Happy Earth Day! 14 Books to inspire you to get back to nature

PCT crossing sign, south of Lake Tahoe

In Walden, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “We need the tonic of wildness… We can never have enough of nature.”

As most of the country is under coronavirus shelter-in-place orders, and spring unfolds outside our windows, it’s not surprising to have one’s thoughts wander to daydreams of strolling through the woods, or visiting a favorite park.

Here’s 14 books that will get you outside — without having to leave your couch.

14. The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs: Use Outdoor Clues to Find Your Way, Predict the Weather, Locate Water, Track Animals—and Other Forgotten Skills

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Remember when you were a kid, and you’d spend all day out in the woods? Okay – maybe today’s kids don’t have those experiences, but growing up in the 1970s, I definitely spent hours and hours wandering around the woods in our neighborhood, and I knew some of them like the back of my hand.

Whether you have a dream of doing an epic thru-hike on any of the great trails of the world, or are just looking to find some new skills to learn with your kids (or for yourself), The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs will hook you in.

You don’t have to be Bear Grylls to get useful information from  this book, either. These are the kind of simple skills that any of us could find helpful in while camping or hiking, just for fun in our neighborhood, or even in a true emergency.

13. Reclaiming the Wild Soul: How Earth’s Landscapes Restore Us to Wholeness

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In Reclaiming the Wild Soul, author Mary Thompson explores how nature can help us on a mental journey. It is part spiritual guide, and part poetic call to head out to the wilderness to find what can heal our souls.

At a time when technology surrounds us and colors nearly every moment of our days, how refreshing to think about standing under an open sky or a rich canopy of leaves, away from the pressure and noise of modern life. This book can help you decide what kind of environment might match with you the best – deserts, forests, oceans/rivers, mountains, or grasslands. And once you’ve read it, you’ll be eager to find the time to commune with nature and soothe your soul.

12. The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative

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Most of us feel recharged by nature – whether it’s something as epic as a thru-hike, a walk through a local park, or even simply getting to stick our bare feet into a small patch of grass.

But what makes us so happy to be out in nature? Why does it recharge us? In The Nature Fix, Florence Williams uses science and research to answer those questions and more – to figure out why nature just makes us happier. She talks about her own experiences as well as other studies, and talks about the importance of getting back to nature, and away from the bustle and noise of the modern world. Good companion reading to Reclaiming the Wild Soul.

11. Under the Stars: How America Fell in Love with Camping

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Americans love camping: whether it is truly getting away from it all, or “glamping” in more upscale accommodations.

In Under the Stars, Dan White explores why camping is so popular, and his adventures are both fascinating and hilarious. He discusses how politicians, poets, writers, artists, and outdoor enthusiasts influenced America’s parklands and camping styles.

Along the way, he also shares his own camping experiences, ranging from touching family trips to hilarious adventures. Make some s’mores and cocoa, and curl up with this book.

10. The Pants of Perspective

aaNew Zealand is a fantastic place to visit. The people are friendly, the attitude is laid back, and the countryside is gorgeous. So who wouldn’t want to see as much of it as possible?

Author Anna McNuff once represented Great Britain as a rower; these days, she is an adventurer and endurance athlete. In The Pants of Perspective, McNuff tells the story of running — that’s right, long-distance endurance running the equivalent of more miles than a marathon each day — along New Zealand’s rugged Te Araroa trail, which stretches 1,600 km across the North Island from Cape Reinga to Wellington, and then another 1,300 km along the South Island, from Ship Cove on the Cook Strait to Bluff, at the southern end of the island nation. (Think of it as the Kiwi version of the Appalachian Trail.) The book is funny and inspiring, and you just might want to lace up your own pair of sneakers and hit a trail after reading it.

9. The Most Beautiful Walk in the Wolrd: A Pedestrian in Paris

aa Yes, Paris is a city, and may seem an odd inclusion about getting out in nature. But since the focus in this book is about walking, and Paris is a city designed to favor pedestrians, I feel compelled to include it on this list.

