Recommended Reading: Women & Nature

Words by Margaret Leonard

Margaret Leonard is the co-owner of Dotters Books, a women-owned, independent pop-up (and online) bookstore in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. We are big fans of what Margaret is building -- a creatively-run pop-up shop today with plans for a brick and mortar store serving our local community -- so we asked if she would be willing to collaborate with us. She graciously agreed. What follows are Margaret's recommendations for four books by women about nature, carefully and intentionally selected. Should you decide one (or all) of these books is for you, we know a great place to purchase them.

These four books include varied perspectives from women on the intersection of nature, literature, and creativity. Take them with you on your adventures this summer.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

“Nature decayed around me, and the sun became heatless; rain and snow poured around me; mighty rivers were frozen; the surface of the earth was hard, and chill, and bare, and I found no shelter. Oh, earth! how often did I imprecate the curses on the cause of my being! The nearer I approached to your habitation, the more deeply did I feel the spirit of revenge enkindled in my new heart."

The literary lore that surrounds Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is my favorite. Percy Bysshe Shelly, her lover and future husband, Lord Byron, and Mary Shelley challenged each other to write horror stories. At the time, Mary was quite young, 18-years old, and Percy and Lord Byron were quickly becoming influential voices in the literary scene of the time. Frankenstein is the product of that challenge - a horror story that far transcends the boundaries of Gothic and Romantic literature, and provides an early example of Science Fiction. Not only is Frankenstein one of my favorite books, but I love the “badass woman writer-ness” of the book’s creation story.

Throughout the book, Shelley’s use of nature is fascinating. She utilizes pathetic fallacy - a literary technique that imbues nature with human characteristics, emotions, and intentions - in an effort to create atmosphere but also to connect her characters to nature. Frankenstein is ultimately about creation, and uniting her human characters with the natural world gives them a sense of grandeur. What is a creator’s responsibility to its creation? How do we responsibly interact with others and with nature?

Upstream: Selected Essays by Mary Oliver

“When the chesty, fierce-furred bear becomes sick he travels the mountainsides and the fields, searching for certain grasses, flowers, leaves and herbs, that hold within themselves the power of healing. He eats, he grows stronger. Could you, oh clever one, do this? Do you know anything about where you live, what it offers? Have you ever said, ‘Sir Bear, teach me. I am a customer of death coming, and would give you a pot of honey and my house on the western hills to know what you know.’” - from Oliver’s essay, “Upstream”

The poetic beauty and reverence in this paragraph can be found throughout Mary Oliver’s collection of essays, Upstream. Her relationship to nature is one of respect, curiosity, and inspiration. As a writer, she sees nature as the ultimate creative act and therefore ventures inside to learn more about her own creative process. She explains that as a child, she often skipped school in order to explore her natural surroundings, observing animals in their habitats and similarly constructing her own den of books as a habitat for her writing life. From nature, she learns about survival instincts, and recognizes those same instincts within herself in relation to her creative output. She must write to survive.

The parallels that Oliver draws between nature and the creative process are fascinating, and fans of her poetry will find plenty to love in this collection as snippets and small stanzas can be found throughout. Upstream reveals the power, and the peace, that comes when we look to nature in order to more intimately understand ourselves.

Decolonial Daughter: Letters from a Black Woman to her European Son by Lesley-Ann Brown

“I started contemplating the sea, stars and trees because, when I did so, the density of politics and social injustices seemed to lighten. When I looked through a telescope and saw the crater-ridden surface of the moon for the first time in my life a few years ago, my own personal struggles seemed insignificant in comparison...I thought about the fact that as a woman, my body had already empirically proved to me that my own reproductive cycle was connected to the waxing and waning of this same moon...In this space of contemplation, I often find freedom...When I go out to a forest, and see the trees and the diversity of life around me, my being becomes relaxed...nature heals.”

Lesley-Ann Brown was born in Brooklyn; her parents are from Trinidad and Tobago; now, she lives in Denmark. Decolonial Daughter is a letter to her son, and all of us fortunate enough to read it, about her experiences as a black woman living in a country that is often thought of as “beyond race.” The entire book is excellent, but for the purposes of this list, I want to focus on her treatment of nature throughout her work. Her perspective is one that is sorely lacking on my shelf, and I found it very enlightening.

Brown’s daily life includes varying degrees of racial microaggressions, especially raising a son with lighter skin than her own. She shares that her perspective on and connection to nature has shifted and changed throughout her life, and she now routinely looks to the natural world to better understand her self and her body - “We, son, are island people. From the twin nation Trinidad and Tobago to Manhattan and Brooklyn on Long Island, Maui, Zealand in Denmark, islands have always been a part of our lives. What is a baby in her mother’s womb, if not an island, surrounded by the natal waters that speak in a language of memory?” Water is life, and the connection that she draws between water and ancestral memory strongly emphasizes the importance of family history in survival. For her family, that history is deeply tied to colonization and racial prejudice.

While she is determined to pass this historical awareness along to her son, she also beautifully describes nature as a model for freedom from oppression everywhere: “Ultimately, though, we cannot talk about liberation, son, without talking about the land, and as our bodies are made from the very stuff of earth, I encourage you to look at your skin and not only decode the book that is written there but also to remember that we are, and always will be, children of this universe. No country, no border, no war, no law should ever be allowed to infringe upon this sacred tenet.”

Nature is freedom.

The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks by Terry Tempest Williams

“Earlier in the day, I met a veteran from Desert Storm, the first Gulf War…

‘How long have you been volunteering in national parks?’

‘Since I returned home from Iraq in 1991. Served some time in the Grand Canyon; I’ve been all over. Our national parks are the most important thing we’ve got going in this country,’ Bill said. ‘As the human population increases, the wild places not only become more valuable but more threatened. It’s another way for me to protect our homeland, ma’am.’”

In The Hour of Land, Terry Tempest Williams places the history of twelve different national parks alongside her own personal history with each. She lays out her project simply and poignantly in the introduction to the book: “What is the relevance of our national parks in the 21st century - and might these public commons bring us back home to a united state of humility?” Her writing is stunning - simple and humble. She meets each park with such reverence and hope. By visiting parks, privileging wild spaces, and learning from the world around us, Tempest Williams lays out a vision for the future.

The power of public lands resonates throughout. This is land that belongs to everyone. An egalitarian space, public parks all over the country give us the opportunity to show our respect for everyone and everything outside of ourselves. Our ability, or inability, to do so ultimately says much more about our own humanity than anything else.

"Mindful of different ways of being,
Our awareness as a species shifts-
We recognize the soul of the land as our own."

-Terry Tempest Williams


If you like podcasts and value diverse perspectives on all kinds of timely issues, check out Code Switch from NPR. One of their recent episodes, Summer Vacation, explores the racial disparities that accompany getting outside into nature.

Happy reading!

A note about Margaret:

 Margaret is a Wisconsin native with a BA and MA in English Literature and a mom to the coolest little girl. Books are her passion, but aspirations to be on The Great British Baking Show always linger at the back of her mind. 

You can find other book recommendations by Margaret and her Dotters colleagues at the Dotters Blog.