My favorite books of the year
By Obi Kaufmann
I started this list (or is it an essay?) with some rules in mind, and now I think I am about to break them all. The nine books I’ve chosen are not even my favorite books that I’ve read this year, thus the careful naming of this essay, these are my favorite books published with a 2017 copyright that delighted me so that I was able not only to get all the way through each of them, but cherish my copy of each now in my library. I was so sure that this list would contain ten books (I mean who ever heard of a top nine list?) alas, I was apparently too distracted by other great reads from previous years that sitting down to write this, I only came up with nine. I am just going to have to live with that.
These other titles that I proudly devoured this year, but were exempt from this list because of the year they were written:
1) Trees in Paradise by Jared Farmer (2013, Norton, New York) – a surprisingly vibrant history of California from the perspective of four tree types: Redwood, Palm, Citrus and Eucalyptus.
2) Let the Mountains Talk, Let the Rivers Run by David Brower (1995, Harper Collins, New York) – David Brower did as much good for the modern environmental movement as any American ever has and this thin, thoroughly entertaining book is his story and one to go back to again and again.
3) Assembling California by John Mcphee (1993, Farrar, New York) – The first two-thirds of this book is classic Mcphee: as inspired and fun as it is educational and researched. The book spends too much time for me on personal accounts of earthquakes towards the end, but how well it puts together the geological history of California in narrative form to start the book is well worth it.
4) The Lariat and other writings by Jaime De Angulo (2009, Counterpoint, Berkeley) – how I have lived my whole life in California and am just now learning about Jaime De Angulo is beyond me; the first Big Sur tramp who lived with many different native Californian tribes at the turn of the last century, and who had the heart of a poet and the mind of a scientist. The old-timey language can get wearisome and some of the racial talk is a bit dated, but beyond that, this work paints a picture of California lost but easily remembered.
5) Half-Earth by E.O.Wilson (2016, Norton, New York) – this is the one where he says that we need to preserve half the globe to defend against the further decline of world-wide biodiversity. E.O.Wilson tends to stick to about four themes in his books, and radiates out from there but only ever slightly. Familiar themes trace through from earlier work to defend his most recent idea: the one presented. Always a deeply satisfying and provoking experience that echoes out for months after reading.
6) The Moon by Whale Light by Diane Ackerman (1991, Vintage Books, New York) – Last year’s number one favorite was The Human Age, Ackerman’s most recent book, and going back to this one reveals her earliest inspirations as an adventure naturalist and poet biologist.
7) The Unsettling of America by Wendell Berry (1977, Sierra Club, San Francisco) – if I were a high school teacher, or maybe even a college professor, I would want to teach a whole, semester-long class on this book. The themes of community, work and stewardship of land are prescient and as relevant today as the day they were written forty years ago.
8) Sowing Seeds in the Desert by Masanobu Fukuoka (2012, Chelsea Green, White River) – the basic premise and heart of this thin and fantastic little book, that food security is possible and about how we can get there, reads like an instruction manual as much as a story. Being a guerilla farmer? Sounds like a great idea – my big issue with the book is the premise that the desert is not beautiful and complete in its own way, an ecosystem that does not need improvement.
9) Mountains and Marshes by David Rains Wallace (2015, Counterpoint, Berkeley) – David Rains Wallace is one of my favorite writers of all time. The Klamath Knot and the Articulate Earth were both two works that changed me forever. In this book, Wallace explores the natural history of my home, the San Francisco Bay Area and I couldn’t be more happy or excited by the result.
I have been drawn lately to a certain kind of book. Or, in the whole spectrum of genres and styles available, I am happy in my wavelength. I suppose that wavelength is akin to the kind of thing I do, or imagine that I do, having just written the California Field Atlas and going back in for three more books on over the next year on a similar theme. I like nonfiction. I like prose with a nod to the poetic, and I like the really-long form essay. I like nonfiction so deep that it easily bounces back and forth from a philosophical context to a human-scale context – I feel most satisfied with a book when I glean something eternal from something profane. The subject of the books I like most is nature: the science of it, the history of it and the beautiful patterns in it. Give me Evolutionary Biology, Natural History, and Darwinian theory and sprinkle over it the spice of personal mythology. I want to hear the echo of the author’s soul and I want it to be big. I need a dramatic tension that unfolds from a life’s work that has only emerged from under the most personal type of introspection – give me a writer who has lived many lives and worked many professions: artist, scientist, and adventurer, ready to give it all with nothing to hold back.
My favorite books of 2017
9) Wildflowers of the Trinity Alps by Ken Decamp (2017, Backcountry Press, Kneeland) – despite my declarations in that last paragraph, I am going to start my list my pick for the best field guide of the year. Naturalist and photographer Ken Decamp presents an unparalleled portfolio of exquisite photography and documentation that will aid me in my wildflower identification obsession for years to come. I am so proud to be among the first to own this new work that contains over 700 full color photos of such excellent and clear quality, organized by flower color, detailing the flowering botany of one of the most bio-rich corners of California.
