The Weekly Anthropocene: Book Recommendations
Sharing reads that give a sense of the wonder, possibility, and stakes of the Anthropocene, in this world and fictional counterparts.
Jaguar and others by Alan Rabinowitz
This is probably this writer’s single favorite book in the world. It’s the first in a series by one of this writer’s personal heroes, Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, a big cat conservationist dubbed the “Indiana Jones of wildlife protection” by Time magazine for his personal bravery and globe-trotting adventures. Jaguar chronicles his first post-Ph.D. adventure, studying jaguars in the Cockscomb region of Belize. During this study, Alan Rabinowitz survived a mid-jungle Cessna crash that left him with an agonizing subdural hematoma, lost a friend to the bite of the deadly fer-de-lance snake, was cursed by an Obeah practitioner, personally tranquilized and radio-collared several wild jaguars, discovered a lost Mayan shrine, and was nearly shot when he stumbled across an illegal marijuana field. Eventually, it all paid off when he was able to convince the Belizean government to create the world’s first jaguar preserve, the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, which has since become an ecotourism hotspot and core jaguar population site. He revolutionized wildlife science writing with a raw, achingly personal account of his experience, sharing stories of love found and lost, disgusting parasite infection, ethical dilemmas, a traumatic childhood, near-crippling pain and grief, and bone-deep exhaustion alongside wildlife science and jungle adventures.
The next book, Chasing the Dragon’s Tail, chronicles Dr. Rabinowitz’s study of tigers, leopards, and leopard cats in Thailand’s Huai Kha Khaeng national park, during which he befriended Buddhist monks, fell afoul of the illegal wildlife trade, and had to ride a motorcycle to a hospital with a bamboo spear through his leg after falling into a poacher’s bamboo punji stick trap. The third, Beyond the Last Village, tells the story of Dr. Rabinowitz’s Himalayan expeditions in northern Myanmar, which led to the creation of Hkakabo Razi National Park, learning the fate of the Taron people, the only known group of East Asian “pygmies”, and the discovery of a new species of leaf deer, Muntiacus putaoensis. And in the fourth, Life in the Valley of Death, he negotiates with dictatorial governments and rebel militias to try to carve out a protected area for tigers in Myanmar’s Hukawng Valley while in the middle of battling chronic lymphocytic leukemia.
Dr. Rabinowitz died on August 5, 2018 due to the progression of his cancer. His books shine a light on his extraordinary life and legacy, and are among the most gripping and powerful you’ll ever read. Pick one up!
Wilding by Isabella Tree
Wilding is the story of Isabella Tree, a world-traveling journalist, and her husband, British baronet Sir Charles Burrell, working on a multi-decade project to rewild the Knepp Estate, Burrell’s ancestral home in Sussex. Starting with the inheritance of a money-losing farm around Knepp Castle that had nutrient-poor soil and barely any wildlife or wild vegetation, the couple in 2001 decided to begin “rewilding” the land, a shockingly unorthodox decision much derided by the local landowners and historic farming villages. They stopped conventional farming, abjured using pesticides or fertilizer and gradually, year by year, started letting young trees, shrubs, and flowers grow, planted new wild species, and introduced free-roaming cattle and pigs that lived off the land without human aid. Their grazing and rooting around in the soil, spreading seeds and creating wallows, kickstarted ancient ecological cycles, spurring plant growth and diversity still further. With barely any “active” human intervention, the post-agricultural denuded land became a biodiversity extravaganza, with species from all over Britain arriving to colonize the newly regrowing forests, scrublands, and grasslands. Falcons, ravens, turtledoves, slow-worm snakes, and 13 of the UK’s 18 bat species all showed up and settled in. As Knepp grew richer and wilder (and as Tree and Burrell fended off local councils offended by the “wasting of good farmland”) more and more fantastical, unexpected progress occurred. The new “Knepp Wildland” was sought out as a breeding site by nightingales and rare purple emperor butterflies, and became the home of the first wild white stork chicks born in England in 600 years. In 2020, beavers were reintroduced to Knepp, and the “king and queen of rewilding” continue to go from strength to strength, with their madcap, maverick vision now widely recognized as a template for land use in Anthropocene Britain.
