Philip Connors worked for several years at the Wall Street Journal. In 2002, he left the paper for a seasonal job with the US Forest Service in New Mexico, where he has worked 10 summers as a fire lookout in the Gila National Forest. That experience became the subject of his first book, Fire Season: Field Notes From a Wilderness Lookout.
“‘Wilderness books’ go a long way back. You could make a case for Don Quixote and portions of the Bible falling under the heading, as well as Robinson Crusoe and Moby-Dick, not to mention a great deal of ancient Chinese and Japanese poetry.
“My list is mostly comprised of books I’ve read recently as I grappled with how to write such a book in the 21st century, as we’ve come to understand, rather starkly, that all of life on Planet Earth is affected by global phenomena. Wilderness books once focused on how an encounter with wild nature altered the human soul and human consciousness; now, they tend to ruminate on how wilderness has been altered and diminished by human tools and patterns of consumption.
“Wilderness in its purest sense may be gone, but wild remnants remain, and many of my favourite books in the genre celebrate a particular place (often in America), cherishing what is native and mourning what’s been lost.”
The book that did more than any other to spark the modern environmental movement in America, this is an indispensable text for students of the natural world and a human land ethic: “I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in. Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?”
Based on real-life events along the Mexican-American border in the 1840s, McCarthy’s novel about a group of bounty hunters reminds us that the European encounter with untamed frontiers in America was a very bloody business. The leader of the group, very learned but wholly barbarous, sums it up this way: “If war is not holy man is nothing but antic clay.”
An impassioned, tactile, acidly funny memoir of Abbey’s seasons as a park ranger in the rugged Utah wilderness: “We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope; without it the life of the cities would drive all men into crime or drugs or psychoanalysis.”
While not a “wilderness book” per se, this novel makes the outdoor world of the northern Rockies as much a character as the unforgettable sisters at its heart, whose hometown “was chastened by an outsized landscape and extravagant weather, and chastened again by an awareness that the whole of human history had occurred elsewhere.”
The strange and wondrous account of a Spanish explorer’s wanderings in 16th century America, one of the great adventure stories of all time and an underappreciated classic: “We passed from one strange tongue to another, but God our Lord always enabled each new people to understand us and we them.”
A slyly humorous, beautifully observed account of her obsession with a band of elusive desert bighorn sheep: “The fear of being humble has walled all of us into separate geographies. Nature is a place ‘out there,’ the not-home place, much as history is ‘back then,’ the not-us time.”
In this elegant essay, Fowles ruminates on his attraction to untamed trees, wild copses, and abandoned pastures, exploring the link between wildness and creativity: “What I gain most from nature is beyond words. To try to capture it verbally immediately places me in the same boat as the namers and would-be owners of nature: that is, it exiles me from what I most need to learn.”
This collection of essays shows a razor-sharp mind grappling with the meaning of wilderness in the modern world: “Something vast and old is vanishing and our rage should mirror that loss. Refuse to forgive, cherish your anger, remind others. We have no excuses.”
In this beautifully-observed memoir of her years herding sheep in Wyoming, Bell tells a classic story of a stark confrontation with the self in a harsh landscape: “Below us the ground falls away unevenly and leaves us stumbling through the air over sage and rock and the holes of prairie dogs. I lose my sight to wind and tears and close my body around the centre of what there is to trust and trust it.”
This and all of Snyder’s works are beautiful meditations on wildness, ecology, humility, and the search for meaningful play and meaningful work: “Perhaps one should not talk (or write) too much about the wild world: it may be that it embarrasses other animals to have attention called to them.”