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Nancy Marie Brown’s Looking for the Hidden Folk: How Iceland’s Elves Can Save the Earth is a fascinating inquiry into the Icelandic belief in elves. Brown has a deep attachment to and knowledge of Iceland, its otherworldly landscape, its people and their beliefs. (She is the author of multiple Nordic cultural histories, and she has Icelandic horses and an Icelandic sheepdog on her farm in Vermont.) However, rather than defending elves’ existence, this compelling and highly readable book offers a thought-provoking examination of the nature of belief itself, drawing compelling connections among humans, storytelling and the environment.

Looking for the Hidden Folk begins and ends with a visit from Ragnhildur Jonsdottir, a famous Icelandic elf-seer and advisor to construction projects. While not everyone can see the Icelandic elves like Jonsdottir can, many people have witnessed the damage the elves have supposedly caused (putting boulders in the paths of cars, flooding roads, damaging bulldozers) when the elves’ homes in the rocky lava fields are destroyed in order to create highways for Iceland’s booming tourist economy. Brown chronicles the many ways elves protect their environment, guarding the land from unwise or hasty modernization. (Although it is apparently possible to negotiate with them.)

How do we come to believe in the reality of unseen things? Quantum physics and dark matter are now principles of reality, previously unknown until they were discovered by scientists. Could it be, Brown wonders, that we can learn to see elves through a similar shift in perspective? By valuing elves as guardians of the land, might we learn to live more respectfully and sustainably in nature?

If all this sounds a little high-concept, do not fear; much of the book is grounded in captivating stories from Icelandic sagas, particularly those that detail the relationships among the people, flora, fauna and geology of Iceland. In the end, Brown may believe more in elf stories than in elves, but that is precisely the point. Storytelling is the real, otherworldly magic of Iceland, a place where elves, humans, volcanoes and rocks are intertwined.

Spun from Nancy Marie Brown’s deep knowledge of Iceland, Looking for the Hidden Folk is a fascinating inquiry into the Icelandic belief in elves.
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By and large, our enterprising American ancestors hated swamps, which they saw as obstacles to travel and agriculture. In the timeless war between swamp folk and swamp drainers, most were firmly in the latter camp—supported with vigor by the government.

Count Annie Proulx as one of the swamp folk at heart. The acclaimed author of The Shipping News, Barkskins and “Brokeback Mountain” turns her perceptive eye to the calamitous destruction of the world’s peatlands in Fen, Bog & Swamp, an information-packed short history that argues for their preservation and restoration.

As a nonscientist, Proulx explains in accessible language how fens, bogs and swamps differ by water level and vegetation, and how crucial each of these ecosystems is to a balanced environment. The very short version is that they store carbon dioxide and methane, so when peatlands are disrupted, those gases are released and contribute to the climate change crisis, which is itself one of the things causing those disruptions. Peatlands are also home to a staggering number of plant and animal species integral to a healthy ecological community.

One of Proulx’s chapters is called “Discursive Thoughts on Wetlands,” which sums up her approach. She ranges widely, both thematically and geographically, from the small Limberlost Swamp in Indiana to the huge Vasyugan Swamp in Siberia. She considers plenty of archaeology (the Shigir Idol), history (the Battle of Teutoburg Forest) and literature (A Girl of the Limberlost) along the way, sprinkling in reminiscences of her own wetland encounters as well. Among the most interesting discussions are her explorations of the interactions between human and peatland, as in the ritual sacrifices later turned up as “bog bodies” by terrified peat cutters.

In truth, Proulx argues, humans are able to coexist very well with peatlands if they harvest their bounty with respect. When the drainers win, they’re usually sorry in the long run. She notes that luckily, there are a number of promising restoration projects around the world, but they’re small. It turns out it’s a lot harder to re-create a swamp than to preserve one.

Acclaimed author Annie Proulx is one of the swamp folk at heart, and in Fen, Bog & Swamp, she argues for the preservation and restoration of peatlands the world over.

Climate change is now ingrained in our daily lives. Newscasts almost always have a climate-related segment, whether it’s about a new science report on the status of the world’s temperatures or about natural disasters such as wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes and droughts. Most of today’s children will not know what life was like before the world began to change so drastically, but for now, many still remember the world as it used to be.