Wilding contains some of the most lyrical, purely beautiful descriptions of a landscape and its ecosystem that I’ve ever read, and fizzes with a sense of sheer wonder and joy as Ms. Tree describes the moments when she finds that a new species has been sighted in Knepp. It’s an excellent primer to ecosystem ecology, the idea of rewilding, and key tactics for preserving and renewing biodiversity in the Anthropocene, and also happens to be a deeply heartwarming and page-turning read.
Quest for the Tree Kangaroo and others by Sy Montgomery
Sy Montgomery is the best writer about animals I’ve ever read. Others have written great books (including many of those included on this list) about the experience of studying animals, the interactions of animals and humans, the work of trying to save endangered animals, and the lives and adventures of the humans who have dedicated their lives to helping animals. But Ms. Montgomery’s writing is fundamentally about animals, with their stories center stage. One of her photo-illustrated “coffee table”-style books, Quest for the Tree Kangaroo, chronicles an expedition to study the endangered Matschie’s tree kangaroo in Papua New Guinea’s remote Huon Peninsula, and was a formative influence on this writer, inspiring a childhood dream to live, work, and study endangered species in the rainforest1. Her multitude of other books are just as enchanting. The Soul of an Octopus describes her encounters with octopuses (and yes, that is the correct plural) at the New England Aquarium, and her research into the compelling and increasingly scientifically mainstream idea that octopuses are conscious and highly intelligent, perhaps even sentient. Spell of the Tiger describes Ms. Montgomery’s drive to understand the unusually violent tigers of Bangladesh’s great Sundarbans wetland. Journey of the Pink Dolphins follows the winding river pathways of the Amazon river dolphin, or “boto”. Search for the Golden Moon Bear describes a thrilling quest across Southeast Asia to discover if a color variant of the moon bear, or Asian black bear, might be a new species. Closer to home, The Good Good Pig shares the story of the life of Christopher Hogwood, a piglet saved from being made into bacon and raised as a pet by Ms. Montgomery at her rural home in New Hampshire. Ms. Montgomery’s books are profoundly thoughtful, seeking to understand animals not just through the lens of science but also as emotional and perhaps even spiritual equals, beings feeling pleasure and pain on this Earth just like us. A must-read author for any animal lover.
Fuzz by Mary Roach
As I wrote in my review when it came out: Mary Roach is a popular science writer with an extraordinary gift for finding an esoteric field, interviewing the scientists working in it, and interweaving her findings into enlightening, humane, and often hilarious stories of the strange corners of human civilization….Her next book, now available in stores, covers a topic dear to this newsletter's metaphorical heart: the strange interactions between humans and wildlife in the Anthropocene. Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law is a delightful read, traveling the world to explore the work of everyone from experts in removing bears from resort homes to researchers attempting to perfect birth control for monkeys to scientists who have tested the effects of stapling dead deer tails to cardboard cutouts by the side of highways. All of these people are broadly working for the greater good, trying to help humans and animals coexist without extermination or property damage, but the unpredictable nature of their subject leads their work-and the book-to some strange, strange places.
