It’s the time of year when a lot of folks get a case of the winter blues. There’s still plenty of ice fishing, small game, predator and shed hunting to be had, but with most big game seasons in the rear view, many of us are spending a lot more time inside this time of year, myself included. With this in mind, I decided to put together a list of ten of my favorite nonfiction books about the outdoors that’ll help shake those winter blues.
10. John Gierach- Trout Bum
A must-read for any fly fisherman, this is one that will have you looking forward to ice out in spring or heading out to brave the cold and frozen guides on your local river that’s open year-round. Gierach is a master of writing about fly fishing, interweaving a narrative that encapsulates the elusive and obsessive draw of fly fishing, the beauty of a trout stream, and the often eccentric characters you meet on the water, Gierach included. He has an often playful tone that’ll have you grinning before he hits you with a true showstopper line, similar to this one: “trout are among those creatures who are a hell of a lot prettier than they need to be. They can get you wondering about the hidden workings of reality.” Gierach’s love for fly fishing and trout seeps through every page, and it’ll have you standing in a river waving a stick, almost against your own will.
9. Steve Rinella-Meat Eater: Adventures from the Life of an American Hunter I have to admit, I’m a bit of a Steve Rinella fanboy, but for good reason. Rinella has done more for the outdoor community than just about anyone in recent years, and his books, cookbooks, podcast, tv show, and documentaries are all fantastic representations of the outdoor community. He spends quite a bit of time getting new people into the outdoors as well and often emphasizes the importance of such to the future of the sport. This short story collection covers a lot of ground, ranging from squirrel hunts in the local woods and trapping beavers to hunting mountain lions in the wilderness, complete with “tasting notes” for each section as well. Rinella is great at taking his reader along with him on these adventures, while interweaving his reverence for the natural world, the ethics of hunting, and the role of the hunter in shaping the American landscape. It’s simply a great read.
8. John McPhee-Encounters with the Archdruid
McPhee is a legend of nonfiction, and this book will show you why. In a brilliantly simple setup, McPhee went on several long backpacking trips to remote regions being considered for various kinds of development accompanied by David Brower, the radical environmentalist and cofounder of the environmental group, Friends of the Earth. The two of them take a few trips with three other men at different times: Charles Park, a mineral engineer, Charles Fraser, a resort developer who regards conservationists as “druids” (hence the title) and Floyd Dominy, a megadam builder. As you can imagine, these figures clash with Brower constantly, and McPhee takes the role of journalist and silent observer throughout most of the book. The result is a stunning analysis of some of the challenging questions of modernity: What wild places should be sacrificed? Should some wilderness remain for wilderness sake? For the sake of humans? How much development is too much? And so on. The book does a great job at analyzing these questions, and many more, from these radically different viewpoints while painting a picture of beautiful landscapes that leap off the page.
7. Peter Matthieson-The Snow Leopard
Another legend of creative nonfiction, a co-creator of The Paris Review, and the only author to win the National Book Award in both fiction and nonfiction, Matthieson’s book is a must-read for any backpacker. The book is equal parts backpacking trip to Nepal in search of the elusive snow leopard interwoven with Matthieson’s quest as a lifelong student of Zen and other Eastern spirituality. Spoiler alert: they never see a snow leopard on their trip, which seems a fitting lesson in Zen, and the book remains a classic over forty years later.
6. Barry Lopez-Arctic Dreams and Of Wolves and Men
These are two of my favorite nonfiction books of all time. Lopez won the National Book Award for Arctic Dreams, and Of Wolves and Men was a finalist. In a blend of biology, history, and personal narrative, Lopez often demonstrates the boundaries of Western science in the context of the natural world by juxtaposing it with Indigenous world views and stories to create a more in-depth picture of his subjects. Arctic Dreams chronicles his time in the Arctic and Of Wolves and Men is a character study of the long and complicated history of humankind’s relationship to wolves. Both are incredible reads best read on an extra cold day getting cozy under a blanket near a fire and your dog, if possible.
5. Roderick Frazier Nash-Wilderness and the American Mind
Looking for something a bit more on the philosophical side of things but still want to read about the outdoors? This is the book for you. The concept of wilderness has been central to American identity from the time William Bradford, through the frontier and Manifest Destiny, to John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt, to the modern environmental movement today. This essay collection discusses these changing attitudes and perceptions of wilderness in the American mind – an area of interest of mine that I discussed at length in my last field exam. I found this book fascinating, but I will warn you this is the most challenging read on this list. That being said, anyone up for the challenge will be rewarded with a deeper understanding of the past, present, and possible future(s) of wilderness in the American mind.
4. Terry Tempest Williams-Refuge
This list seeming a bit too male-centered for your taste? Then this is the book for you, and it is nothing short of a masterpiece. This beautiful memoir tells the story of the women in the Williams family and their strong bond to the natural world, specifically the bird sanctuary of Utah’s Salt Lake. This memoir examines the possible connections between the years of nuclear testing nearby, an ailing Lake, and the breast cancer that has run rampant in the women of her family while questioning the femininity of her Mormon upbringing that taught her to “keep quiet and not cause any trouble.” This book’s views on life, death, humanity, and the natural world are nothing short of stunning and beautifully poetic; this is one of those books I would recommend to any human being. Want to read about more women in the outdoors? Check out Modern Huntsman’s Volume Four: The Women’s Issue.
3. Chris Dombrowski-Body of Water: A Sage, a Seeker, and the World’s Most Alluring Fish
Speaking of poets, a common comment I’ve heard about poet Chris Dombrowski’s Body of Water is that they wish more poets would write books, and I tend to agree. Curious about how the bonefish went from a little known trash fish to a billion dollar industry? This book answers this question, telling the tale with a full cast of characters in a piece of poetic journalism. Be warned though, you may find yourself booking a guide to the warm waters of the Bahamas before you finish it.
2. Mark Kenyon-That Wild Country
If you listen to Kenyon’s podcast, Wired to Hunt, you know he loves public land about as much as he loves hunting whitetails. With this in mind, you shouldn’t be surprised to know he recently wrote a book about various trips he has taken on public over the years. Kenyon’s book details the history and constant push-pull of public lands in America since its inception while layering his own personal narratives that demonstrate how public land has shaped his identity and relationship to the natural world. The title comes from a quote by Wallace Stegner, a man who once called public land America’s Best idea: “We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.” By the end, you will be enveloped by this geography of hope, proud to be a public land owner, and maybe even be planning a trip somewhere to enjoy the 610 million acres of public land available to us all. This book would pair well with Wilderness in the American Mind.
1. Dean Kuipers-The Deer Camp
This is a book I stumbled upon on total accident while impulsively ordering some books late at night and has quickly become one of my favorite books. Kuipers has been writing about environmental issues and music for decades, and it shows in this memoir that is equal parts intelligent, well-written, and emotionally intense. It is mostly about the family’s relationship to Dean’s father, a man he describes as “good at hunting and fishing and not much else that makes a good father or husband.” Dean and his brothers were hardly seeing him when he purchased a chunk of land to hunt on “for the family.” In the spirit of Aldo Leopold, the family dynamic begins to change in miraculous ways while restoring that plot of land, and Kuipers also explores the reasoning for why and how this could be possible, borrowing concepts from ecopsychology and even evolutionary biology. It is a wonderful story of fatherhood, redemption and love, both familial and for nature. This book is for anyone with memories of cold mornings in a blind with their dad and brothers and will have you daydreaming about deer seasons past and future and the people you may spend them with.
If you read any of these, I hope you enjoy them as much as I have! Forget a favorite or have a book you think I should check out? Drop me a comment below.