There are a huge number of books on the scientific aspects of global warming, from pleading calls to action to sustainability guidebooks. But what about essays and memoirs from everyday people? Stories about how climate change is personally affecting us and about its emotional impact on our lives? In their new book, The World As We Knew It: Dispatches From a Changing Climate, editors Amy Brady (executive director of Orion) and Tajja Isen (editor of Catapult magazine and author of Some of My Best Friends) have pulled together a diverse, impactful set of essays that explore the climate crisis from these more intimate angles. Kim Stanley Robinson, Melissa Febos, Lacy M. Johnson, Omar El Akkad and 15 other writers from around the world share how familiar landscapes are becoming unrecognizable and how the rhythms of their daily lives are being forever altered.

Each author brings a unique style and focus to their topic, with prose that is in varying degrees lyrical, reflective and urgent. Some relay extreme weather events, such as Mary Annaïse Heglar in “After the Storm,” about the blatant systemic racism that emerged in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. “Structural racism and inequality collide with fearsome extreme weather to reveal the grotesque unnaturalness of disaster,” she writes. This concept is continued in Rachel Riederer’s “Walking on Water,” which covers the displacement of people, usually people of color, that’s happening more and more as sea levels rise.

It’s not only deadly weather events that are highlighted in The World As We Knew It. Chronicling the first three months of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, “How Do You Live With Displacement” by author Emily Raboteau discusses the parallels between COVID and climate change. In “Leap,” journalist Meera Subramanian writes wistfully about how the nature she loves most keeps changing, especially as ticks carrying Lyme disease keep multiplying in the Northeast as temperatures and carbon dioxide levels climb.

As Subramanian writes in her essay, “We used to be a story in nature. Now we are the story.” This statement reverberates throughout all the essays in The World As We Knew It, providing one example after another of the ways climate change has affected every region of the Earth. It is a warning that commands the full attention of every reader.

The 19 lyrical, reflective and urgent essays in The World As We Knew It command the full attention of every reader.
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★ Edible Plants

In Edible Plants, Jimmy W. Fike takes native North American plant specimens—such as dandelion, rocket, sassafras, spicebush and pawpaw—out of their natural surroundings and meticulously digitally photographs them against black backdrops. In each image, the stark contrast makes visible the magical potency and potential of these common living things, many of which are often dismissed as weeds. Fike colorizes the edible portions of each plant, while the inedible parts are kept a delicate, even eerie gray. These striking photographs seek to inform, similar to the horticultural photography and illustrations of eras past, perhaps making foragers of us all. But what’s more, they are painstakingly beautiful. This book would make an impressive gift for the naturalist in your life.

Cats & Books

How can we not give a shoutout to Cats & Books, a slim-and-trim, adorable celebration of felines sprawled amid TBR piles and perched on bookshelves? This is a hashtag-to-print project: The photos are crowdsourced from Instagram users worldwide who tagged their photos #CatsandBooks. Now compiled in print, short captions give glimpses of these kitties’ personalities. For example, George from Germany “is a gentle soul and the best office buddy one could ask for.” (Sweet George is shown with a paw flung possessively over a copy of Sally Rooney’s Normal People.) Any person who loves cats and also loves books obviously needs to own this small treasure.

Things You Can Do

Last night at dinner, my daughter complained about the absence of meat in her tacos, which led to a discussion of sustainable eating. She didn’t grasp the connection between a carnivorous diet and climate change, so I brought to the table Things You Can Do and read from Chapter 3, “A Climate-Friendly Diet.” I daresay I got through to her, and I imagine New York Times journalist Eduardo Garcia’s compact, well-sourced guide to fighting climate change and reducing waste will continue to help us play our small but mighty part. Grounded in science, this approachable book offers a 360-degree view of the causes and effects of a warming planet, from reliance on coal to the excesses of modern life, including the overuse of air conditioning, increased meat consumption, car culture and much more. I for one am glad to have this resource, rounded out by beautiful watercolor and gouache illustrations by Sara Boccaccini Meadows, at my fingertips for family meals and beyond.

The natural world and all of its delicate delights take center stage in this month’s roundup of the best and most beautiful lifestyles books.

The world is on fire—metaphorically, yes, but also sometimes literally. Climate change is having its way with Earth, altering so many landscapes across the world. Yet our time here is limited; even as we try to intervene, our individual bodies are breaking down.

In the face of these dueling realities, the late nature writer and National Book Award winner Barry Lopez still celebrated the world around him. His posthumous essay collection, Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World, is an apt swan song, an ode to places both far-flung and close to home.

The essays, some previously unpublished, span from 1989 to the final years of Lopez’s life, which ended on Christmas Day 2020. They spring from a variety of sources—responding to a photography collection depicting the American West, paying homage to the Western writer Wallace Stegner, documenting Lopez’s own global explorations—but together they offer insight into the drive and heart of a thoughtful observer of the modern world. Lopez wrote that his life’s mission was “to know and love what we have been given, and to urge others to do the same,” and that mission is tenderly woven throughout these pieces.