John Baxter spent a year as a professional “literary walking tour” guide, and Paris is a city rich in artistic and literary history to be explored. James Joyce, Hemingway, Picasso, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein — Baxter’s tales in A Pedestrian in Paris help bring this historical city to life, showing what inspired some of the greatest artists and writers of all time. If you’ve ever been to Paris, this book will take you back; if you’ve never been, you will practically feel as if you’re there.

8. Where’s the Next Shelter?

aaThere are many books about walking the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail; I’m going to skip A Walk In The Woods (which I mentioned in my last post) and Wild (which I didn’t enjoy reading), and tell you instead about some books about these two trails that I have really enjoyed.

In Where’s the Next Shelter?, former Marine Gary Sizer takes to the trail with two others, Lemmy and Megan. This book isn’t simply about the Appalachian Trail itself; it is about the bonding, the soul-searching, and the shared experiences of walking the trail from one end to the other. This book will have you laughing out loud often, and if you’re a fan of Bryson’s Walk, you’ll love this book as well.

7. Overweight, Undertrained, and Terrified: A Camino Diary

aaIrishman Connor O’Donoghue admits he isn’t the “average” person who attempts a thru-hike; in the opening pages, he admits his struggle with obesity, and wonders at times what he’s gotten himself into.

Having read several travel memoirs of walking the Camino de Santiago, I found most of them rather dry and straightforward. Perhaps it’s because the Camino is shorter than most thru-walks, and one is never very far away from civilization. Overweight, Undertraind, and Terrified is a bit different, mostly because O’Donoghue doesn’t hesitate to poke fun at himself. Sometimes you’ll groan at the obviousness of his mistakes, and at other times, he’ll have you laughing along with him. His persistance to complete the journey is inspiring. It’s different than your usual thru-hike book.

6. Whistler’s Walk: The Appalachian Trail in 142 Days

aa The motto of thru-hikers is “walk your own walk”, and nowhere is this better illustrated than when you get to reading several memoirs of the same trail, seeing how different people experience the same miles.

William Monk, a.k.a. “Whistler”, is perhaps a bit older than the average person who attempts an Appalachian Trail thru-hike. But he’s prepared for what he’s setting out to do, and in Whistler’s Walk, he takes you the full 2,189 miles, with all its ups and downs (mentally and physically) by his side, starting with preparing for the hike, to the final summit at Mount Katahdin in Maine.

5. On Trails: An Exploration

aaCompared to other books on this list, On Trails is a bit more cerebrial. It started when author Robert Moor was doing his own thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, and he began to wonder about paths and trails, how they are created, and why certain ones persist while others disappear.

So over the course of several years, Moor explored trails of all kinds, shapes, lengths, and varieties. This isn’t simply about building or maintaining what we think of as a path or trail through the woods; it is deeper than that. It will make you see and understand many aspects of our world on a different level.

4. Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail

aaWhat do you imagine yourself attempting at age 65? Would it including walking the entire Appalachian Trail – alone – and would you walk it three times?

Emma ‘Grandma’ Gatewood became a hiking celebrity in the 1950s and ’60s, being outspoken about the conditions on the still-young trail, which had opened in 1937. In Grandma Gatewood’s Walk, you’ll find out the story of the woman who is credited with saving the AT through her own words, as well as the memories of her family and hikers she met in her journeys. This isn’t your typical AT thru-hike memoir, and it’s an important piece of history for those interested in our national trail system.

3. Thru-Hiking Will Break Your Heart: An Adventure on the Pacific Crest Trail

aaMention the Pacific Crest Trail, and most people will probably talk about Wild, which was on Oprah’s book club and was made into a movie. But for me, Carrot Quinn’s Thru-Hiking Will Break Your Heart was the much more interesting read.

It’s honest, frank, and at times emotionally raw. Her writing style grows as she does, traveling further north along the trail, trying to make the Canadian border ahead of the snow that ends most thru-hikers’ attempts. She’ll laugh and she might even make you cry.

