A book doesn’t have to be about hiking, camping or surviving an intense experience in order to be enjoyed outdoors, but here at the Outdoor Book Club, I have a few favorites that specifically are about nature and the outdoors (and a few that are on my to-read list). Next time you’re headed out into the woods, make sure you grab (or download) one of these favorites and throw it in your pack.
Wild: From Lost To Found On the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
This was one of the first books I read in my book club from work, and we all loved it: A painfully honest memoir that recounts the solo trip up eleven-hundred miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. It’s a story of failure, and redemption, and one of the first books to really inspire me to get outdoors in a completely different way. From Amazon:
At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother’s death, her family scattered and her own marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life: to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State “and to do it alone. She had no experience as a long-distance hiker, and the trail was little more than an idea, vague and outlandish and full of promise. But it was a promise of piecing back together a life that had come undone.
Strayed faces down rattlesnakes and black bears, intense heat and record snowfalls, and both the beauty and loneliness of the trail. Told with great suspense and style, sparkling with warmth and humor, Wild vividly captures the terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her.
Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods by Christine Byl
This one is on my to-read list – described as a “lively and lyrical account of one woman’s unlikely apprenticeship on a national-park trail crew,” it details Byl’s adventure and lessons learned about the outdoors, being a woman and how dedication and hard work can make all the difference. From Amazon:
Christine Byl first encountered the national parks the way most of us do: on vacation. But after she graduated from college, broke and ready for a new challenge, she joined a Glacier National Park trail crew as a seasonal “traildog” maintaining mountain trails for the millions of visitors Glacier draws every year. Byl first thought of the job as a paycheck, a summer diversion, a welcome break from “the real world” before going on to graduate school. She came to find out that work in the woods on a trail crew was more demanding, more rewarding—more real—than she ever imagined.
During her first season, Byl embraces the backbreaking difficulty of the work, learning how to clear trees, move boulders, and build stairs in the backcountry. Her first mentors are the colorful characters with whom she works—the packers, sawyers, and traildogs from all walks of life—along with the tools in her hands: axe, shovel, chainsaw, rock bar. As she invests herself deeply in new work, the mountains, rivers, animals, and weather become teachers as well. While Byl expected that her tenure at the parks would be temporary, she ends up turning this summer gig into a decades-long job, moving from Montana to Alaska, breaking expectations—including her own—that she would follow a “professional” career path.
Returning season after season, she eventually leads her own crews, mentoring other trail dogs along the way. In Dirt Work, Byl probes common assumptions about the division between mental and physical labor, “women’s work” and “men’s work,” white collars and blue collars. The supposedly simple work of digging holes, dropping trees, and blasting snowdrifts in fact offers her an education of the hands and the head, as well as membership in an utterly unique subculture. Dirt Work is a contemplative but unsentimental look at the pleasures of labor, the challenges of apprenticeship, and the way a place becomes a home.
Small Wonder by Barbara Kingsolver
I’ve loved Kingslover ever since I read The Poisonwood Bible when I was high school. She’s since written a lot more nonfiction, and this essay collection is an ode to the natural world. From Amazon:
From its opening parable gleaned from recent news about a lost child saved in an astonishing way, the book moves on to consider a world of surprising and hopeful prospects, ranging from an inventive conservation scheme in a remote jungle to the backyard flock of chickens tended by the author’s small daughter.
Whether she is contemplating the Grand Canyon, her vegetable garden, motherhood, adolescence, genetic engineering, TV-watching, the history of civil rights, or the future of a nation founded on the best of all human impulses, these essays are grounded in the author’s belief that our largest problems have grown from the earth’s remotest corners as well as our own backyards, and that answers may lie in those places, too. In the voice Kingsolver’s readers have come to rely on—sometimes grave, occasionally hilarious, and ultimately persuasive—Small Wonder is a hopeful examination of the people we seem to be, and what we might yet make of ourselves.
Into The Forest by Jean Hegland
And now we come to our first novel, and another book that I haven’t read, but it’s at the top of my Wish List. From Amazon:
Set in the near-future, Into the Forest is a powerfully imagined novel that focuses on the relationship between two teenage sisters living alone in their Northern California forest home.
Over 30 miles from the nearest town, and several miles away from their nearest neighbor, Nell and Eva struggle to survive as society begins to decay and collapse around them. No single event precedes society’s fall. There is talk of a war overseas and upheaval in Congress, but it still comes as a shock when the electricity runs out and gas is nowhere to be found. The sisters consume the resources left in the house, waiting for the power to return. Their arrival into adulthood, however, forces them to reexamine their place in the world and their relationship to the land and each other.
Reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale, Into the Forest is a mesmerizing and thought-provoking novel of hope and despair set in a frighteningly plausible near-future America.
Contemplative Hiking Along the Colorado Front Range by Margaret Emerson
This is a book I want to base my first trip on – even thought it’s about the Colorado Front Range, its lessons in contemplative hiking are applicable to any outdoor setting. A must-read for the spiritually-minded outdoorswoman. From Amazon:
More than just a hiking guide, Contemplative Hiking Along the Colorado Front Range is for those who want to experience a new appreciation of the land and nature. Learn how to read nature s omens for deeper insights, cultivate your inner wisdom, and develop a keener awareness of the nuances of flora and fauna in every season along the Front Range. The trails described in this book are located along the foothills and mountain areas north of Ft. Collins to southwest of Denver s suburbs. Ecopsychologist Margaret Emerson offers detailed contemplative activities and practices for each specific trail to enable you to feel more grounded, more present, and more in tune with the rhythms of the natural world. This book contains dozens of beautiful black and white photos taken from the featured hikes. You can write your impressions and answer the questions posed in each chapter directly in the book, as it is set up “journal-style”. This books makes a wonderful gift for the nature-lover or hiker in your life. Among the themes and activities are: Spring Equinox Meditation, Landscape and Mood, The Value and Sacredness of Land Pawnee Buttes, Feeling Your Place in Time, The Spirit of a Place, How to Do a Medicine Walk, You and the New Cosmology, Autumn Equinox Non-Attachment and Letting G, Art, Nature, and the Subconscious, and much, much more…
Pilgrim At Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
Another book I read as a young adult, and influenced me as a writer. From Goodreads:
An exhilarating meditation on nature and its seasons—a personal narrative highlighting one year’s exploration on foot in the author’s own neighborhood in Tinker Creek, Virginia. In the summer, Dillard stalks muskrats in the creek and contemplates wave mechanics; in the fall she watches a monarch butterfly migration and dreams of Arctic caribou. She tries to con a coot; she collects pond water and examines it under a microscope. She unties a snake skin, witnesses a flood, and plays ‘King of the Meadow’ with a field of grasshoppers.
West with the Night by Beryl Markham
I first heard about this book from my good friend and co-worker Lynne, who describes it as “one of my most favorite books.” Hemmingway called Markham one of his most favorite writers – read this memoir to find out why. From Amazon:
Markham’s West with the Night was originally published in the early 1940s and disappeared, only to be rediscovered and reprinted in the 1980s when it became a smash hit. This latest incarnation is a lavishly illustrated edition. Though Markham is known for setting an aviation record for a solo flight across the Atlantic from East to West-hence the title-she was also a bush pilot in Africa, sharing adventures with Blor Blixen and Denys Finch-Hatton of Out of Africa fame. Hemingway, who met Markham during his safari days, dubbed the book “bloody wonderful.”
What are some of your favorite books about/by women, set in the great outdoors? Leave your answers in the comments below – because I can never have too many books on my nightstand or wishlist.
Jill Hinton Wolfe