8) The Moth Snowstorm by Michael McCarthy (2015, New York Review Books, New York) – two rules broken in as many entries, oh well. This book came out a couple of years ago and I bought it at the beginning of 2017, and have just recently finished it. The ripples from this stone tossed into my pond where so resonant that I am justifying its inclusion into this list. British naturalist Michael McCarthy writes with such a delicate and haunting voice that I nearly had to abandon further reading as my heart was breaking again and again. The light he turns on in the darkness of account of human action upon the natural world is eye-opening but not unreasonable, it is as considerate, even meditative as it is important. About half way through the book he finds joy, or he points the many ways, some even biologic, that our relationship to nature is rooted in it and from there to the end of the piece he considers a potential coming into a reconnection with nature our culture needs.
“Our bond with nature may be hidden for much if not most of the time, it may be a signal engulfed by noise, it may lie buried under five hundred generations’ worth of urban living, but it is stronger than those experiences, for it was forged by fifty thousand generations of living in the natural world before the farmers broke the sod and hacked down the forest and imposed a new order on humankind; and underneath everything, it endures. It is unbreakable. Nor does it belong just to him, or to her; it is the inheritance of every single one of us, it is part of what it means to be human, and it can be found within us – not always clearly – and it can be understood, and it can be made the basis of our defense of the natural world in the terrible century to come. So let us leave them behind, the unbearable losses, and go where the bond can be found: let us journey into joy.” – Michael McCarthy
7) How a Mountain was Made by Greg Sarris (2017, Heyday, Berkeley) – okay, now I am three for three with breaking any kind of rules that I had set up for myself. This book is not non-fiction, per se, nor is it about nature, again – kind of. This book is the closest I get to including a book of poetry on my list. That is because the voice and narrative patterns presented break all the norms of regular language in such a sumptuous and satisfying way that I think of a horn-of-plenty spilling these stories out, full of fruit and wildflowers, to the consuming delight of our many senses. Greg Sarris, chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, presents a series of tender stories from the Coastal Miwok of Northern California that all center around Sonoma Mountain. Most of the stories include Coyote as either the protagonist or the antagonist depending on either what character he feels like that day, or conversely how events conspire against him, painting him into any role. Transcending some kind of ethnographic documentation, this book become a classic in the making – a source of timeless wisdom, full of humor and love.
“Coyote laughed and tossed his bead into the air. Then Ant and everyone else tossed their beads into the air like Coyote. All at once, the beads became prisms of light, and these words fell from the sky:
My eyes, my eyes
I offer you.
My eyes, my eyes
I offer you.
My eyes, my eyes
I offer you.
This song, this song
I sing for you.”
6) Tracks along the Left Coast by Andrew Schelling (2017, Counterpoint, Berkeley) – Before the great California writers of the 50’s (you know all their names), there was Jaime De Angulo. An immigrant who arrived in San Francisco the day before the 1906 earthquake, De Angulo was to become known for his talents as a cowboy, a cattle rancher, a horse-tamer, a medical doctor, a psychologist and a linguist. He spent decades with the Achumawi, Pomo, Karok, Modoc and Miwok tribes – he learned their culture and documented their languages and translated it, determined to tell the real history of California. A complex biography, well-written and full of nuance, the book presents us with a driven, creative genius who is as troubled as he is ahead of his time.
De Angulo: “I weaved in real Indian stories with the Tras-Tras; stories I was collecting in the field in connection with my work in Indian Linguistics – that’s how the whole thing got started, and of course friends of ours used to borrow the stories to tell them to their own children, and also in those days of the prohibition era when our house in Berkeley was sort of headquarters for all the young men and University students who were rebels – in those days we kept open house and there was always a crowd of ten to fifteen people sleeping it off here and there on the porch, in the childrens’ room, everywhere, and arguing for those were the good days (but too much drinking) and complete thorough sexual freedom they called it Jaime’s Gang and I was accused of every crime. All those stories about me, only one-third were true, and how the University hated me!”
5) Coast Range by Nick Neely (2016, Counterpoint, Berkeley) – In my review of Greg Sarris’ book, I said that it was probably the only book of poetry I included in this list. I’ve changed my mind, I think this book has equal parts poetry as well. Neely plays with the essay-format so ferociously that I feel confident enough to say that. Neely ‘s language is always measured and considerate, and his sense of connection to this place (most of the book was written near the Rogue River in Oregon) comes through strongly and with great purpose. The subjects he focuses on are always timely and from a unique perspective whether it be a conservationist guide to managing coyote populations or following a salmon from hatching to dinner plate. I kept coming back to this collection of essays, month after month, this year so although it technically was published at the end of 2016, I am including it here.
