5 Essential Books for Lovers of Nature and Philosophy
Finding splendour and solace in nature
Ah, welcome back, Dear Readers, new and old (one is silver, the other gold). Let’s root around in the science, humour, and literature grab-bag: Knowledge is Power, France is Bacon, see what we can rustle up today. Don’t forget to subscribe so you don’t miss a thing:
The Lost Art of Nature Appreciation
‘We often forget that we are nature. Nature is not something separate from us. So when we say that we have lost our connection to nature, we’ve lost our connection to ourselves.’
—Andy Goldsworthy (sculptor and environmentalist)
Exposure to nature positively impacts sleep patterns, lowers the incidence of cardiovascular disease, and hastens recovery from illness. When we spend time among greenery or near bodies of water, our mood improves, and we experience a reduction in stress and attentional fatigue.
There’s no denying nature restores our health and soothes our soul. But sometimes, I find myself wondering, is mere immersion enough? Couldn’t we reap even more benefit from Mother Nature if we cultivated a deeper understanding and appreciation of her wonders?
As adults, we often fall into the trap of looking at something only long enough to categorise it, dismiss it. But what if we could recover some of that lost perceptual innocence of childhood Aldous Huxley wrote about in his mescaline-fueled The Doors of Perception? What if there was a way to behold the splendour of nature with fresh eyes?
‘Humanity is exalted not because we are so far above other living creatures, but because knowing them well elevates the very concept of life.’
― Edward O. Wilson, (author of Biophilia)
From the dappled sunlight filtering in through the clouds and trees to the mushrooms which sprout from the decay of fallen leaves, so many wonders are in plain sight — if you know where to look. The following five books will help rekindle your appreciation for the intricate and harmonious beauty of nature. Brimming with fantabulous facts (which I’ve included as little morsels to excite and entice) and earthy wisdom, these books ensure you’ll never see the world or yourself in quite the same way.
1. Phosphorescence: On Awe, Wonder & Things That Sustain You When the World Goes Dark | Julia Baird
Part memoir, part touching treatise on physical and mental wellbeing, Phosphorescence covers many a topic. Forest ‘bathing’ (which I was disappointed to discover does not involve soaking in a tub outdoors), the joys of ocean swimming, the importance of being humbled by awe, and, of course, the phenomenon of bioluminescence. And, just as an aside, how awesome is the cover when the light hits it just right? It’s undoubtedly the loveliest non-coffee table book I own:
Earth is home to many luminous creatures: the lambent gold of fireflies in the summer night, the neon-green frilling of mushrooms on a log, the glitter of glow-worms in caves, the ethereal blue serenity of floating jellyfish. These are but a few of the magnificent creatures capable of emitting light. Scientists have also taken matters into their own hands, creating bioluminescent plants by injecting them with specialised nanoparticles so that glowing trees might replace streetlamps in the future.
Inspired by nature, Baird marvels at people who are “phosphorescent” and ‘brim with life, or light’. These people are ‘tired but not jaded’, burning with a seemingly inexhaustible passion. And couldn’t we all be a little more phosphorescent, nurturing and harnessing our inner light?
Why should fear, anxiety, loneliness, or dread threaten to extinguish our spirit? Surely when the world is darkest, the wisdom absorbed from our parents and teachers, books and philosophers, ought to shine all the brighter? Phosphorescence is not just the purview of the cuttlefish or vampire squid, argues Baird; it is the guiding light in each of us which illuminates the way forward.
‘What’s the point of all you have learned if you can’t employ it when you are floundering in a nadir? Haven’t all those lessons, and loves, been pooled in a reservoir you can draw on?’
— Julia Baird, Phosphorescence
Fun-tabulous nature fact #1:
It’s not just pregnant women who glow and not just metaphorically so. We all ‘directly and rhythmically’ emit light. ‘The human body literally glimmers’; however, ‘the intensity of the light emitted by the body is 1000 times lower than the sensitivity of our naked eyes’.
Inspiring nature photo #1:
Bioluminescent dinoflagellates (single-celled organisms with two flagella, occurring in marine plankton) flash electric blue when plankton blooms on the sea's surface are disturbed by the crashing waves.
2. The Cloudspotter’s Guide: The Science, History, and Culture of Clouds | Gavin Pretor-Pinney
Altocumulus stratiformis perlucidus! No, it’s not a spell out of Harry Potter. Rather it’s what you’ll be shouting as you point to a patchy sheet of cloud of the species stratiformis, impressing all and sundry. You’ll also become skilled at recognising which type of cloud portends a deluge rather than long, steady rain. (If only we could tell how long a black cloud hanging above us, darkening our mood, might last. It’d be so much easier to weather a rough patch if we had a knack for sensing when it was likely to end.)