As he explored the planet, Lopez also turned his attention to his interior landscape. In one essay, California’s terrain reminds him of the freedom of his childhood, when the miles around Los Angeles were still agricultural. But it also prompts him to reflect on the pedophile who abused him, and the ways that trauma shaped him for decades afterward.

The collection is organized in a way that brings its focus home, with the final pieces highlighting both the Oregon woods where Lopez lived for half a century and his dawning awareness that the end was near. He wrote, “I have traveled to nearly eighty countries doing research as a writer, and when I am asked where I would most like to go in the world, I always say the same thing: here. Here is where I have had the longest conversation with the world outside myself. Here is where I have tested the depths of that world and found myself still an innocent. Here is where the woods are familiar and ever new.”

Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World is a powerful reminder from a great writer that we can learn about ourselves from the world around us, and that we have an obligation to care for the Earth as we care for ourselves.

Barry Lopez’s posthumous essay collection is a powerful reminder that we have an obligation to care for the Earth as we care for ourselves.

In his urgent new book, Fire and Flood: A People’s History of Climate Change, From 1979 to the Present, journalist Eugene Linden gravely explains why the world has failed to stop the ongoing catastrophe of climate change. He begins with the 1980s, when climate change first became widely known as “global warming.” As temperatures began to rise around the world, scientists sounded the alarm and made dire predictions of what was to come, yet the public was largely uninterested. Meanwhile, the fossil fuel industry maintained its outsize stranglehold on our economic and political systems—all in the name of profit.

Next Linden tackles the 1990s, when India and China became more industrialized, multiplying their greenhouse gas emissions exponentially. Following western nations’ lead, they had invested in mostly coal power, sending climate change into overdrive. This was also the decade when the Kyoto Protocol was enacted to curb greenhouse gas emissions, but in the end it did little to mitigate the effects of climate change, and the nations of the world maintained their collective dependence on fossil fuels.

Linden outlines all the ways the fossil fuel industry and the business community as a whole questioned the existence of climate change in bad faith in the 2000s. Despite evidence and numerous warnings, they actively downplayed the severity of climate change, aided by a decadeslong misinformation campaign. In fact, the first decade of the new millennium was the warmest decade on record, but even then the fossil fuel industry and its monied interests continued to dismiss the gravity of climate change.

By 2010, superstorms and massive wildfires were commonplace occurrences, rather than fluke events that happened once every century. Climate change is here, Linden declares, and we can no longer deny it. 

Although this is a deeply serious subject, there is still much to be hopeful about, and Linden ends Fire and Flood on a positive note. As coal companies go out of business and electric car companies become the norm, a new light may be shining up ahead. Experts anticipate trillions of dollars of investments in renewable energy, new green industries and new jobs over the next 30 years. The public is demanding change, and that, Linden emphasizes, is where our power lies.

If you’ve ever wondered how we got here, this sobering and accessible history deftly outlines government failures, missed opportunities and the steps we can take to turn the tide.

Eugene Linden’s sobering and accessible history of climate change deftly outlines how we got here and what steps we can take to turn the tide.

In her brilliant study of the relatively little-known lives of jellyfish, Spineless, science writer Juli Berwald traveled the world to explore the intimate connections between the health of our oceans and the ways that these luminescent creatures adapt to rapidly changing marine conditions. Berwald’s dazzling Life on the Rocks: Building a Future for Coral Reefs now does for coral reefs what Spineless did for jellyfish: offers a love letter to their resplendent beauty, issues a warning about their dire future and holds out cautious hope that they can flourish once again.

Berwald first entered the fairyland of the coral reef when she was contemplating a career in marine biology and snorkeling in the Red Sea. “It was love at first sight,” she writes, “for my part anyway. I’m pretty confident the corals felt nothing more than the waft of a current rolling off my flapping fins as I struggled to control my movements.” The beauty and intricate ecology of that reef stayed with her, and a decade later—as a science writer rather than a marine biologist—Berwald took a cruise to the Bahamas in hopes of seeing the splendor of a coral reef again. To her chagrin, she only found “broken and displaced piles of rubble.”

