Image: Penguin

Image: Penguin

Right now, nature writing is enjoying a day in the sun, and books about the great outdoors are flourishing. You need only whip out your smartphone to understand why: a growing backlash against our obsession with anything that pings is causing more people to look up from their screens and out of the window for things that rustle or squawk (here lies the great irony of Twitter). Better still, to go outside.

Then there's the looming climate disaster, which is forcing us to reevaluate the way we treat Mother Earth by, as the writer Robert Macfarlane has written, “placing community over commodity, modesty over mastery, connection over consumption, the deep over the shallow”.

Nature needs us now more than ever, and great nature writing is where salvation starts. The very best of it not only reminds us of who we really are as a species (animals among other animals, who all grew from the same earth), but also of what we owe the natural world, and why we need her to survive. Plus, it's good for our mental health.

There's a nature lover in all of us. So, with that in mind, here are seven of the best books about the great outdoors to remind you just how mind-nourishingly beautiful our world really is.

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962)

By 1962, America was spraying pesticides on its crops with more enthusiasm than a desperate teenager with a can of deodorant. Nobody – not the general public, at least – had any idea of the dangers such indiscriminate bug poisoning could be having on the environment, let alone on human health.

Then, Rachel Carson (“Saint Rachel, the nun of nature”, as she was called) wrote Silent Spring and the world woke up and smelt the DDT. It is hard to think of another book that has had a more profound impact on environmental awareness than this.

Her argument is both beautifully written and ruthlessly laid out. The chemical industry tried to have it outlawed, but instead she spawned a revolution that led to the banning of many harmful pesticides (such as DDT) across the world. Yet despite this progress, much of what Carson wrote then still applies. Humankind continues to poison nature, which is beginning to poison us back.

We remain, as she put it, at a crossroads: “The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road — the one less travelled by — offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.”

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (2014)

There is a long line in books about the healing power of pets, but H is for Hawk is a creature apart. When Helen Macdonald's father died, she descended into an oblivion of grief. Then she bought a northern goshawk hawk – one of the most "murderous, difficult to tame, sulky, fractious and foreign" birds in falconry.

She named it Mabel, tamed it, and trained it. In return Mabel lifted her out of depression, teaching her as much about the value of life as she taught Mabel the value of killing. “The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life,” she writes.

But not only is this a visceral meditation on grief and the uplifting power of friendship with a bird (no matter how one-sided it may be), it is also an exquisite, and deeply moving love letter to the natural world.

Underland by Robert Macfarlane (2019)

What's it like deep down inside the earth where even worms don't wriggle? Well, it's very dark for a start.

Underland is a journey into that darkness – both literally and philosophically – as one of our greatest living nature writers spelunks through the underground mysteries of our ancient Earth. Accompanied by a menagerie of experts, Robert MacFarlane travels from the ice-blue depths of Greenland's glaciers, to the underground networks of fungi through which trees communicate, along subterranean rivers in Italy to an under-sea burial chamber for nuclear-waste in Finland, and more.

It is an unsettling book with a powerful message: mankind is barely a word in the story of Earth, let alone a chapter (actually, we're probably more of a tea stain on page 4.543 billion) “What does human behaviour matter,” he asks, “when Homo sapiens will have disappeared from Earth in the blink of a geological eye?” And what will survive us? Not love, as Philip Larkin reckoned, but “plastic, swine bones and lead-207, the stable isotope at the end of the uranium-235 decay chain.”

Yes it's bleak, but it is also spellbinding, thanks for the most part to MacFarlane's sumptuous language – his prose borders poetry at times, as he drills into the relationship between nature and emotion, memory and the power of human imagination.

The Grassling by Elizabeth-Jane Burnett (2019)

Here is another writer who, faced with the death of a loved one, turns to the natural world to overcome her grief. In Elizabeth-Jane Burnett's case, though, she does not find answers in an animal, but in the English countryside. Devon to be precise.

With her beloved father fading away, and with him her own sense of self and belonging, she seeks to recover her identity by reconnecting with the outside world. Through this, the self-described “ecopoet”, explores the landscape around her father's house in a remote village – “the land my father’s fathers farmed” – nurturing a kaleidoscope of themes, from memory to belonging, language, nature and the etymology of names.

It is a lovely book tinged with sadness and hope. But ultimately, joy sprouts as Burnett learns to be “one” with the soil, saying things like: “Let me burrow down, through the topsoil. Let it fall over me and hold while deep-rooted clover opens me to water”. Soon, she starts to see herself as no different to a blade of grass in her father's garden, observing the world from one place. And there, in that garden, she finds her roots.

Losing Eden by Lucy Jones (2020)

Most of us don't need to be told that nature is good for us. But when Lucy Jones tells you there is a species of bacteria in soil that literally boosts our “happy chemicals”, you may be moved to pop to the flowerbed for dinner. Losing Eden is gorgeously written, with a knack for turns of phrase that wrap around your brain like a warm tree-hug.

This is, as Jones tells us, is a study into “why our minds need the wild.” Her research is formidable, packed with facts and anecdotes that will change the way you see not just the outside world but our relationship to it.

Trouble is, as grassland gives way to carparks, and trees to tower blocks, we have never been further from it. Did you know, for instance, that three-quarters of children in the UK, aged five to 12, now spend less time outside than prisoners?

As she travels from forest schools to ancient woodlands, she takes us on a mind-expanding journey through neuroscience and psychology to the heart of mental health's most natural drug: fresh air, flowers and lots of soil. Humanity may have eaten the apple of urbanisation, but unlike Eve it's not to late to find out way back to Eden. And this book is the perfect map.

Owls of the Eastern Ice by Jonathan C. Slaght (2020)

This is not – like many such books – an excuse to probe the psychology of man through the prism of animal interaction. Nor does it use wildlife as a metaphor for literature, philosophy or the decline of human morality (not that there's anything wrong with that).

No. It's an adventure story about a wildlife biologist's five-year journey through a snow-swept hinterland in eastern Russia to save the rare Blakiston's fish owl from extinction. To do that, he had to uncover the mysteries of this elusive – and weird-looking – bird.

As the story unfolds, we are thrust into a world where the winds roar louder than any bear and dangers lurk behind every tree. There, Jonathan C. Slaght – with his hilariously hard-bitten Russian crew – encounters all manner of life, from drowning deer to ferocious bears to a forest-dwelling hermit who believes in teleportation.

The two best characters in this exhilarating book, though, are the owl itself and the landscape it inhabits. Slaght's infectious passion for both brings each life as if they could talk for themselves in this wonderful tale of life in the middle of nowhere.

Nature Cure by Richard Mabey (2005)

As Y2K beckoned, naturalist Richard Mabey fell into the clutch of a vicious depression. It grew so debilitating that he forgot about nature, about its beauty, its colours. It had all turned grey.

So in a bid to find a new perspective, he moved from the Chilterns to East Anglia. Changing the view from his window, it turned out, was more powerful than any anti-depressant.

What emerged was a misery memoir that's anything but miserable. Known as one of Britain's greatest nature writers, Mabey penned not only an honest account of his mental illness, but a manifesto for a wilder way of life, and a love song for the infinite wonders of the British countryside – the essence of the nation's identity.

“Richard Mabey's achievement,” according to Michael McCarthy in the Independent, “almost single-handed, has been to rescue England's modern countryside from myth, and enable us to look at it afresh.”

What did you think of this article? Let us know by emailing editor@penguin.co.uk.

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