Books That Feature Nature

Charlene D’Avanzo: What’s in your mind’s eye when you imagine New Jersey? It’s probably not a wilderness larger than most national parks – but that’s what is there and it’s called The Pine Barrens. A recent PBS program featured this forested land still so undeveloped people call it wilderness. And it’s big – nearly the size of Yosemite National Park and larger than most national parks in our country.

After watching the PBS piece I thumbed through my own well-read copy of John McPhee’s The Pine Barrens. McPhee, staff writer for The New Yorker and Pulitzer Prize winner is also author of Coming Into The Country featuring the Alaska Wilderness, The Control of Nature, my favorite The Founding Fish (about shad), and many more.

McPhee’s The Pine Barrens begins with “The Woods from Hog Wallow” – 650 acres of virgin forest in southern New Jersey. In contrast to the rest of densely packed New Jersey (1000 people/square mile) the Pine Barrens hosts about 15 folks in the same area. The self-named “Pineys” collect sphagnum moss in the spring, blueberries in summer, cranberries in fall, and cordwood during the winter. Locals live off these harvests.

McPhee’s account is a non-fiction classic about a huge swath of southern New Jersey that remains rural simply because of its sandy, nutrient-poor soil. The area’s residents were sometimes thought to be, he writes, “weird and sometimes dangerous barefoot people who live in caves, marry their sisters and eat snakes.” McPhee’s account of these folks is factual and therefore much kinder.

Of course there are also excellent novels (“eco-fiction”) in which the environment plays a major role as premise or as character. Top of my list is Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior which features our changing climate’s impact on monarch butterfly migration. The story is narrated by Appalachian housewife Dellarobia Turnbow who stumbles upon a spectacle – millions of monarch butterflies congregating in a field near her house. Kingsolver draws on her Appalachian roots and background in biology in this compelling piece about the very real impacts of global warming.

Other outstanding examples include John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, The Overstory by Richard Powers, and A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley.

I’ll end with a my own “eco-mysteries” which feature Maine oceanographer Mara Tusconi – The Shark, The Girl, & The Sea; Secrets Haunt The Lobsters’ Sea; Cold Blood Hot Sea, Demon Spirit, Devil Sea; and Glass Eels, Shattered Sea. The ocean theme is pretty obvious, but I am a marine ecologist after all.


This entry was posted in Charlene's post. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Books That Feature Nature

  1. kaitcarson says:

    Jersey girl here, I’ll have to check out the Pine Barrens. we had all sorts of stories about it growing up – most had to do with murdered boyfriends and UFOs. For Sopranos fans (hand raised) Silvio (Steven Van Zant) killed Adriana (Drea de Matteo) in the Pine Barrens.

    As for books that accurately depict the environment – in addition to yours, Charlene, Sandy Neily’s books are masterpieces of the Maine woods.

  2. Julianne Spreng says:

    Janet Evanovich has used the Pine Barrens in several of her Stephanie Plum stories. Never thought to check out that they’re a real thing. Thanks!!

  3. Shelley Burbank says:

    Interesting in part because Barbara Kingsolver wrote a book SET in the Pine Barrens: UNSHELTERED. I love her work, and I remember starting to read this one, but for some reason I never finished it. One of my favorite books of all times is her PRODIGAL SUMMER. Anyway…I should get your books for one of my dear ones as she is totally in love with the ocean and its creatures. Well, maybe I’d have to read them first…lol. Cheers!

Leave a Reply