In her quest to find out what is killing the world’s coral reefs and what, if anything, can be done to mitigate the damage, Berwald met with scientists in Florida, California and Bali, among other destinations. In Florida, for example, she learned that stony coral tissue loss disease (SCTLD) is eating up to 2 inches of coral tissue per day. Other factors contributing to the loss of coral reefs include “overfishing, sedimentation from coastal erosion, ship anchors leaving scars, pollution from pesticide runoff and untreated sewage, unrelenting oil spills, and ever larger hurricanes.” The world’s great coral reefs, she learned, may cease to exist by 2050.

Despite such a dire prognosis, Berwald also learned that the public and private sectors are developing strategies—such as growing coral in nurseries and placing coral larvae on substrates designed to give them a head start—for restoring coral reefs. Along the way, she intersperses fiercely tender stories of her daughter’s struggle to receive treatment for her mental illness with these discoveries about coral reefs, offering thoughtful reflections about what can and can’t be known about the problems we face.

Life on the Rocks shimmers with radiant prose, sending out rays of hope for the future of coral reefs. As Berwald immerses readers in a glimmering undersea world, she also encourages them to discover ways they can support efforts to preserve the reefs, which play a key role in maintaining the fragile ecological balance of our oceans.

Juli Berwald’s dazzling Life on the Rocks does for coral reefs what her first book, Spineless, did for jellyfish.
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The perilous state of our planet is a grim subject that often makes us feel powerless. Is it even possible as an individual to mount much of a defense against such a complex global threat? Two books help cut through the anxieties of climate change and suggest a place to start.

In The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis, Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac urge readers to push back against overwhelmed, hopeless mindsets. Far from ill-informed but earnest optimists, the authors led negotiations for the United Nations during the Paris Agreement of 2015 and are the co-founders of Global Optimism, working to incite environmental change from the personal level and extending globally. Their book is indeed a manifesto, but an elegant and hopeful one that acknowledges difficult realities while refusing to sink beneath them. They present a faultless argument supported by hard science and, alongside it, paint mesmerizing images of a potential future—reforested cities, shaded and carless streets, skyscrapers trailing vines and wall gardens, and neighbors who come together to grow food and share resources.

Equally appealing is their argument that, far from an austere world where we miss the extravagances of our past, a clean future would not only be healthy for the planet but would also provide mental and physical advantages for human beings. Greater community, better health through more exposure to the beauty of nature and more flexibility for spending time with loved ones are all benefits of their vision of a new society.

Chief among the benefits Figueres and Rivett-Carnac foresee for us is better health through better eating, and in How to Be a Conscious Eater: Making Food Choices That Are Good for You, Others, and the Planet, Sophie Egan takes a deeper look at the personal and global effects of ethical eating. While acknowledging that individual effort on a collective level creates large-scale change, Egan opts to address her reader one-on-one. A food writer for publications such as Bon Appétit and the Washington Post, she understands the tension between wanting to do what’s right and wanting to preserve what food often means to us. Therefore, she doesn’t guilt readers or hold them to unrealistic standards. With illustrations and a conversational voice, Egan takes note of the many ethical issues associated with the food industry and then lays out the options available to us to improve them.

Though we might think of dedicated ethical eaters as belonging to the ranks of ultra-healthy, well-moneyed vegans—those with resources to burn at the co-op and untold willpower—Egan’s common-sense tone makes eating according to our values an accessible and relatively stress-free realm for everyone.

Celebrate Earth Day with two books that remind us of our own power to honor, protect and save our threatened planet.

It’s an age-old dilemma. Each generation bears the weight of passing society’s burdens on to the next one, and climate change is no exception. But can the continuing escalation of this issue be prevented, or at least slowed, so that our children and grandchildren aren’t saddled with a disastrous future?

Climate activist Daniel Sherrell ponders the preciousness and fragility of life from the perspective of someone whose life is mostly still ahead of him in his debut book, Warmth: Coming of Age at the End of Our World. Although he’s still in his early 30s, Sherrell’s tone is that of an old soul as he reflects on the changing climate in a letter to his unborn child. Referring to climate change as the Problem (with a capital P), he outlines the weather- and natural disaster-related events he has already witnessed in his short lifetime, such as Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Maria and raging wildfires.

Sherrell is a passionate advocate for the climate movement, which he conveys with urgency and honest, raw emotion, expressing an anxiety he feels has infiltrated the essence of his being. He writes with a frightening sense of gravity that will give Generation X and the baby boom generation reason to take a close, hard look at what’s happening and do something.

This is exactly Sherrell’s message. We need to do something—about fossil fuels, corrupt politicians, global food and water security. The list goes on. Warmth is a pleading, informative call to action. As Sherrell writes, “Increasingly, the only viable future seems to be in shoring up the future itself.”