Reading Fuzz, you find truly astonishing sentences, and what’s really amazing is that they make sense in context. It’s that kind of book. Verbatim sentences and sentence fragments from Fuzz include “On July 26, 2005, the space shuttle Discovery hit a turkey vulture.” And “Science is here to tell you that starlings feel the same way about Febreze Extra Strength Fabric Refresher as they do about raccoon piss.” And “On a tea estate in the Sonitpur district of Assam in 2017, three wild elephants broke into a workers’ shop at 2:00 am and helped themselves to the cotton fiber product known as rupees. They broke open the cash box and consumed 26,000 rupees in large denominations.” And “The Vatican City State is gearing up to be a nation with one grocery store, one pharmacy, no gas station, and two LaserOp Automatic 200 bird scaring units.” And "One man told the New York Times that he had 65 langurs urinating on prominent homes." And “The other challenge was to get the bait where the tree snakes were…Now they use an ‘aerial broadcast system’, a sort of helicopter-mounted machine gun that shoots potted meat baits with biodegradable cornstarch streamers that entangle them in the trees.” Helicopter-mounted machine gun that shoots potted-meat baits with biodegradable cornstarch streamers that entangle them in the trees! The coexistence of wildlife and humanity in the Anthropocene can lead to some truly absurd and outlandish events, and chronicling these is where Fuzz shines. Buy this book! It's funny, heartfelt, thought-provoking, and just plain awesome
Islands of Abandonment by Cal Flyn
As I wrote in my review when it came out: “Islands of Abandonment is an extraordinary book, exploring an extraordinary and quintessentially Anthropocene phenomenon. Its first case study, that introduces the book, sets the stage….The Five Sisters in West Lothian are five “bings,” piles of waste, masses of spent shale from which oil has been extracted. The waste shale was heated to 950 degrees Fahrenheit before it was dumped on the pile, resulting in absolute, sterile desert, without even a scrap of soil, let alone plant matter. Bare rock. But it was, crucially, bare rock that was left absolutely alone for decades after 1962, not built on, paved over, or sprayed with pesticides. And eventually, much to everyone’s surprise, a study in 2004 found that the bings of the Five Sisters-which were, remember, sterilized rock piles-had become veritable garden paradises….In a few short decades, the Five Sisters had gone from bare rock to the home of over 350 plant species, including eight nationally rare types of moss and lichen and a wide array of orchids, including the rare Young’s helleborine, found only in ten locations in Britain….Unbelievably, these post-industrial, entirely human-made, overgrown spoil heaps now have more plant species than Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Britain….
The book goes on and on, with more and more meticulously researched stories of renewal and rebirth. This sort of thing is happening all the time-is in fact characteristic of land-use change in the late 20th and early 21st century. Bikini Atoll, where the US did open-air nuclear bomb testing in the 1940s (and which gave its name to the bikini swimsuit at the same time because of the garment’s “explosive” effects) is now home to one of the richest and most pristine coral reefs in the Pacific-simply because no one had bothered it for decades, fearing lingering radiation….In Colorado, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, a former US chemical weapons research facility, is now a wildlife refuge home to bald eagles’ nests and reintroduced bison. Abandoned neighborhoods in Detroit, that quintessential example of urban blight, have become a sort of suburban prairie, home to thigh-high grasses teeming with foxes, opossums, falcons, beavers, and coyotes. The site of the Battle of Verdun in France, now an exclusion “Zone Rouge” due to unexploded ordinance, is now home to a thick, rich forest (except, eerily, for a patch of still-bare ground where stockpiles of German chemical weapons were burned). Industrially-run collective farmland abandoned after the fall of the Soviet Union has regenerated into forest en masse: Estonia’s tree cover went from 21% of the country in 1920 to 54% in 2010….Nature has been simply mind-bendingly successful at turning the most polluted and poisoned of landscapes into biodiverse new ecosystems….
It’s not just the wonder of what is described that makes this book special, but the way Cal Flyn describes it. Her prose is contemplative, philosophical, and profoundly evocative: when reading, you feel the wonder of life, the uncertainty over a human-dominated future, the intoxicating possibility of a new, post-industrial natural world. Read this book. It’s a powerful testament of hope for the future of Earth’s biosphere, and it’s really, really good.”
A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers
This book and its sequel follow Sibling Dex, an awkward young non-binary nomadic tea-brewing monk, as they become the first human in centuries to make contact with the reclusive robots living in the wilderness who’ve spent their time meditating on nature like Taoist philosophers. The thing that’s unusual about this book is that overall, only good things happen. There’s no violence, societal upheaval, or even really unkindness. It’s a coming-of-age story in a fairly utopian future world, that lets the reader just sink into the prose like a warm bath and enjoy the details of pedaling Dex’s tea wagon, exploring overgrown forest temples, and making camp at the end of a long day. Relaxing and life-affirming as anything, and not that long-great for a vacation read.
