Oddly Specific Subgenres: Natural Science Memoirs

Welcome to our new series: Oddly Specific Subgenres. We’ll be putting together lists of books that have some incredible similarities that are too uncommon to get their own section in the bookstore. In the past few years I’ve read a number of books where a scientist or someone with a passion for the natural world writes a book that both shares information about the natural world and is also a memoir of the author’s life as it relates to the natural world. I’ve started calling this subgenre natural science memoirs.

I love these books because, not only are they fascinating, but every time I read one I find myself paying more attention to the world around me and appreciating details that I would usually overlook. These books have encouraged me to get down on my hands and knees to closely inspect the mosses growing in my backyard. I’ve thought about all the birds my grandparents taught my to identify as a child and the plants that were around during important times in my life. More than any other genre, these books force me to think about the world around me and how it relates to my own life story.

Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer might be the more obvious choice in this list, but Gathering Moss was the first of her books I read. This book takes you on a journey through the majesty of mosses, her research into historical uses of moss, and how her life as an indigenous woman fuels her research.

Kimmerer opened my eyes to the world of mosses as both beautiful and incredible plants with a special place in the ecosystems of the world. Kimmerer also narrates the audiobook, so you can enjoy this story in her own words.

Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life by LuLu Miller

This book is incredibly difficult to describe. It’s about taxonomist David Starr Jordan, Miller’s own life, finding meaning in the world, and of course, fish. Miller is a science writer for NPR, as well as the daughter of a scientist, and from a young age she has been looking for meaning in a universe that seems uninterested in our lives. She hopes to find her example in taxonomist David Starr Jordan, who seems to respond to every cruel twist of fate with dogged perseverance.

I don’t want to spoil any of the journey this story will take you on, but suffice to say, it changes the way I think about taxonomy and fish. Miller narrates the short audiobook, so you can go along with her on her search for meaning in this world.

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

Jahren writes about her journey from a child in rural Minnesota to studying soil and trees and, eventually, leading her own lab. She intertwines discussions about the fragility of young trees with an incredible story of friendship as she talks about Bill, her long time friend and lab partner.

Jahren’s writing inspires me to think of trees not as permanent structures, but as living things that require as much cultivation and care as any other plant.

Field Notes From an Unintentional Birder: a memoir by Julia Zarankin

If Zarankin’s childhood could be summed up in one word it might be indoorsy. Her parents taught piano, while Zarankin’s greatest passion was for literature. Later in life, Zarankin decided she needed to a hobby and found her way to birding. Throughout the novel, I got the sense of both the peacefulness and exhilaration this hobby can provide.

In many ways, her experiences of birds are tied to fond memories of friends. I love the idea that nature can not only teach us about ourselves but be a way to remember precious moments.

My Life in Plants: Flowers I’ve Loved, Herbs I’ve Grown, and Houseplants I’ve Killed on the Way to Finding Myself by Katie Vaz

This book is made up short essays centered around the plants that were in Vaz’s life at important moments and of the sort of lovely illustrations Vaz is known for. It’s an incredibly reflective book that I found very inspiring as a way to view my own life.

It reminded me of the African Violets my grandmother used to grow and the herb garden my mom kept on the back porch when I was little. Not to mention my ill-fated 9th grade science experiment where I cultivated Bermuda grass for 6 months. Why did no one tell me there are way easier plants to grow than Bermuda grass? If you’re looking for some quick inspiration, pick this book up.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Macdonald was already an experienced falconer when her father passed unexpectedly. In the aftermath, she decided she would raise and train a goshawk. Goshawks are a fierce predators that in many ways personified her own grief.

This novel is an incredible example of what natural science memoirs can look like.

Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl by Jonathan C. Slaght

Slaght’s journey began when he spotted a massive owl he couldn’t identify. It turned out he had encountered the endangered Blakiston’s Fish owl. Part ode to this incredible owl and part story of a five year long conservation journey, this novel is fueled by Slaght’s clear passion for this incredible bird.

Have you read any books that you think belong on this list of natural science memoirs? Let us know in the comments or on social media!

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