If you want a book that is simply, “We got up, walked x miles, the trail was like this, the weather like that, I was happy to set up camp and get to my ramen noodles”, well, this isn’t that book. Break Your Heart is much more about the mental journey that a thru-hiker trakes along the thousands of miles of trail.

2. Becoming Odyssa: Adventures on the Appalachian Trail

aaFresh out of college, Jennifer Pharr Davis wasn’t sure what she wanted to do, so she decided to take a walk: or more precisely, a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.

She’s young, fit, and hiking solo, but she quickly discovers that attempting a thru-hike is much more difficult than she anticipated. Like every thru-hiker, she experiences a lot of growth along the way, and discovers she’s capable of much more than she originally thought.

It is also a story of “trail magic”, not only the little positive surprises that people give to thru-hikers, but the larger warmth of the trail community, and how it comes together when somebody needs help.

Pharr Davis has consequently gone on to being one of the leading female long-distance hikers, setting speed records for hiking the Appalachian Trail. She has written two follow up books, Called Again: A Story of Love and Triumph, and The Pursuit of Endurance: Harnessing the Record-Breaking Power of Strength and Resilience.

1. The Last Englishman: A 2,640 Mile Hiking Adventure on the Pacific Crest Trail

aa Englishman Keith Foskett has written four excellent, award-winning books about long-distance hiking, covering the Camino de Santiago, the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and walking across Scotland. Picking one as the ‘best’ is a bit challenging; so I’ll go with the first of his books that I read – The Last Englishman.

Foskett’s writing is funny and spirited, and you can picture yourself on the trail with him. Additionally, unlike most PCT memoirs — which seem to lose any enthusiasm for details by the time the author hits Oregon — Foskett has a lot of adventures in Oregon and Washington, and he “hikes his own hike” in order to finish his thru-hike.

If you enjoy The Last Englishman, check out his other hiking tales: Balancing on Blue: A Thru-Hiking Adventure on the Appalachian Trail; The Journey in Between: A Thru-Hiking Adventure on El Camino de Santiago; and High and Low: How I Hiked Away From Depression Across Scotland.

Ten books to send you on a culinary journey

Anywhere you go, you will discover the importance of food in the local cultures. It gives a place a sense of identity: what is important locally, what is grown or raised locally, and what is favored locally.

Beyond that, food is a way of expressing love, affection, or respect for one another. When one hosts important guests, the host provides the best food that they can, even if it means personally sacrificing their own culinary comfort for a while. When having friends and family over for a celebration, the host prepares a feast appropriate to the celebration. And even when people mourn, how do those close to the mourners express themselves but by bringing food to ease the burdens of everyday tasks. We talk about emotional eating when our spirits are low, and we go out to eat and drink with our friends when we want to celebrate.

Think about some of the meals you have savored the most in your life – and how just thinking about them can bring you instantly back in time to a particular moment and memory. There’s a reason that #foodporn has become such a popular hashtag!

I’ll share two of my own favorite “traveling foodie” moments:

Swiss food is fantastic in general, but there is one meal in particular from my last trip to Switzerland that particularly stands out in my mind. My tour guide in Bellinzona took me to a restaurant called Ristorante Pedemonte, which is located quite close to the main train station in that city. Had I been looking for a restaurant on my own, I probably would have missed the place entirely, as I don’t recall seeing signage on the yellow building, and I thought at first that we were walking into somebody’s house! It was September – prime porcini season in the beautiful Ticino canton – and I selected strozzapreti ai funghi porcini for my meal. If you look up a recipe for this meal, it will seem ridiculously simple; but made with freshly made strozzapreti (“priest-choker”) pasta, excellent local olive oil, and porcini mushrooms from the local mountains, so fresh they were probably picked that morning, well – it was all I could do to not pick up the plate and lick it clean!

