Between 2001 and 2011, the American West lost a football field’s worth of natural space—forests and grasslands, deserts and wetlands—every two and a half minutes. As the wild disappears, along with countless species and entire ecosystems, our connection to it becomes ever more tenuous. This week, glassy-eyed young shut-ins across the country stumbled into the sunlight in search of Pokémon, and it was heralded as a modern miracle.
Three astounding new summer reads offer us a path back into that vanishing wilderness. Our author-guides are an odd trio: a wide-eyed young hiker nicknamed “Spaceman” marveling over a trail of ants, an octogenarian Pulitzer Prize winner mourning the 400-year slaughter of trees, and a putrid-smelling middle-aged man burrowed in a hole gobbling worms. But together, they’ve crafted the richest and most essential writing about nature in recent memory.
The 717-page Barkskins (Scribner, $32; simonandschuster.com) is Annie Proulx’s last novel, according to the author, best known for slimmer works like The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain. Ostensibly, the focus of Proulx’s saga is the diverging fates of two families descended from a pair of French indentured servants who arrive in the New World together in 1693. Over centuries and across generations, one clan builds a vast and lucrative timber empire, and the other (half Native American), suffers the inexorable extinction of home and way of life.
But while human characters die off by the dozens in all sorts of gruesome ways, Proulx’s real tragic hero is the forest: a wilderness first hated, then hacked and plundered as fuel for an exploding world economy, and finally cherished too late. It’s as easy as always to wallow in Proulx’s rollicking wordsmithery, to admire her researcher’s affection for the particulars of time and place (you’ll find trees and wood on every page), but Barkskins’ greatest value is in rendering the loss of our forests not as the inevitable casualty of a nation’s progress, but as a succession of human choices—which we still face today.
As deeply as Proulx aches for the felled forest, Robert Moor has found, amongst the younger trees that grew up from its stumps, the inspiration for a wondrous non-fiction debut, On Trails (Simon & Schuster, $25; simonandschuster.com). During a soggy, cloud-covered trek of the Appalachian Trail, Moor (trail-name Spaceman) spent a lot of time looking down at and pondering the path under his feet. The twists, spurs, and shortcuts of the trail, he realized, were the well-refined product of the cumulative wisdom of all of its hikers. And not just this trail, either: in each chapter, Moor explores the same phenomenon in a surprising new context, from the fossilized traces of prehistoric smudges to swaths of jungle flattened by elephants, from the paths of nomadic Native Americans to the interstates that paved them over.
Along the way, Moor reaches into the history of science, religion, and philosophy to trace similar lines of refinement in the amassing of knowledge and ideas. Such iterative processes, Moor argues, can explain not just why and how ants make trails, but why and how we have come to ask and answer those questions about ants over time. It’s an exhilarating journey, and not one that Moor takes alone in his head, either. His wanderings are always grounded in the experience of human connection: strange, sudden friendships and quiet gestures of compassion on the trail. Wisdom, he shows us, is the project of community.
Veterinarian-lawyer-bioethicist Charles Foster is looking for wisdom, too, but not from his fellow humans. Instead, in the utterly riotous and instantly classic Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide (Metropolitan Books, $28; macmillan.com), he turns to animals. More precisely, turns into animals, or at least he tries to. It’s a premise at once logical and absurd: living as animals in order to better understand and connect to them.
But Foster’s obsessive enterprise is profoundly heartfelt, rigorously researched, and most of all, exploding with insights into other species and our own. During his summer as a badger—discovering ground scents, woods noises, and worm flavors along with his eager young son— Foster gets a feel for how local the creature is (its home and diet formed by the carcasses of dead ancestors) and chafes at the unmoored chaos of humanity. While foraging for moldy Indian takeout at night, he is awed by the urban fox’s time-traveling nose (detecting “in a moment-to-moment orgy of olfactory holism, everything that had been spilled, ejaculated, cooked and grown since the creation of the world”) and gains a new affection for the London neighborhood he had come to hate. And his richest discoveries come from failure, surrendering to the impenetrable “otherness” of an otter or a deer or, in his adventure’s breathtaking climax, a migratory swift.
To know the natural world and ourselves, Proulx insists, we must look unflinchingly at the horror of our shared history. Moor’s way in is through the universality of a process: “The history of life on this planet can be seen as a single path made in the walking of it.” Meanwhile, Foster would suggest sprawling face-down on the ground with your children, rodent-level where the air is still, opening your nostrils and absorbing information. A worm has surfaced: go wild and chomp!