Since discovering that “traveling…assuaged something in me,” Barry Lopez has gone all over the world; in his extraordinary Horizon (Knopf, $30) he revisits places that have meant the most to him in North and South America, Africa, Australia, and both poles. As he’s done in previous work, notably his classic Arctic Dreams, Lopez not only writes brilliantly about the natural world, he also refl ects on what life really means in particular locales. He considers things from an anthropological perspective, asking how the earliest native peoples might have experienced their land, sky, and sea, then struggles to do likewise. He combines insatiable curiosity with a profoundly moral sensibility, looking to ancient cultures for answers to today’s challenges, especially climate change, violence, and human rights. He deeply believes that the answers are there, and that if we listen carefully to our own and the planet’s past, we can rediscover what the elders of traditional cultures knew: “the wisdom of what works.” If this sounds naïve or superficial, read this book. Lopez grounds his ideas in specific places, and his descriptions of these deserts, seas, jungles, and coasts—and especially his near-mystical experiences while watching flamingos on the Galápagos and penguins on the Ross Ice Shelf--are heartstoppingly lucid and beautiful, and there’s no better definition of truth than that.
Profoundly rooted in the landscape and spiritual traditions of the American West, Terry Tempest Williams has long been one of our most passionate and eloquent advocates of the natural world. In forums ranging from children’s books and memoirs to congressional testimony and acts of civil disobedience, she’s mounted a tireless campaign to redirect our priorities from exploiting natural resources to appreciating natural beauty, urging us to understand that “the outer wilderness mirrors our inner wilderness”—if we destroy one, we destroy the other. Written since 2012, the essays of Erosion (Sarah Crichton, $27) redouble the urgency of this message, showing how much we’re losing as the Trump administration cedes public lands to oil companies and cuts the Bears Ears National Monument by 85%. As she witnesses the immense damage of these policies, Williams doesn’t despair but continues to draw strength from the land itself. While statements like “we are one with the land” and “What if the survival of the fittest is the survival of compassion?” may sound like platitudes, over and over, Williams demonstrates their substance. In one of the most moving parts of this affecting book, as Williams mourns her late brother, she takes her grief to the Utah desert that formed her, finding in its red sandstone consolation and even a measure of hope.
Nathaniel Rich’s heartbreaking Losing Earth (MCD, $25) is the story of a window opening and closing. It covers the decade between 1979, when the EPA published a report on the effects of carbon emissions, and 1989, when world leaders meeting in Noordwijk failed to sign a binding global resolution to stabilize those emissions. But what might have been an exercise in outrage or a dry account of meetings, hearings, and reports is a gracefully written narrative that lets us get to know the key figures involved and offers real insights into why we’ve failed to summon the political will to act in a coordinated, meaningful way on a deadly serious issue. And there are surprises: petroleum companies haven’t always been deniers. Initially, they accepted the science of climate change and, understanding that “the longer the industry waited to act the worse it would go for them,” were ready to change. So what happened? It’s tempting to blame Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and John Sununu. But as Rich shows, if it was so easy for other government leaders to back down in the face of America’s reservations, they were never fully committed in the first place. Unlike a local environmental crisis or even the catchily phrased “ozone hole,” the future is large and abstract and we won’t be there to see what it’s really like.