The other is in Finland. In Helsinki, there is a place called Vanha Kauppahalli (Old Market Hall) located next to Kauppatori, the market square on the waterfront in front of Helsinki City Hall. Vanha Kauppahalli is renowned for its food stalls, but there was one in particular my mother (who is from Finland) knew that I would love: the place that sold munkki – that is, doughnuts. I ended up eating the raspberry-filled munkki nearly every day we went to downtown Helsinki on that trip! I don’t know what made these particular munkki so amazing – perhaps it is because cardamom is a common flavor addition to doughnuts in Finland; perhaps it was simply how incredibly fresh they were – but I have had American jelly doughnuts spoiled for me ever since.

Taste and smell are two powerful senses that can transplant you immediately. A good food writer can not only make you wish you were beside them, sampling the food with them, but also make you want to leap onto a plane and visit a place simply to experience that place firsthand. Here are ten excellent books that will give you that experience.

American Terroir, Rowan Jacobsen American Terroir: Savoring the Flavors of Our Woods, Waters, and Fields, by Rowan Jacobsen : Perhaps you think of “terroir” as a wine-related word; and it is true ― terroir, or “taste of place”, is a vital element of the wine industry. However, it is no less vital in the food industry in general. There’s a reason we why every region’s honey tastes different, what makes some wild mushrooms so elusive, how the same seafood ― such as oysters and salmon ― can taste vastly different when harvested in different parts of the world, and why the best chocolate beans come from close to where chocolate originated from. If you’re heading to Montréal any time soon, you’ll especially want to pay attention to his chapter related to Les Jardins Sauvages and foraging ― after reading this book, I definitely had to make a stop at the LJS stand in Jean-Talon Market while visiting the city. Jacobsen is one of the best food writers in the world, and if you enjoy reading American Terroir, you may also enjoy some of his other terroir-related books, such as Apples of Uncommon Character: Heirlooms, Modern Classics, and Little-Known Wonders, and The Essential Oyster: A Salty Appreciation of Taste and Temptation; or his culinary research books like Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis.

food_8 Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine by Sarah Lohman : Like Jacobsen’s Terroir, Lohman takes the reader on a tour of American cuisine. As she outlines in the beginning of the book, her interest was piqued by her time spent working in a living history museum, and noticing how the antique recipes she made there differed greatly in taste than today’s modern versions of the same recipes. You might not think of flavors such as curry powder and Sriracha as being “as American” as chili powder, but Lohman shows how those three, along with five others, have influenced American tastes through the ages. You’ll learn as much about American history as you do about the American palate on this tour through our kitchens and our country’s background.

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Pancakes in Paris: Living the American Dream in France, by Craig Carlson : Who hasn’t had the dream of running away to a city such as Paris and finding a way to live there long-term? Carlson had that dream, and more than that, he wanted to bring a little taste of good, proper, hearty American food ― specifically, breakfast food ― to the city he loved. As we learn from his misadventures, setting up shop in the City of Lights is no easy task for anyone, least of all an expatriate with ideals of creating a taste sensation among the food-snobby French. And while we see a bit of Parisian dirty laundry and cheer him on as he fights his way through French bureaucracy and red tape, the reader can also taste joy as he finds success ― and true love ― along the way.

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The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America, by Langdon Cook : Most of us don’t give much thought to the humble mushroom beyond brushing any last tendrils of dirt from our freshest purchase. It turns out that the secretive world of the wild mushroom pickers is pretty fascinating, and soon you’ll find yourself wondering how successful you could be tromping around the woods of the Pacific Northwest, hoping to spy an easy fortune in rare fungi. Many of the most-desired mushrooms, much in demand by chefs and home enthusiasts alike, cannot by commercially cultivated; they must be found in conditions that cannot be replicated on the kind of fungi farms that produce the bulk of supermarket mushrooms. Porcini (also known as King boletes), chanterrelles, morels ― even if you aren’t a mushroom enthusiast, this is the kind of writing that will get you to try out these exotic fungi next time you see them on a menu.