Termination Shock by Neal Stephenson
As I wrote in my review when it came out: “It’s a near-future thriller of the Anthropocene as filtered through a James Bond novel, or perhaps a Marvel superhero movie. There’s ample discussion of sea level rise, habitat shifts, climate refugees, heatwaves, and the ethics, science, and politics of geoengineering, including some impressively technically accurate discussion of the precise tradeoffs and risks involved in influencing the Southeast Asian monsoon. However, this is also a book that contains a skyscraper-sized stratosphere cannon, a very Dune-esque scene in which royals don “earthsuits” for extreme temperatures, an epic ongoing mixed martial tournament between Indian and Chinese champions to decide control of the Himalayas (unbelievably, an extrapolation from real events!), Venetian separatists, cybernetically enhanced proprioception, a suave seventy-something social media-savvy superspy, and one man’s Captain Ahab-like quest to hunt down and slay the giant feral pig that killed his daughter….While reading Termination Shock, I learned a lot of fascinating stuff about the Dutch constitutional monarchy, the history of sulfur mining in New Guinea, the landscape of Texas’ Chihuahuan Desert, the Sikh religion and culture, the unique legal status of the City of London, drone videography, rogue waves, and falconry. The action-packed climax, incredibly, brings aspects of almost all of the above together at once in pulse-pounding scenes worthy of any summer blockbuster.”
2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson
Kim Stanley Robinson is one of the great science fiction writers of our time, and his epic Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars trilogy and near-future climate-focused Ministry of the Future (see this newsletter’s review) are deservedly acclaimed. But my favorite of his works is the somewhat lesser-known 2312, set in the eponymous year where humanity has spread out across the solar system (no interstellar travel yet). It’s really got everything you can ask for in a science fiction novel: terrorist attacks on Mercury, political intrigue around the terraforming of Venus, quasi-occult rituals involving microbes from Enceladus, mysterious quantum computer-driven AIs, a strong romance arc rooted in a much more gender and sexuality-fluid future, and diving off the cliffs of Miranda. The best part, however, is the “asteroid terraria” concept: hundreds of asteroids hollowed out and spun to produce gravity, with each one containing a replica or remix of a classic, pre-climate change Earth ecosystem and/or culture. It’s free on the Internet Archive online library: worth a read!
The Dandelion Dynasty series by Ken Liu
Arguably the best fantasy series I’ve ever read (and certainly the best written in the 21st century), up there with Lord of the Rings and better than A Song of Ice and Fire in richness of world-building and characters. The brainchild of Ken Liu, renowned as one of the world’s best translators from Chinese to English, this series creates the genre of “silkpunk,” which Liu describes as “a technology aesthetic based on a science fictional elaboration of traditions of engineering in East Asia’s classical antiquity.” The only magic that occurs in the world could easily be otherwise explained as hallucinations or vivid dreams, so it essentially works as an epic science fiction series as well, with most of the key plot advancements driven by new cultures interacting and the dawn of Industrial Age-level technology in the Han Dynasty China-analogue civilization of the Islands of Dara. And this adds up to a whole bunch of awesome stuff happening. Bone axe-wielding dragon riders vs. zeppelins with electric lances! The invention of submarines, realistic automatons, and phonautographs to overcome plot obstacles! Epic voyages to faraway lands! Intercontinental communication via messages etched into sea turtle shells! Clever commoner bandits and noble heirs to fallen warrior dynasties becoming best friends, rebels against the throne, then rival candidates for the next emperor! (Note: the first book, The Grace of Kings, essentially acts as a stand-alone prequel setting the stage for the closely interweaved three-book arc that follows, so you could start either there or with The Wall of Storms). It’s truly epic, and worth your time.
The Young Wizards series by Diane Duane
This series is basically the teenage magic, angst, wonder, and good vs. evil of Harry Potter in a universe as multifaceted, far-flung, science-driven, and humanistic as Star Trek. I’ve always been surprised it never became more popular, it’s been around since the 1980s. The great thing about this series is that the main characters are, y’know, young wizards, doing spells and turning into animals and flying and teleporting around and stepping through “worldgates” to other planets and speaking to the trees, but they’re also deeply rooted in real-world problems, dealing with pollution, preventing earthquakes, defusing nascent wars, coming agonizingly close to curing cancer, surreptitiously extending the life of Mars probes, and trying to protect satellites from solar flares. I also love that in this universe, all entities with at least some degree of self-awareness can produce wizards (and they can all communicate with each other through the Speech, the magical base language of the universe), so we get Irish kitten battle poet wizards, friendly humpback whale wizards, a sentient Apple computer wizard (seriously!), a whole bunch of imaginative extraterrestrial wizards, and a very good Labrador retriever wizard. Much more angled towards middle-grade to teenage readers than the other books on this list, and may strain your tolerance for teenage angst, but worth a try to see if it’s to your taste.