Written by Isabel Realyvasquez, Grant Writing & Development Intern
These days, it seems almost inevitable that you will come across an article or news clip declaring the harmful role humans play in their natural environments. There is some truth to this. We live in the Anthropocene – a geological age defined by humankind’s impact on Earth’s climate system, mainly through the burning of fossil fuels, intensive agricultural land-use practices, and industrialization. These accounts can make you feel defeated, drained, and disheartened, begging the question, “What good can humans do in their environment?” Uplifting answers to this question glimmer in the words of storytellers, authors, and poets. Their voices rise above the storm and grab our hearts in a different way. While these writers acknowledge the reality of planetary crisis, they also forge new narratives for our future. They invite us to imagine new ways of being and show us we are capable of cherishing, protecting, and learning from the Earth, no matter where we live or what small corner of it we call home.
We at Each Green Corner believe that people can do good not only in their communities but their environments. By converting land in residential and school areas into pollinator-friendly and food-producing green spaces, we help to expand appreciation for nature through environmental education and remind volunteers, community members, and more of the beneficial role they play as stewards of their environment. It is only too easy to invest in the dominant doomsday narrative that despairs human involvement in nature. Yet, just as EGC invites others to see their potential to help nurture their environment, we believe books can also share this encouraging message. Many powerful stories and inspiring authors, some of them shared below, remind us of our innate connection, value to, and love of the Earth and its many species. In their legacies, these novels, memoirs, short stories, and poems emphasize the good you can do for the Earth. From J. Drew Lanham’s The Home Place to Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, these soul-enriching works lend stories that help to guide, heal, and restore our relationship to the natural world.
The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature by J. Drew Lanham(2016)
Ornithologist and professor J. Drew Lanham declutters conversations of the natural world from science-dominated jargon to talk about nature in a way that reflects what he cherishes most about it: simplicity. Noting how Western science often explains the mechanical “how” and “why” function of nature, Lanham uses clear, vibrant prose to describe his experience with and deep-rooted connection to nature as a Black man. While the natural world has often been a white-dominated field of study and recreation, Lanham remembers the people and places that made him a self-proclaimed “eco-addict” throughout The Home Place. Sharing his enthusiasm for the outdoors, Lanham encourages others to “get out there” and experience the natural world, in hopes that it, and conversations about it, will be more accessible to everyone. Lanham declares, “the wild things and places belong to all of us,” reminding you that the future too is for everyone:
“As young people of color reconnect with what so many of their ancestors knew — that our connections to the land run deep, like taproots of mighty oaks; that the land renews and sustains us — maybe things will begin to change.”
For more on this literary gift to human ecology, check out Jim Carmin’s commentary in The Kenyon Review.
The Seed Keeper by Dianne Wilson (2021)
For Dakota writer Dianne Wilson, humans are not as separate from Mother Earth as it may seem: they are just finding their way back to her. The Seed Keeper explores Native Americans’ heritage, sown into and inextricable from the land. The novel follows the life of Dakota citizen Rosalie Iron Wing as she endures the heart-breaking, oppressive, and often violent treatment of the US government’s assimilation policy. As Rosalie experiences changes that threaten to tear her family apart, erase their way of life and place in a land they have long called home, the things that preserve her identity, that tether her to her ancestors, are seeds. Small yet mighty, these seeds not only carry life but the memory of Rosalie’s ancestors into the future. Wilson’s messages of love, endurance, and kinship reverberate throughout this novel and are seeds of hope you can plant in a garden of action in light of our changing world.
Jayden’s Impossible Garden by Mélina Mangal (2021)
Have you ever seen a single blade of grass growing in the crack of a concrete sidewalk and wondered how it survived there of all places? Mélina Mangal’s Jayden’s Impossible Garden celebrates the life that sprouts from the ground despite all odds and with the support of people like Jayden who care deeply about it. Jayden sees nature everywhere, even in the middle of a city. Birds nesting in city trees and anthills rising from parking lot asphalt are only proof that nature is resilient and finds a way to thrive. Throughout the pages of this book, Mangal shows you how humans can create beautiful, biodiverse places even in their backyard. Illuminating urban gray backdrops with kaleidoscopic bursts of color, Ken Daley captures the vibrancy of Jayden and his friends’ garden: a place that attracts animals, insects, and people. This is a delightful read for anyone who wants to help their environment and community. Concluding message: individual action can become community action that creates impactful change!
Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, edited by Camille T. Dungy (2009)
Edited by Camille T. Dungy, renowned poet and professor of English at Colorado State University this anthology features a treasure trove of works by African American poets, including Claude McKay, Audre Lorde, and Jean Toomer. These voices and experiences are critical to understandings of human relationships with nature. Black Nature includes 190 nature poems penned by 93 Black poets and an introduction by Dungy, who urges the importance of bringing Black voices to the forefront of ecological poetics and conversations of human interactions with nature. As they share Black lived experience in spaces of rural, wild, and urban nature, these poets and their poems cycle through the complex registers of their environments, simultaneously places of refuge, peril, hope, fear, belonging, beauty, freedom, enslavement, and healing. The verses of James Weldon Johnson’s “Deep in the Quiet Wood,” Langston Hughes’ “Lament for Dark Peoples,” Lucille Clifton’s “the earth is a living thing,” Sterling Brown’s “Children of the Mississippi,” and Anne Spencer’s “Earth, I thank you,” will not only broaden your understanding of nature but the people who have lived amongst it.
Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer (2013)
An EGC team favorite, this book is required reading for everyone who cares about the Earth and their place in it. At its core, it is about community, resilience, and the love of people, the planet, and the plants that feed, shelter, and teach us. Robin Wall Kimmerer, a botanist, storyteller, and citizen of the Potawatomi Nation, views the natural world through a lens of reciprocity, believing you can both take from and give to the Earth. As she sees it, if you take care of a plant, it will take care of you, and the Earth will be all the better for it. Throughout this captivating narrative, divided into chapters that trace her personal and cultural relationships to nature, Kimmerer shares Indigenous stories, knowledge, and values of giving thanks to nature. With the utmost grace and patience, Kimmerer shows readers what it means to be a steward of nature in a world rapidly changed due to capitalism and the legacy of colonization. Kimmerer inspires you to see the beauty in the mysterious processes of nature that Western science cannot always break down and encourages you to keep learning from, listening to, and being curious about the non-human lives that sustain you. While we featured this book in last month’s list of EGC’s recommended readings, it’s here again because it will always deserve the hype! First published in 2013, Braiding Sweetgrass is a timely and true classic of the twenty-first century. Disclaimer: this book will change your life!
Zonia’s Rain Forest by Juana Martinez-Neal (2021)
The talented Juana Martinez-Neal not only sets the scene of this children’s book with tender words but beautifully illustrates it with a kaleidoscope of rainbow colors that immerse you into the canopy of the Amazon rainforest. This book is a must-read for readers and naturalists of all ages! While deforestation and biodiversity loss looms in the background of this story, Martinez-Neal shows the courage, strength, and resilience of Zonia, an Asháninka girl who cares for the plants and animals of the Amazon rainforest. As Zonia’s friends face the threat of habitat loss and her family faces the loss of their way of life, Zonia teaches you that no matter how small you think you are, if you are brave enough and gather with others, united by a common goal, you can do big things. This book is a rallying call to protect, support, and amplify the voices of all who care about our planet and the animals, plants, and people who call it home. You can find both English and Spanish versions available here.
Walden by Henry David Thoreau (1854)
While written nearly 170 years ago, the poetic prose of Thoreau’s Walden still inspires the relationship between people and nature today. Thoreau lived near the shores of Walden Pond in Massachusetts for two years in a cabin he built for himself. Leaving behind the harsh sounds of factory bells and alarm clocks — the regulators of human time — Thoreau wanted to live by the time of the natural world, to readjust his mind, body, and soul to the cycle humankind once lived by: the rising dawn, midday sun, setting dusk, and the dim glow of an infinity of stars. Thoreau was eager to lead a simple life and let nature be his home, teacher, and purpose, famously reflecting: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” When reading Walden, you will find that humans still have much to learn from nature, and the lessons we learn from it we can pass on as gifts to others. This philosophical read will inspire, excite, and motivate you to get outside, think sustainably, and live simply. On your next journey to the great outdoors, consider taking a trip to Walden Pond Books and picking up a copy. Or, find a free online version here.