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Salt: A World History, by Mark Kurlansky : You might be thinking, What could possibly be fascinating about salt? As it turns out, quite a lot. From the origins of sayings such as “worth their weight in salt” and “salt of the earth”, to the story behind some of our most beloved condiments, salt ― the only rock we eat! ― has had a major influence over world history. Like Jacobsen, Kurlansky has a way of making complex food history absolutely fascinating, and you’ll find yourself constantly sharing tidbits you learn from this book. If you enjoy Salt, then look into Kurlansky’s other food and food-related writing, including The Big Oyster: History on the Half ShellHavana: A Subtropical DeliriumThe Last Fish Tale: The Fate of the Atlantic and Survival in Gloucester, America’s Oldest Fishing Port and Most Original Town; and Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World.

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The Whole Fromage: Adventures in the Delectable World of French Cheese, by Kathe Lison : Why is French cheese often considered the best in the world? What makes specific cheeses like Beaufort, Mont d’Or, and Roquefort so unique and highly demanded? What is so magical about the French cheese caves that makes people crave stinky, moldy cheese? Can iconic French cheeses truly be accurately recreated elsewhere in the world? Like any other food, cheese is influenced by its terroir, and Lison explores France to discover what, and who, makes most of its memorable cheese products that are beloved the world over. You’ll find yourself exploring your local cheese counter a lot more closely after reading this book.

food_napaNapa: The Story of an American Eden, by James Conaway : If you’re an American wine enthusiast ― and especially if you’re fond of Napa Valley wines ― you’ll want to read Conaway’s Napa and its sequels, The Far Side of Eden: New Money, Old Land, and the Battle for Napa Valley and Napa at Last Light: America’s Eden in an Age of Calamity. Conaway’s comprehensive history of California’s golden wine country begins with Napa, which chronicles the valley’s history through the late 20th century. The Far Side of Eden and Napa at Last Light tell the stories of what has happened to Napa now that availability has outpaced demand in this important agricultural area. You’ll find out how the valley’s farmers survived Prohibition, learn about how the 1976 Tasting of Paris really put Napa on the map, and how the wine world’s love affair with the valley has greatly changed the local scene over the past forty years. A trio of must-reads for any oenophile!

food_80Around the World in Eighty Wines: Exploring Wine One Country at a Time, by Mike Veseth : The demand for wine, particularly by those in their twenties, is influencing world agriculture. There are few countries in the world where wine is not produced, and Veseth goes on a round-the-world journey to sample various wines and to tell the stories that define various wine regions. You might not find wines from China, Algeria, or Kenya in your local supermarket, but it doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. Is there truly a best wine or best wine-growing region in the world? Veseth, the editor-in-chief of The Wine Economist, is a superb guide to take your wine desires on a spin around the globe.

food_nutmegNathaniel’s Nutmeg: or, The True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History, by Giles Milton :  Who would think that a tiny island barely one square mile in size in the South Seas would have such a huge influence on world history? Four hundred years ago, when there were still parts of the world that weren’t mapped and European powers were claiming lands around the globe, the Indonesian island of Run was at the center of a battle between the British Crown and the powerful Dutch East India Company. Run’s history is a spectacular story among the many stories that pepper the spice trade, and show how even a wee speck of an island ― and its exotic crop ― could, and did, spread its influence around the world. And if this book fascinates you, look for Jack Turner’s Spice: The History of a Temptation, and Marjorie Shaffer’s Pepper: A History of the World’s Most Influential Spice. (Perhaps pair the latter one with Salt?)

food_chopstxChopsticks: A Cultural and Culinary History, by Q. Edward Wang : You’ve probably never given much thought to chopsticks, beyond how to hold them properly and manage to eat with them. But there’s a long history for this basic eating utensil, and it’s more interesting than you might guess. If you find this book interesting, you may also enjoy Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson.

There you go ― ten interesting books to not only whet your appetite for food, but for travel as well. Do you have any favorite food-related books? If so, let me know it in the comment section below!