Climate activist Daniel Sherrell ponders the fragility of life from the perspective of someone whose life is still ahead of him in his raw, passionate debut book.

Poet, essayist and cultural commentator Lisa Wells takes on the complexities of our relationship to the climate crisis in Believers: Making a Life at the End of the World, a thought-provoking and heady mix of memoir, journalism and philosophy. Wells isn’t writing as a scientist or futurist here but as a former teenage idealist—someone who, as she puts it, “drifted into adulthood” after dropping out of high school and spending months in a wilderness survival program to gain the knowledge and skills needed to “form egalitarian villages on the post-apocalyptic frontier.”

Wells grew up in the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s and threads her personal journey throughout the book. “When we were kids, my friends and I went looking for a unified and stable theory of how to live—propping up idols and knocking them off their pedestals,” she writes. Eventually Wells realizes, “There is no solution to the problems we face, but there are solutions.”

Exploring those solutions drives the narrative of Believers. Wells seeks out a variety of people whose radical responses to the climate crisis challenge and defy the norm. The characters she profiles are varied and fascinating, and their stories may resonate with older readers who remember their own idealism during the 1960s counterculture movement.

One particularly strong presence in the book is the late Finisia Medrano, whom Wells met while Medrano was leading a group of ecological activists in the dry desert landscape of eastern Oregon. Wells dubs her “an itinerant outlaw,” dedicated to rewilding the American desert with foragable food so people can survive the eventual collapse of society.

Wells also explores the growing severity of wildfires in the West. One section details the work of Indigenous Americans such as Ron Goode, the Tribal Chairman of the North Fork Mono in California, to revitalize the landscape by reintroducing traditional practices like controlled burns and to shift our cultural understanding of the West’s fire-adapted landscapes.

While Wells is adept at communicating her own coming-of-age story and life journey, Believers is most compelling when the author allows the fascinating people she meets to speak for themselves, providing a rich mosaic of perspectives on life in the 21st century. Believers is a reckoning with climate change and a testimony about how to live on our threatened planet that will engage thoughtful citizens everywhere.

Poet and cultural commentator Lisa Wells profiles a variety of people whose radical responses to the climate crisis defy the norm.

Animal extinction is not a new phenomenon. Even ancient cultures appreciated the fragile balance of life and practiced sustainability while hunting and fishing. But as The Atlantic project editor Michelle Nijhuis stresses in her new book, Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction, the Industrial Revolution and its many technological innovations significantly ratcheted up the impact of environmental devastation caused by human activities.

By the late 19th century, environmentalists had begun to realize that unless preservation laws and regulations were introduced to help protect endangered species, many of those species would cease to exist. With candor and authority, Nijhuis focuses on the intertwined relationships, backgrounds and paths of the fervent scientists and activists who spearheaded the conservation movement. She goes into great detail about the movement’s origins and evolution, as well as the unrelenting passion of its advocates. “The assumption that species were static and enduring was not easily dislodged,” she writes.

Conservationism was also “infused with racism” and the narcissistic, egotistical behavior of many of its campaigners. As Nijhuis uncovers and examines these aspects of the movement, her reporting skills shine. For example, although co-founder of the New York Zoological Society Madison Grant is known for successfully championing laws restricting commercial and “unsportsmanlike” hunting, his agenda was drawn from the belief that hunting was “an elevating pastime for the wealthy and white.” Nijhuis also contextualizes the near extinction of the American bison with a reminder that “the rescue of the bison had nothing to do with the people who had depended on the species [the Native American population]—and a great deal to do with [conservationists’] own illusions about themselves.”

Throughout the book, Nijhuis conveys her thorough research with colorful prose, such as when she calls conservation writer Aldo Leopold “dangerously eloquent.” She also segues into the challenges facing conservationists today, such as climate change, organized crime and corporate interests. But the main takeaway from Beloved Beasts is a sense of hope for the future.

Michelle Nijhuis highlights the environmentalists who first realized that unless preservation laws were introduced, many amazing species would cease to exist.

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Leif Enger’s third novel, Virgil Wander, centers on the eponymous protagonist who lives in the quaint, rustic town of Greenstone, Minnesota. By day, Virgil begrudgingly works as the town clerk, but by night, he is the proprietor of the Empress, a fledgling movie theater that specializes in projecting its exclusive and illegal film collection. During a drive one snowy evening, Virgil’s car skids off the road and crashes into Lake Superior. Luckily, he is a saved by Marcus Jetty, the owner of the local junkyard. Virgil emerges from the accident with a fleeting grasp of language and flickering memories of his former life.

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