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Holiday Gift List: Get Outside

The best 10 books on nature, science and the great outdoors / BY Nathalie Atkinson / December 16th, 2021

Often as lyrical as they are scientific, these books explore ecology, science and the natural world.

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1On Animalsby Susan Orlean

This collection of musings, profiles and essays dating back to 1995 by the acclaimed New Yorker staff writer (and author of bestsellers The Orchid Thief and The Library Book) showcases her wide-ranging interest in both untamed and domestic animals.

2Waterlogby Roger Deakin

It’s taken more than 20 years, but at last there is a North American physical edition of this landmark 1999 story about natural history and wild swimming, written in sumptuous prose. Inspired by John Cheevers classic short story The Swimmer,” the late writer and environmentalist takes “a frog’s eye view” of his journey to swim the seas, rivers, lakes, ponds, moats and pools of Britain. With an afterword by his friend, writer Robert Macfarlane, who dubs Deakin a latter-day Thoreau.

3Islands of Abandonment: Nature Rebounding in the Post-Human Landscapeby Cal Flyn

For her acclaimed non-fiction narrative, the Scottish journalist was inspired by a night spent on the island of Swona in Orkney decades after its two remaining inhabitants deserted the island in 1974 and left a herd of cattle behind. It’s an exploration of the world’s terrain – from Estonian farms to the abandoned First World War battlefields and buried chemical weapons of Verdun – and the extraordinary ways animals and plants are reborn when humans leave.

4Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Lawby Mary Roach

In this entertaining, globetrotting selection, Roach (who wrote about the intersection of science and eating in Gulp) tags along with forensic investigators to look at conflicts between humans and animals around the world, as was the case with monkeys raiding New Delhi mansions for smartphones and demanding bananas as ransom.

5Revelations in Airby Jude Stewart

Anyone who loved Diane Ackerman’s landmark book, A Natural History of the Senses, will be gripped by this journey into the world of smell and its lavish descriptions by Stewart, a design journalist. Her field guide considers olfaction’s unique ability to unlock memories – the nose on your face is the Buckingham Palace Guard of your body,” as one reviewer put it – and is perfect for dipping in and out of, complete with simple exercises to improve one’s experience of smell.

6The Arbornaut: A Life Discovering the Eighth Continent in the Trees Above Usby Meg Lowman

This is a thoughtful, scientific and lightly philosophical analysis of the complex architecture of foliage and the forest canopy by Lowman, a biologist, well-known conservationist and director of the non-profit TREE Foundation, who explains why it’s crucial to preserve it for future generations. Together with Finding the Mother Tree, Canadian ecologist Suzanne Simard’s captivating and surprising catalogue of forest discoveries, it’s a perfect book-gift double bill.

7The Hidden Histories of Houseplantsby Maddie Bailey and Alice Bailey

Their Dutch grandfather was a flower merchant and nursery owner, their mother is the noted horticulture writer Fran Bailey, and these sibling authors grew up at a cult plant shop in London. Ideal for plant nerds, their book explores the place of the world’s 20 most common houseplants in social history, science and culture.

8Hurricane Lizards and Plastic Squid: The Fraught and Fascinating Biology of Climate Changeby Thor Hanson

The American biologist and Guggenheim fellow’s vivid lyrical descriptions of nature, in future-facing stories about the ways plants and animals are responding to climate change, will both inspire understanding and empower action.

9The Zoologist's Guide to the Galaxy: What Animals on Earth Reveal About Aliens – and Ourselvesby Arik Kershenbaum

The noted Cambridge zoologist – whose research specialties are listed as wolves, dolphins and aliens – argues that because some evolutionary challenges in natural selection are universal, life beyond our planet and throughout the cosmos may share some features. Drawing on his research into animals’ physical adaptations and communications, it’s a persuasive argument.

10The Secret Life of Fungi: Discoveries from a Hidden Worldby Aliya Whiteley

Mushrooms are in the zeitgeist and this is one of several books on the organisms out this season. It’s a casual and engaging read in which the novelist and mycological enthusiast muses on foraging, researching and cooking fungi.


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