A dozen books I'm reading and writing about in 2021
“Homo sapiens, the wise human being, must now learn from its mistakes and live up to its name. We who are alive today have the formidable task of making sure that our species does so. We must not give up hope.”
— David Attenborough, “A Life on Our Planet” (2020)
I’ve watched David Attenborough document nature all over the world since I was a young girl. It’s a shock to see him become a 94-year-old man because it is a stark reminder that I, too, have grown older. I hope I’ve also grown a little wiser.
In a new book and documentary film, Attenborough shares his witness statement about the disappearance of the world’s wilderness during his lifetime and 70-year career as a journalist and author. Since I’ve grown up watching his nature programs, Attenborough’s testimonial feels a lot like my own.
While I was playing in the empty sandlots and wading in the neighborhood creeks of my childhood, I saw nature all around me. Like Attenborough, I was under the illusion that nature and its resources were infinite. But between the time I was born in 1963 and today, the world’s population has more than doubled, reaching 7.8 billion people who now share the Earth’s natural resources. (When Attenborough was born in 1937, there were 2.3 billion people, which means the global population has more than tripled during his lifetime.)
Skyrocketing human growth has resulted in developing nearly all of the world’s unprotected wilderness. This has led to the extinction of 785 known plant and animal species during the last century (800 in the last 500 years). More than 40,000 plant and animal species are considered endangered or threatened with extinction.
Disappearing wildlife might seem regrettable, but necessary, for human survival. However, the inimitable Sir Attenborough tells us in no uncertain terms why humans cannot exist without biological diversity. In a nutshell, biodiversity enables the world’s ecosystems to maintain balance that is essential to support life on Earth.
What does protecting biodiversity have to do with gardening? Everything.
In fact, it’s an exciting time to be a gardener because we have an opportunity, and a responsibility, to apply what humans have learned about protecting biodiversity in our gardens and landscapes. Within our growing spaces, we can, and must, move beyond politicized notions that nature conservancy is a “liberal thing” and defeatist notions that our efforts, or lack thereof, don’t matter. The truth is that protecting and regenerating the abundance of nature is a human thing that requires all of us to rethink how we go about our daily lives, including how we garden.
I can think of no better gardening goal for 2021 than to increase biodiversity in my garden and landscape. The 12 books I’m reading this year, which will be the basis for my weekly columns, blog posts and podcasts, will inform my commitment to supporting plant and animal diversity. I invite you to read the books along with me, and to post comments and questions throughout the year.
The 2021 book list includes different genres (nonfiction, fiction and poetry), as well as diverse gardening topics. What all of the books have in common is a call for humanity — you and me — to work more thoughtfully with nature, and for nature.
Sir Attenborough ends his witness statement with the careful optimism of a long life lived on this planet. He writes, “It seems that, however grave our mistakes, nature will be able to overcome them, given the chance. But we humans cannot assume that we will do the same. We have come as far as we have because we are the cleverest creatures to have ever lived on Earth. But if we are to continue to exist, we will require more than intelligence. We will require wisdom.”
Let’s make 2021 a year for building and practicing gardening wisdom.
January: “A Life on Our Planet” by David Attenborough (2020). The British naturalist and broadcaster provides compelling evidence that humanity has a final chance to restore balance in the natural world by increasing biodiversity.
February: “Nature’s Best Hope” by Douglas W. Tallamy (2019). An entomologist scientist and professor, Tallamy brings the biodiversity message to American gardens and landscapes. He shows us how we can help restore ecological balance by increasing the number of caterpillars and native bees in our growing spaces.
March: “The Complete Gardener” by Monty Don (2009). The popular presenter of the BBC’s “Gardener’s World” TV series and the author of several gardening books, organic gardener Monty Don provides a personal account of how he manages his different gardens at Longmeadow in Herefordshire. Don shares pearls of wisdom for growing flowers, vegetables, herbs, shrubs and fruit trees without chemical pesticides or fertilizers. The photographs by Ari Ashley make this a beautiful, as well as an encompassing, garden guide.
April: “The Kitchen Garden Revival” by Nicole Johnsey Burke (2020).The author runs her own business designing, building and installing 21st century kitchen gardens. Not only does Burke provide step-by-step directions on how to build beautiful raised beds that are easier for gardeners to reach, she also shows readers how to plan, plant, grow and harvest a variety of vegetables and herbs.
May: “The Regenerative Grower’s Guide to Garden Amendments” by Nigel Palmer (2020). This book focuses on building soil biodiversity by using leaf mold, weeds, eggshells and other natural materials as garden amendments. Palmer explains plant-soil interactions, how to conduct a soil test, and how to make foliar sprays and soil drenches based on a soil analysis.
June: “What’s Wrong with My Vegetable Garden?” by David Deardorff and Kathryn Wadsworth (2011). This is a helpful reference guide when insects and diseases become a problem in our vegetable garden. The authors provide plant portraits for 50 kinds of vegetables and the growing conditions they need to effectively fight off infestations. Then they show readers how to identify what’s wrong with our plants by observing their symptoms, and how to correct problems by using a variety of organic, eco-friendly methods.
July: “Garden of Small Beginnings” by Abbi Waxman (2017). Summer is time for some lighter reading. I’ll start off with Waxman’s contemporary story about a young widow who learns how to rebuild her life through gardening and sisterly support. A bonus: gardening tips are sprinkled throughout the book.
August: “Fire and Rain: Ecopoetry of California” edited by Lucille Lang Day and Ruth Nolan (2018). This anthology includes 256 poems that celebrate and advocate for California wildlife. The poems are organized by the state’s diverse ecosystems: coast and ocean; coastal redwoods; hills and canyons; fields and meadows; deserts; rivers, lakes and lagoons; Sierra Nevada and Cascades; and cities, towns and roads.
September: “The Earth in Her Hands” by Jennifer Jewell (2020). All the hubbub surrounding the presidential election overshadowed the fact that America has the first-ever female vice president. In celebration of women leaders, I’m reading Jewell’s compilation of “75 Extraordinary Women Working in the World of Plants.” These inspiring women share their work, their favorite plant or landscape, and their plant journey.
October: “The Well-Gardened Mind” by Sue Stuart-Smith (2020). The author is a psychiatrist who advocates gardening for restoring health and wellbeing. She presents evidence from neuroscience and stories from around the world that demonstrate the transformative power of gardening.
November: “The Victory Garden” by Rhys Bowen (2019). This is a historical novel set during World War I, when many women in England volunteered as “land girls” to replace farmworkers who had been called to fight. The story follows a young woman who finds strength and solace in an herb garden.
December: “Here: Poems for the Planet” edited by Elizabeth J. Coleman (2019). This is a collection of 188 poems by well-known and new poets who share a concern and passion for the Earth. The editor writes the poems were selected to leave readers “stirred, surprised and ready to act.” My motto for 2021!
Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, check out her podcasts at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener and her blogs at www.literarygardener.com.