Beautiful vistas. Shocking greenery. Bright, airy calm. Nature is magnificent, but sometimes the bug bites, poison ivy and boot-staining mud are not. Here are five literary landscapes you can discover from the comfort of your couch.
A Girl of the Limberlost
The U.S. is full of landscapes that capture the imagination, but the ones that remain are only a fraction of what once existed. Gene Stratton-Porter has preserved one of these lost natural wonders, the Limberlost Swamp of Indiana, in her bestselling 1909 book, A Girl of the Limberlost. As lonely young Elnora Comstock roams the swamp to collect moth specimens, Stratton-Porter uses her keen naturalist’s eye to bring its eerie beauty, watery dangers (quicksand!) and unique fauna to life. She hoped the book would encourage conservation of the wetlands, which were being ravaged by oil rigs and drained for agriculture. Read this classic to immerse yourself in a lost world, then console yourself with the fact that, due to recent conservation efforts, a small portion of the swamp has begun to bounce back.
A Wizard of Earthsea
Practically all of the important action in Ursula K. Le Guin’s iconic fantasy novel happens outdoors on the windswept seas and craggy islands of Earthsea. Le Guin’s mages skip along the enormous ocean in small boats pushed by winds that they command, or they transform into birds to fly from island to island. As her protagonist, Ged, travels from the harsh island of Gont to a school for wizards on the island of Roke and then embarks on a quest to hunt down a shadow creature, Le Guin treats readers to one stunning vista after another. My personal favorite is the island of Pendor, which was once a stronghold for pirates and outlaws before their vast treasure attracted the attention of dragons. Once the dragons took over the island, they used the towers of Pendor as glamorous perches before flying off to terrorize unsuspecting villagers.
—Savanna, Associate Editor
Recently I have fallen back in love with moss, that ubiquitous, unexamined miniature landscape that is, rather surprisingly, absolutely everywhere—on the driveway and in sidewalk cracks, adorning tree trunks and hiding in the garden. It’s so small that it can easily become set dressing to the larger wonders of the forest, but through naturalist Robin Wall Kimmerer’s eyes, there is nothing more exciting or life-giving than a carpet of moss. In this loving series of personal essays, she is a gracious guide to the boundary layer where mosses flourish, blending scientific detail with poetic ruminations on her life spent observing these tiny rainforests. Her love of the mossy world is as buoyant as deep peat, and she leaves her readers with a profound sense of stewardship. If you’re like me, you’ll soon find any opportunity to stop and pet the moss.
—Cat, Deputy Editor
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Who better to deliver a shock to your stay-at-home system than Annie Dillard? Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is her nature writing masterpiece, full of all the scenery and savagery, tranquility and tragedy, mystery and miracle of the great outdoors—“beauty tangled in a rapture with violence,” as Dillard put it. This work of narrative nonfiction documents a year she spent exploring the natural world around her home in Virginia’s Roanoke Valley, through which the titular Tinker Creek runs. Dillard plays the part of pious sojourner, venerating monarch butterflies, muskrats, grasshoppers and pond scum in prose that is alternatingly lilting and electric. If summer’s monotony has dulled your senses, I recommend dipping into this iconic collection for a jolt of wonder.
—Christy, Associate Editor
I read Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer for the first time one summer in Boston. I’d moved into an attic bedroom in a sprawling old house in Lower Allston, a neighborhood overrun with college students like myself. It had unfinished wood floors, mice and no air conditioning, so I often stayed up into the cooler hours of the morning reading, then caught a few hours of sleep before I had to head downtown for work. Kingsolver’s tale of the intersecting lives of humans and creatures in Appalachia was intoxicating. Reading it felt like falling under an enchantment—particularly since I was in the heart of a big city. Kingsolver explores the connections between humans and nature in many of her works, but this is the one I find myself returning to every year when the trees turn green and the sun shines warm.
—Stephanie, Associate Editor