4 Natural History Books To Read This Year

February 05, 2019

There are a lot of good natural history books out there and I wish I had the time to read all of them, but unfortunately like most people my time is limited, and sometimes I don't read as often as I should. Reading time is valuable and so it helps to have a good recommendation so you can make the most of it. For me, a good natural history book should also be a good story, a journey of discovery for you and the author. Their passion leaps out and pulls you into the subject matter and you find yourself in awe of an aspect of the world you may not have even knew existed before. Behind all of these books is usually a huge body of research, gathered by unsung heroes who have spent years trying to further our understanding of the natural world. These are just four books which have really stood out for me recently, I hope you enjoy them as much as I did!

1. Eager: The Surprising, Secret Lives Of Beavers And Why They Matter by Ben Goldfarb

Environmental journalist Ben Goldfarb delves deep into all things beaver and tells the story of the unlikely and unwitting heroes at the forefront of efforts to re-wild and restore wetland ecosystems in the US and beyond to their former glory. Hunted relentlessly for their furs and demonised as the scourge of agriculture everywhere, the book follows a plucky band of activists - the ‘Beaver Believers’- and their efforts to reintroduce the beaver into its historical range whilst trying to redefine the animal as a force for positive change. An ecological Swiss-army knife, by altering the complexity of watersheds, beavers can increase biodiversity, replenish dwindling aquifers, prevent flooding, trap and store carbon, and purify water supplies, all for the low price of just letting them be!

An exciting, humorous and informed effort to put the beaver story into context with current ecological issues, the book weaves through strange beaver ancestors with corkscrew burrows, the founding of a nation built on beaver pelts, a city divided by the appearance of a beaver family, and how what has been lost from the environment can be regained with the right attitudes and an appreciation of the resilience of nature when left alone. It also provides lessons for the tentative reintroduction efforts of beavers in the UK, where battle lines are beginning to be drawn in the debate on their place in a country that they haven’t existed in for 400 years.

The story of the Beaver Believers is now a feature length film and the trailer can be found here! A short version is also touring with the Banff Mountain Film Festival.

2. Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth's Most Awesome Creatures by Nick Pyenson

Paleobiologist and curator of fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian Institute, author Nick Pyenson is more qualified than most to take us into the mysterious lives of whales, their history, and what might become of them in a world that is rapidly changing. The stage is set with a paleontogical mystery; the discovery of a number of perfectly preserved fossil whales (early whale ancestors) in Peru, with how they came to be there revealed over the course of the book. A relatively new branch of science, paleobiology uses what we know about existing biological processes and organisms to answer questions about the past. This is exciting because it brings the past alive and makes it all the more real, allowing us to imagine how ancient creatures may have moved, what they might have eaten, how they could have looked, and what kind of environments they might have lived in. 

Using this knowledge Pyenson gives a vivid account of how whale ancestors evolved from small land dwelling mammals to huge ocean dwellers, one of them the largest animal to have ever existed. His unbounded enthusiasm for his profession and the sheer thrill he gets from new discoveries drives this book forward, and anyone with a even a small interest in paleontology, biology or science in general will love this book. 

For more information on Nick Pyenson and his work click here

3. Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding by George Monbiot

Although it has been around for a few years, environmental journalist and political activist George Monbiot's 'Feral' is still just as relevant now if not more so, with the rewilding movement growing larger and more successful. The book made me question the status-quo on traditional approaches to conservation in the U.K, and with the country recently being listed as one of the most nature-depleted in the world, it is clear there is an urgent need to look for alternative strategies to appropriately address this crisis. This is where rewilding comes in. It involves the restoration and protection of vital ecosystem processes and areas of wilderness, making sure these areas are connected, and reintroducing apex predators and keystone species to their former ranges where possible. 

Though there has been a lot of success with rewilding in Europe, the UK has yet to catch up with the rest of the continent, with a lot of push back from farmers and land owners who have a vested interest in keeping vast areas of the country heavily managed and subdued. The tentative reintroduction of beavers in Scotland has been met with a lot of hostility, and talk of wild wolves and lynx once again roaming the country is still a far off dream. 

With the flair of an experienced and well informed writer, as well as a lyrical prose which makes you long for the wilder places as much as he does, Monbiot puts across convincingly the need for a drastic change to way we manage our landscapes and wildlife, making you realise that we all need and deserve to have these places in our lives. 

George Monbiot writes regularly for the Guardian, and is usually a welcome voice of reason and advocate for environmental change through political action. For more information on rewilding in the UK click here.

4. The Seabirds Cry by Adam Nicolson 

I admit I am a bit of a bird enthusiast. More specifically I am interested in seabirds, which is why this book meant a great deal to me (as well as being an excellent book in its own right!). Masters of ocean, air and land, seabirds hold a special place in the imagination, and have long been the subject of myth and folklore, living on the edges of existence in wild, unforgiving places. In 'The Seabird's Cry', Adam Nicolson brings us the stories of ten different seabird species, tapping into their mystique and weaving it together with detailed accounts of their lives obtained from the very latest research. Nicolson writes from the heart, growing up among seabirds whilst exploring the Shiant Islands in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, which his father bought in 1937 and he later inherited, but has since passed on to his son. 

Up until the very recent development of GPS data loggers small enough to attach to a seabird we knew very little of their lives beyond their brief, frenzied forays onto land to breed. Now that we can their lives have been opened up to us for the first time and the true extent of their extraordinary existence is beginning to be revealed. This knowledge comes at a critical point however, as seabirds have suffered greatly in recent years as a result of pollution, overfishing, human disturbance and changing climate. Seabirds are critical to ocean and terrestrial foodwebs, and their sensitivity to change means they often bear the brunt of our actions. 'The Seabirds Cry' then, is both a celebration of seabirds and a story of their plight, a wake up call that we must answer before it is too late.

There are a huge amount of fantastic natural history books out there, and more and more seem to come out all the time on as many topics as you can imagine! If you have any great ones you've read recently we would love to hear about them in the comments section below. 

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