“The whole meadow, I realized, was papered with words, with stories and sketches and histories, and I would add a few. You can build a shelter from words. The poems stapled in the cabin would eventually cover the walls, like the thinnest of cedar shakes, and become a cabin themselves. And when the bear clawed or nuzzled into that house, it would return to the clay of vocabulary, become a madrone, drift again.” – Nick Neely
4) Nature Love Medicine, essays on Wildness and Wellness, edited by Thomas Lowe Fleischner (2017, Torrey House, Salt Lake City) – at first the name horrified me, like some terrible eat pray love cliché. My fear evaporated at first sitting. In fact, I finished the book in a single night and then came back to read it it again and again. This is a marvelous collection of essays by 24 writers and I loved nearly every piece, which is rare for me, as I tend to hate anthologies of any sort. My favorite essays were Laura Sewall’s “New Words, Lost Words and Terms of Endearment” where she frets that the loss of a breadth of scientific vocabulary in our culture represents “from a psychological perspective, this form of dumbing down could be cast as a crippling trajectory into a de-animated and self-referenced world, lacking in either perceived of conceptual diversity or abundance.” I agree. I was also particularly impressed with Mitchell Thomashow’s essay “Nature. Love. Medicine. Healing. Reciprocity. Generosity.” Thomashow prescribes a simple but powerfully poetic methodology by which our culture must go through to transform our view to the natural world. Think of the very definition of the word Reciprocity: “literally defined, reciprocity is the practice of exchanging things with others for mutual benefit.” In a human culture fixed on preserving the ecological environment, this means that you leave things better than you found them. My favorite essay is by one of my favorite authors, Robin Wall Kimmerer, whose book Braiding Sweetgrass continues to be a guide for me and my life. In “Heal-All”, Kimmerer again deftly balances her scientific background with sublime insight into the creative forces at work in the natural world to suggest, among other things, that we alter our use of pronouns in the English language to be more inclusive of entities in the more than human world. “The language of animacy, of kinship, can be medicine for a broken relationship. I imagine it could be dosed out, pronoun by pronoun, ki and kin, word by word until it infiltrated our very being.”
3) Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, edited by Anna Tsing, Heather Swanson, Elaine Gan, Nils Bubandt (2017, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis) – this erudite, unique and brave work is one of those books that I will have and cherish for the rest of my life. Divided into two halves: Ghosts & Monsters, the book itself turns around so you read it from both sides. Are we haunted by our unraveling landscapes? Do ecologies of nothingness torment our dreams? Are we being stalked by some hunting force in ourselves that won’t let us be? What are Necropolitics and how do we exercise such a baleful process? These deeply artful questions are tilled again and again in this surprisingly coherent work of art by nearly two dozen contributing artists. I am not going to pick apart quotes from this book in this quick review. I need more time with it. I’m not even fully done with the book. It is so delicious and powerful that I need to take my time with it. I may write another entry just about it and it alone. These mythologic forces keep me up at night and I can’t help but feel a bit emancipated simply by this work’s existence.
2) The Songs of Trees, by David George Haskell (2017, Penguin Random House, New York) – the straightforward voice of Haskell is a welcome relief, and a new poetic addition to the archives of naturalists who have struggled to clearly communicate the processes of the natural world with love and respect. Haskell is one of the very best the world has ever known. I was blown away by his last book, the Forest Unseen, which is an absolute must for anyone even remotely interested in how nature in North America works. In this book, he examines the ecology of the senses that surround twelve different tree species. He goes to the places where these trees live and he observes their texture, the quality of the wind in their leaves, the taste of the air, the smell of the bark. Fearlessly in love with all manner of forests, Haskell’s work will be remembered as a landmark and for us, his fans, we can’t wait to read what he writes next.
“In all these places, tree songs emerge from relationship. Although tree trunks seemingly stand as detached individuals, their lives subvert this atomistic view. We’re all – trees, humans, insects, birds, bacteria – pluralities. Life is embodied network. These living networks are not places of omnibenevolent Oneness. Instead, they are where ecological and evolutionary tensions between cooperation and conflict and negotiated and resolved. These struggles often result not in the evolution of stronger, more disconnected selves but in the dissolution of the self into relationship.”
1) The Origins of Creativity by E.O.Wilson (2017, Liveright, New York) – The was the year of E.O.Wilson for me. I can’t actually get enough. In the centuries to come, Wilson will be remembered as pivotal in whatever comes next. Should things go the way that he prescribes, he will be remembered for the hero he is, or if not, he will be remembered as the guy that gave us our best plan that we then ignored. The best thing about this plan he proposes is its inevitability. Just as Darwinian, Evolutionary biology necessarily infiltrates all theoretical and empirical models of the history of life, Wilson’s ideas of Biophilia, social evolution and biodiversity will come to infiltrate all the like-models of mind and humanity. In this book, Wilson unites the humanities and the hard-sciences to present the coming way of what he calls the Third Enlightenment – a science-based, humanist mindset that exists in a set of common truths about the interdependent meaning of all life on earth and our place in it.
“Scientists and scholars in the humanities, working together, will, I believe, serve as the leaders of a new philosophy, one that blends the best and most relevant from these two great branches of learning. If so, it will bring our species closer to realizing the prayer for reason inscribed by Diogenes and still visible in original form on the Oinoanda stoa in the ancient Greek region of Lycia.
Not least for those who are called foreigners,
For they are not foreigners. For, while the various segments of Earth
Give different people a different country, the whole compass of this world
Gives all people a single country, the entire earth, and a single home, the world”