non-fiction) By Barbara Kingsolver with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver

Animal, Vegetable Miracle begins with a family move from Arizona to Appalachia. But this move represents much more than a physical change in address. It’s also a movement away from the food system in which they have long participated—one where food is grown far away and shipped, trucked, trained to large supermarkets out of season—to one where they feed themselves entirely with food either grown on their Virginia farm or within the local food community.

As a dedicated locavore, I related strongly with the Kingsolvers through their journey. This book will resonate with anyone who really loves food and is curious about their food system. Unlike other books that investigate the modern food system, this one will not make you never want to eat meat again or otherwise make you feel guilty to be alive. Rather, it inspires thought about the important link between food, society, conservation and economy. Most importantly to me, it is a story of people who are often forgotten and the camaraderie of sharing food that is so central to our humanity.

Reviewed by Bryan Piazza, conservation planner, The Nature Conservancy in Louisiana

Related: Books That Make Great Gifts

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jayasri amma
jayasri amma3 years ago

Thanks so much for the suggestions

Holly Lawrence
Holly Lawrence3 years ago

Thanks so much for the suggestions - can't wait to read!

Barbara DeFratis
Barbara DeFratis3 years ago

After I finish reading my current book, I will have to look for one of these. Thanks for a good list to pick from.

Joe R.
Joe R.3 years ago

Thanks - I'll look for them at the library.

aj M.
aj E.3 years ago


Shirley E.
Shirley E.3 years ago

These all sound worth reading, and I definitely wouldn't have come across them by myself.

Carol P.
Carol P.3 years ago

These all sound interesting. Thanks for taking the time to put this list together.

Tatjana C.
Tatjana C.3 years ago

Very interesting, thanks!

Victoria Pitchford
Vicky P.3 years ago


Vicki P.
Victoria P.3 years ago