The Audio File: 5 Climate Change Books to Listen To This Spring
James Tate Hill Recommends Pam Houston, Frans de Waal, Ross Gay, and More
It’s become hard to think about nature without considering its future. For some regions of the planet, the future is already here. Wilderness was once a refuge, an escape from civilization, but what is nature to us now that it’s also one of civilizations greatest problems?
“But maybe this is the best time to write unironic odes to nature,” muses Pam Houston in Deep Creek, her new memoir framed by the Colorado land on which she lives. “And even if the jig is up,” she writes, “even if it is really game over, what better time to sing about the earth than when it is critically, even fatally, wounded at our hands.”
April brought us Earth Day and all its worldwide events supporting environmental protection. And with apologies to those affected by pollen, late April is one of the best times to step outside, away from screens, away from depressing headlines. So it feels like the perfect moment to look at five new audio books about the natural world, the bad and the good, the frightening and delightful, the past and the present and the (possible) future.
Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country by Pam Houston
Narrated by Pam Houston
W. W. Norton & Company/Audible Studios
10 hours and 5 minutes
After selling her debut short story collection, Pam Houston uses the $21,000 as the down payment on a ranch in Creed, Colorado. It’s “the kind of place where, if you happen to be in town for a couple of days poking around, someone will invite you to a wedding.” Houston falls in love with the property at first sight, a rustic 120 acres with a cabin and a barn. Because no bank would take a risk on a short story writer, she finances the $400,000 asking price through the owner, who “likes the idea of her.”
Houston traces her love of the outdoors to childhood, when her mother would banish her from the house until dinner. She sought adventure as well as safety, escaping an emotionally abusive mother and a sexually abusive father. One of the profound pleasures of audio books narrated by the author, especially memoirs, is the conscious and subconscious emotion one hears in the nooks of words and the rhythm of sentences, and this is true of Deep Creek. Much more than a meditation on nature, her story reveals how and why “I found my way to this ranch, this place where I protect and am protected by animals… this place where I can love every season.”
If Houston’s memoir is very much her story, it also expands into a timely exploration of climate change and the environment. A long, propulsive, heartbreaking middle section chronicles wildfires that threaten the ranch mere months from the author making her final payment. The intensity of that destruction, for reasons related to human behavior, was far worse than it would have been generations ago. “We may have more complicated language, opposable thumbs, and this dangerous thing called reason,” Houston writes, “but any self-respecting llama or buffalo or spider knows enough not to destroy its home.” Houston names Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and Silent Spring as two books that helped to shape her, and Deep Creek belongs with those classics as an essential, deeply felt account of the natural world and our relationship to it.
Losing Earth: A Recent History by Nathaniel Rich
Narrated by Matt Godfrey
5 hours and 17 minutes
One tends to think the arc of environmental justice bends toward progress, however slowly, but in his new account of how we got where we are, Nathaniel Rich reveals how the opposite is true. The percentage of Republicans who acknowledge the scientific consensus of global warming, 42 percent in 2018, is actually down from years past. In the 1980s, many GOP members of Congress worked alongside Democrats on the climate problem, considering it a non-partisan concern. “The issue was unimpeachable,” says Rich, “like support for the military and freedom of speech. Except the atmosphere had an even broader constituency, composed of every human being on Earth.”
According to Rich, environmental awareness began in the 1950s when super computers allowed mathematical formulas that had been around for decades, even centuries, to predict complex weather patterns. Environmental destruction, of course, goes back much further, to the myriad inventions whose effects man had not predicted. An editor for The New York Times Magazine, Rich has a talent for translating a complicated issue into a gripping story. And like any effective storyteller, he places compelling characters in the foreground.
No scene better typifies America’s inertia in the climate crisis than a meeting among scientists and policy makers in 1980. Following productive talks and agreement about the severity of global warming, participants become stuck on a single description of climatic changes as “likely to occur.” Other ideas include “will occur,” “highly likely to occur,” “almost sure,” “almost surely,” and “highly or extremely likely to occur.” Fast-forward to 1982, and Al Gore’s first Greenhouse Effect hearing, where a Democratic Congressman from Ohio asks if they can’t find a different term for “Greenhouse Effect” because, he says, “he had always enjoyed visiting greenhouses.” Many books on climate change have focused on various human activities that have harmed the planet, but Losing Earth, with its eye on everything we haven’t done, is one of the most tragic.
Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves by Frans de Waal
Narrated by L. J. Ganser
W. W. Norton & Company/Recorded Books
10 hours and 38 minutes
I would bet with high confidence that no other book begins with two male chimpanzees, after a brief dispute, reconciled by one grooming the other’s backside. “Since the first male wanted to do the same,” writes Frans de Waal, a psychologist Time Magazine has listed among its 100 most influential people, “they ended up in an awkward 69 position, which allowed each of them to groom the other’s behind at the same time.” If you’re intrigued by this behavior—and really, I’m not sure we can be friends if you’re not—Mama’s Last Hug will be well worth your time.
Chapter after chapter, the author shows the complexity and gamut of animal emotions, a no-no for many scientists. He’s careful not to draw conclusions from anything more than observed behavior, but the stories of primates he has observed (and befriended) will astonish and often amuse. De Waal describes a chimp mother in a West African forest who carried her dead infant for 27 days and the common behavior of mother dolphins keeping a dead calf’s body afloat for days. If this isn’t grief, it’s certainly close.
Mama’s Last Hug has much to teach us about human behavior as well. Discussing the tendency of chimps to smile when anxious or threatened, de Waal notes studies that show how women smile more frequently than men. He also compares the motivations of primates to that of Sean Spicer hiding in the bushes outside the White House; ditto James Comey trying to obscure himself with a blue curtain to avoid a Trump hug. The author is clearly having fun, and his conversational, engaging prose makes audio readers hope he’s game for narrating his next book.
The Book of Delights: Essays by Ross Gay
Narrated by Ross Gay
Algonquin Books/Recorded Books
5 hours and 1 minute
In hopes of spending time writing and thinking about delight on a daily basis, Ross Gay decided to compose an essay about something that delighted him every day for a year. What he found, and what the reader will find in The Book of Delights, is “that the more you study delight, the more delight there is to study.” A winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and National Book Award finalist for poetry, Gay finds precise pleasures and insights in nature, pop culture, and gestures like a jubilant high-five from a white girl in a town where MAGA stickers aren’t hard to spot.
Over the course of 102 pieces, Gay catalogs a rich spectrum of experience. The son of a white mother and an African American father, he writes about race with frankness, humor, and the tell-it-slant eye of a poet. Recalling the reality show about Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown, he explains how “one of the objectives of popular culture, popular media, is to make blackness appear to be inextricable from suffering, and suffering from blackness.” In essayettes like this one, as Gay labels them, his project expands from what we often think of as delight to a more literal translation from light, “the feeling of discovery, the sense that one had found something, been shown something, previously unknown.”
More often, Gay’s delight feels like a type of joy, as when he helps a child separated from his parents during a protest and holds him on his shoulders where he might be more visible to his family, “yelling up to the kid I couldn’t see, ‘Don’t worry!’”
From the taste of honeysuckle to garden-grown squash, from carrying a tomato onto an airplane to the wisdom gleaned from the sound a crow makes, Gay finds an abundance of his delights in the natural world. What holds the book together is Gay’s voice, a rare and, yes, delightful blend of wonder, kindness, and good-natured mischief. One hears these traits in his narration. I am an advocate for reading audio books on long walks, but you might wish to read this one before embarking, letting it open your senses to what you haven’t been noticing.
The Uninhabitable Earth: Life after Warming by David Wallace-Wells
Narrated by David Wallace-Wells
Tim Duggan Books/Random House Audio
8 hours and 33 minutes
“I’m not an environmentalist,” David Wallace-Wells tells us early in The Uninhabitable Earth. He has never willingly gone camping, eats meat, and despite regarding it as a good idea not to pollute, he always considered some environmental impact to be the trade-off for economic growth. And it is from that familiar, all-too-relatable vantage of American complacence that he launches his bleak, relentless forecast of where our complacence is about to deliver us.
The environmental destruction Wallace-Wells chronicles, if it were written 50 years ago, would be shelved with science fiction. Today we might accurately label it speculative nonfiction. The first two-thirds of the book hammers us with statistical and meticulously researched predictions of heat death, famine, drowning, wildfires, a barrage of natural disasters, shortages of drinking water, unbreathable air, previously extinct bacteria released from melting ice, dying oceans, the wind “tugging trees out of the earth and transforming them into clubs, making power lines into whips and electrified nooses, collapsing homes on cowering residents, and turning cars into tumbling boulders.”
The details are terrifying, even more so for the many instances where such terror has already begun. Think California’s recent wildfires and the annual, once-a-century hurricanes pummeling places like Texas and Puerto Rico. Unfortunately—or perhaps intentionally—the effect feels like Alex must have felt in A Clockwork Orange, his eyelids clamped open so he can’t escape the parade of violent images. And readers should be warned: The Uninhabitable Earth unfolds as a nightmare from which the author, despite claiming to be an optimist, does not provide much hope for waking up.