Cloudspotter Pretor-Pinney covers all types of aerial fluff, both rare and common, including a relatively recent addition to the skyline — the vapour contrails (“chemtrails” in Flat-Earther parlance), forming as lines of condensation behind high-altitude aircraft.
A cirrus-ly good book for those with their heads in the clouds and eyes too often fixed on a phone screen rather than the firmament.
Fun-tabulous nature fact #2:
The breast, er, best cloud formation name goes to the ‘mamma’ or ‘mammatus’, so named for their globular, udder-like appearance. (Use in the following sentence, ‘Mamma mia! It’s a mammatus cloud, harbinger of storms!’)
Inspiring nature photo #2:
Morning glory clouds are bands of rolling clouds. They are rare atmospheric phenomena, only occurring with regularity in the southern part of the Gulf of Carpentaria in Northern Australia.
3. Light and Color in the Outdoors | Marcel Minnaert (Author), L. Seymour (Translator)
An oldie but a goodie, this book describes all the extraordinary phenomena of light and colour, illuminating all the wonders you see but often fail to ponder or appreciate.
After reading this book, you’ll gain an understanding of shadow, reflection, refraction, mirages, the twinkling of stars, the formation of rainbows (always double, whether you can make out both or not!) — and so much more.
Although at its heart it is a physics book containing some intimidating-looking formulas, the layperson will get a lot out of Minnaert’s Light and Color in the Outdoors, in particular, if they’re an aspiring artist.
‘Movement, change, light, growth and decay are the lifeblood of nature, the energies that I I try to tap through my work.’
Fun-tabulous nature fact #3:
Did you know that the sun twinkles to fish the way the rest of the stars do to us? Not that we’d be able to see very well down there, considering the fluid in the human eye — the aqueous humour of the cornea — has the same refractive index as water so that incoming light doesn’t bend to form on the retina but rather a little behind it. That’s why your vision is so blurry underwater.
Inspiring nature photo #3:
A fogbow is a cousin to the rainbow, sometimes known as a “white” or “ghost” rainbow. Instead of large water droplets caught in fog, they are the product of small ones. Just like rainbows, they are a blending of sunlight and moisture.
4. The Hidden Life of Trees | Peter Wohlleben (author), Jane Billinghurst (translator)
This book will conifer a knowledge of trees as deep as the vast fungal-root system that connects them.
Spruce up your knowledge of saplings as you learn how forests are a social network of sorts, a “wood wide web”. It turns out trees share nutrients, optimally divide water, warn each other of impending danger, create a hospitable microclimate, and grow in harmony to ensure no tree finds itself (unduly) overshadowed.
Wohlleben laments that so many of today's forests are planted rather than natural, and therefore their roots are too damaged to interconnect properly. Instead, such trees lead solitary, lonesome lives before being cut down at the tender tree age of only one hundred years old. These disturbed forests are a metaphor for our own isolation and lack of community; I certainly pine for that sense of connection.
After reading The Hidden Life of Trees, you’ll finally be able to see the forest for the trees. (This is my last tree pun, I’m deciduous!)
Fun-tabulous nature fact #4:
Young trees are deprived of light by “mother” trees; however, this is beneficial as slow growth will ensure their longevity.
Inspiring nature photo #4:
When munched on, the drought-resistant umbrella thorn acacia releases a gas to warn neighbouring acacia trees to release toxins to protect themselves from predators. Now that’s teamwork!
5. The Way Through the Woods: On Mushrooms and Mourning | Litt Woon Long (author) and Barbara J. Haveland (translator)
Feeding on dead leaves and tree rot whilst enriching the soil are the mushrooms. They’re fun guys — well, they’re the above-ground fruiting body of fungi, rather.
This book details mushrooms deadly and delicious, but rather than being purely a guide to mycology, it’s a memoir about finding meaning in life after loss. After the death of her husband, anthropologist Long Litt Woon, an immigrant to Norway, finds a sense of belonging and purpose among the mushroom hunters, rekindling her lust for life and finding a new source of joy.
Fun-tabulous nature fact #5:
Long has a minor obsession with the charming, apricot-scented chanterelle mushroom, and as such, includes a recipe, of all things, for candied chanterelle served over ice cream. (The other day, I saw some dried chanterelles on special at Aldi, I correctly discerned they would not make for a good ice-cream topping.)
Inspiring nature photo #5:
Be sure to stick to chanterelles; the iconic toadstool Amanita muscaria or fly agaric is toxic unless carefully prepared. Perhaps more trouble than they’re worth in a culinary sense, their jaunty polka dots are at least a sight for sore eyes.
I hope the books I’ve recommended lead you into the woods… and out of them!
That’s all, folks; thanks for tuning in. If you’re interested in writing, you might like my other newsletter Writing Foetus which documents the creation of my first book.