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March 27, 2009 3:57 PM   Subscribe

What are your favorite layman's natural history books?

I've read and enjoyed John McPhee's "Oranges", Pollan's "Botany of Desire", Armand Marie Leroi's "Mutants". I'm looking for other books that offer interesting narrative accounts with natural history as their theme. I would especially love to run into a good study of mushrooms (edible, not psychedelic).

I can browse through Amazon's recommended category, but I would love to hear some personal recommendations.
posted by ajarbaday to Education (20 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
I'm slowly working my way through McPhee's "Annals of The Former World", a history of the geography of the US. It's very readable and often engrossing, I just haven't been in a reading mode.
posted by Science! at 4:08 PM on March 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

The later collections by Stephen Jay Gould are marvelous. (The earliest couple are a tough slog; he wasn't as good a writer then.) For instance "The Flamingo's Smile".
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 4:20 PM on March 27, 2009

I was coming in to recommend Stephen Jay Gould, too, but I've only read his earlier collections, Ever Since Darwin and The Panda's Thumb. If he gets even better, I definitely need to read more.
posted by Zed at 4:38 PM on March 27, 2009

"GALAXIES" by Timothy Ferris is a great read. It runs in a few parallel tracks. Beautiful photos, very insightful stories to recount the growth of our understanding an a imaginary (kind of proto-steampunk) trip at near light speed.
posted by bonobothegreat at 4:41 PM on March 27, 2009

They are all out of print, but the books of Fred J. Speakman are absolutely beautiful. I can particularly recommend 'Tracks, Trails and Signs'. That link goes to ABE Books, good place to pick up second hand books.
posted by Happy Dave at 4:51 PM on March 27, 2009

Reading the Forested Landscape
posted by Miko at 4:53 PM on March 27, 2009

Desert Solitaire by Abbey

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek--Annie Dillard
posted by thebrokedown at 5:02 PM on March 27, 2009

A small, out of print little gem: Buckland's Curiosities of Natural History is worth the effort to find. The gentleman naturalist at his adventurous best.
If you like the personal narrative style of things I would recommend
Gerald Durrell generally, for cute African collecting trips and an insatiable curiosity for animals.
If you want to go the ethology + route of natural history (such a vague term really) I would suggest species specific books like Rats by Robert Sullivan or Pigeons by Blechman. (I preferred Pigeons).
From an edification standpoint, I would highly recommend Konrad Lorenz, particularly King Soloman's Ring.
If however you'd like to learn a bit more about the history of natural history. (natural historiography?) I would suggest Patrick O'Brian's biographyish thing of Joseph Banks. Very dense, but readable. And then , for fun, if you're really into it, you could read Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads which is a slightly ranty history of natural history museums. (just skip the parts about creationists)

I have no idea about a good mushroom book, although I can ask a friend, but just plugging mycology into amazon cropped up some interesting results. Michael Pollan has a bit of mycologistics in the 3rd(I think) chapter of The Omnivore's Delimma.
I loved all the books you cited as starting points, so I hope these suit your new tastes.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 5:23 PM on March 27, 2009

David Quammen's Song of the Dodo and Monster of God (all of his books are great, but those are the best two).
posted by box at 5:23 PM on March 27, 2009

I recently read and enjoyed Richard Dawkins' The Ancestor's Tale, in which he describes your entire string of ancestors--in reverse--starting with you and going back through your mother's side, all the way back into the mists of the precambrian . . .
posted by General Tonic at 5:52 PM on March 27, 2009

"Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher", by Lewis Thomas is a captivating collection of his essays, many from "Scientific American". This is the best, IMHO, of his series of books, but any of the others: "The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher"; "Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony"; "The Youngest Science: Notes of a Medicine-Watcher," and "The Fragile Species", would make a good read as well.

"Lives of a Cell" is the book I've given as a gift the most often.
posted by qurlyjoe at 6:08 PM on March 27, 2009

Oops. His essays were published in the new England Journal of Medicine, not Scientific American.
posted by qurlyjoe at 6:11 PM on March 27, 2009

I'm with Cold Lurkey on King Solomon's Ring. Fun read.

Also, even though it's sort of not exactly what you are looking for is "All the strange hours", an autobiography of Loren Eiseley. Love it. Anything else he wrote probably qualifies, but I loved his autobiography.

The Ascent of Man, Brownowski, is good, too. Maybe tangentially related.

I loved "The Forest People" by Colin Turnbull. Anthropology more than natural history, but a damned good read about people who were a lot closer to nature than we westerners.
posted by FauxScot at 7:40 PM on March 27, 2009

I would especially love to run into a good study of mushrooms (edible, not psychedelic).

check out Mycelium Running by Paul Stamets
posted by jammy at 5:29 AM on March 28, 2009

Salt, by Mark Kaplansky
posted by leahwrenn at 9:24 AM on March 28, 2009

Totally forgotten Nobel laureate Maurice Maeterlinck wrote The Life of the Ant , The Life of the Bee, The Intelligence of Flowers, and other things still worth reading

Mushrooms, Russia and History is impossible to find, but now is scanned. The Wassons were heavily into the Magic nonsense (I feel your pain), along with Robert Graves and others (the Grave's connection is a whole story in itself), but this book at least is a highly sought after classic and you should at least be aware of it if you aren't already. (They don't make bankers like they used to....)

More generally, you might like In the Company of Mushrooms
posted by IndigoJones at 9:26 AM on March 28, 2009

Salt, by Mark Kaplansky

posted by obiwanwasabi at 7:00 PM on March 28, 2009

A few that I've recently enjoyed and would recommend to a wide audience are:

• A Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold (a classic, lyrical and passionate);
• Emperor of Scent, Chandler Burr (relatively new, excellent offbeat story); and,
• Where the Wild Things Were, William Stolzenburg (just out, and an absolute must-read for people who are interested in biodiversity, predators, or the history of ideas, and for anyone who simply appreciates a well-told narrative about the world around us).

Re: mushrooms, check out the great New Yorker article "The Mushroom Hunters," from Aug. 20, 2007.

Oh, yeah, on the topic of articles, I just today stumbled across "The Wandering Lepidopterist," Aug. 4, 2008, issue of High Country News.
posted by slab_lizard at 11:01 PM on April 4, 2009

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