Though 2020 has been a year of distance among humans, it’s encouraged many people to get closer to nature than ever before. From the vast firmament of the stars, to the tiny ventricles of a honeybee heart, these eight books by brilliant female science and nature writers rove the universe and remind us of its wildest and most wonderous parts.
The hard-driving, unforgiving corporate culture of Helen Jukes' work left her drained and brittle. As Jukes began keeping honeybees, she settled into a routine and became part of the communal organism of the hive. Full of descriptions of Jukes' rain-soaked garden in Oxford, England, and curious expeditions into humans' relationships with bees throughout history, this is the sort of book that will make your jaw unclench as you read it.
Science journalist Wendy Williams turns her attention to humanity’s long-standing love of all things Lepidoptera in The Langauge of Butterflies. Rigorous research doesn't come at the expense of good old-fashioned storytelling here. Williams' portraits of characters from the world of entomology are as colorful as the butterflies that intrigue and inspire them, and conservation is crucial to every fascinating tale.
Whale eyes, whale tongues, whale noises, whale skin: Rebecca Giggs explores the contours of humanity’s obsession with whales over time in terrific specificity. Her investigation is historical, cultural, biological and personal. The book's scope is as broad as a humpback's flukes—complete with tales of greed, wonder, desperation, nostalgia and obsession—but Fathoms truly shines in the careful details of Giggs' poetic, luminous prose.
Emily Levesque, an astronomy professor at the University of Washington, trains her gaze on humans’ fascination with the stars in this engaging look at astronomy. It's an incredibly precise and technical field, but the professional astronomers Levesque interviews can almost always link their desire to explore the universe to a vivid moment of awe and wonder. Immensely informative and inspiring, The Last Stargazers will transfer these specialists' wonder straight to you.
In Horse Crazy, Sarah Maslin Nir explores why she and so many others share an equine obsession. Personal accounts of her own love affair with horses are interwined with narratives of other intriguing horse-themed cultural rituals. Along the way, her writing is energetic, exquisite and enthralling enough to appeal to both horse fanatics and more casual readers.
In Taiwan, where she is both stranger and descendant, Jessica J. Lee embarks on a quest to discover and reconcile her family’s past with her need to claim an ancestral home. Using her skills as an environmental historian, she evocatively describes the many species she finds as she hikes and bikes through the mountainous spine of the country, including red and yellow cedars that are so huge that just two of them look and feel like a whole forest.
Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s poetry often praises the earth and its bounty, and World of Wonders, her first nonfiction work, expands her reflections into sparkling essays that explore the moments throughout her life when nature has sheltered her—from the sweltering Mississippi sun or the microagressions of her white peers. Catalpa trees, peacocks and fireflies connect Nezhukumatathil’s present to her past, and each one glints with sustenance, beauty and a lesson for anyone who pays attention.
Helen Macdonald’s bite-size essays offer meditations on home, placelessness, the refugee crisis and climate change, all projected through animals who appear in dual form: as their biological selves, examined, explained and marveled at; and their ancient, archetypal manifestations. In a time when humans think of animals as mere creatures, Vesper Fligts espouses a more holistic approach to connecting with animals—one that marries natural science to the heartfelt stirrings that humans have long experienced in a furred or feathered presence.