Earth, Head, and Heart: Six Deeply Researched Eco-Memoirs


In my ayahuasca eco-memoir Mothership, I enjoy playing hopscotch along an often-overlooked spectrum, with autobiographical memoir at one end and “objective” narrative nonfiction at the other. How personal and self-revealing do I want to be in my environmental reporting? How much do I want to nerd out in my memoir? These are questions a nonfiction writer might ask herself as she pitches her nature-minded book and thinks about—heaven help us!—its marketability.

Despite almost 30 pages of citations in my book, Mothership is essentially a literary memoir, often inspired by Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments and Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss. And yet to lend credibility to my narrative and support my claims about controversial topics like climate change, developmental trauma, and psychedelic therapy, I draw upon 70 peer-reviewed research articles. I weave them into a queer coming-of-age story, recounting how the ocean and psychedelic plants helped save my life and awakened my ecological conscience.

Though I didn’t set out to write a hybrid memoir, in hindsight my approach makes sense to me. As a teen trying to cope with growing up in a bizarre, abusive family, I immersed myself in conducting environmental research for the science fair while also reading intense first-person narratives such as Manuel Puig’s The Kiss of the Spider Woman. When I finally wrote Mothership in my forties, my introspective, bookish self and my data-drunk scientific self found common ground—my inner Elizabeth Kolbert and my inner Elizabeth Gilbert get to eat and pray together, and make love. Indeed, research has shown that psychedelics enable previously disconnected parts of the brain to communicate—and increase our connection with the natural world, what’s called “nature-relatedness.”

Here are six superb, ecologically attuned books you’ll want to check out that straddle the memoir-narrative nonfiction divide:

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heartbreak

Heartbreak: A Personal and Scientific Journey by Florence Williams

In Heartbreak, Florence Williams takes a courageous, often zany journey to scientifically understand heartbreak following the end of her 25-year marriage, looking at its physiological and psychological effects. What do scientists learn when they intentionally separate monogamous prairie voles fitted with neural sensors? What do mystical experiences in nature and the brain’s default mode network have to do with one another? Why go solo whitewater rafting after your divorce? These are the sorts of questions Heartbreak seeks to answer.

As someone who also writes about nature and psychedelics, I particularly enjoyed reading about Williams’s underground MDMA- and psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy session. Though the experience doesn’t Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo transmute her anguish into carefree self-love, it does increase her openness and awe, metrics correlated with improved mental health.

If the names of some of her chapters tell you anything—”Excuse My Piloerection “and “A Boat of Lettuce” were a couple of my favorites—you know you’re in for an entertaining, highly engrossing read, guided by Williams’s hilarious, cerebral voice.

the quickening

The Quickening: Creation and Community at the Ends of the Earth by Elizabeth Rush

In The Quickening, Elizabeth Rush proves once again, after her Pulitzer Prize finalist debut Rising, that she is an environmental journalist of the highest order, intent on including her lived experience as a woman and the diverse experiences of those around her. She offers a riveting account of her time as a writer-in-residence on the first research expedition to Antarctica’s Thwaites Glacier, dubbed the “Doomsday Glacier” by Rolling Stone for its potential contribution to rising sea levels. Joined by a diverse international team of scientists and crew members whom she interviews, Rush shows us what climate science in action looks like, from submersible dives beneath the ice to collecting sediment samples from the ocean floor.

Rush’s focus on having a child in a time of eco-anguish resonates with me, a gay man who will never be a father. Given the climate crisis, I too can’t help but think about posterity. In Mothership I write a letter to my seventh great-niece in the 23rd century who came to me in a dream—it’s a way for me to feel my way through the responsibilities we have to our descendants, and what seems like the awful legacy we’re leaving to them. I couldn’t imagine a better place to meditate on this ethically complicated question of parenthood than at Thwaites Glacier. It brings to mind Walt Whitman in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” who writes to future readers, “I consider’d long and seriously of you before you were born.”

soil

Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden by Camille T. Dungy

Like her HOA-defying garden and its many creatures in suburban Colorado, Camile Dungy’s Soil is an eco-memoir that challenges the status quo in nature writing, which historically has been white, privileged, and straight. (Though I’m not so sure Thoreau counts as the latter!) Using poetic language sometimes as soothing as sage and other times as pointed as buffalo burr, Dungy allows the personal and the ecological to flourish and intertwine. Along the way, we grieve the senseless murder of Black honor roll student Jordan Edwards, consider the possibility that a backyard is enough of a wilderness for anyone to find renewal in, and stroll through Harlem Renaissance poet Annie Spencer’s garden oasis in Lynchburg, Virginia.

Even though Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is one of my favorite books, I delighted in Dungy’s critique of Annie Dillard’s masterpiece, especially how Dungy takes Dillard to task for erasing her gender and avoiding politics almost entirely, including the abominable Jim Crow policies in Virginia in the 1960s. Dungy has gotten me reconsidering the environmental canon once again and appreciating how patriarchy and racism have shaped our notions of greatness in nature writing. It’s humbling and inspiring, so much so that I’ve revamped my environmental lit syllabus to include some of the eco-texts she treasures. In Soil, Dungy draws from history, contemporary politics, botany, and many other sources as she meditates on what it means to be a Black woman in America who loves nature.

why fish dont exist

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

In Why Fish Don’t Exist, Lulu Miller delves into the fascinating life of turn-of-the-century scientist David Starr Jordan, renowned for his pioneering work in ichthyology—and reviled for his full-throated efforts to promote eugenics. Amidst personal and professional upheavals, Jordan’s scrambling after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to salvage his fish collection by sewing nameplates onto surviving specimens becomes a focal point. Miller’s memoir boldly blends Jordan’s story with her own struggles, offering fin-tastic reflections on the natural order—and the chaos of human nature.

This page-turner, a mix of memoir and the history of science, untangles Jordan’s complex legacy and slays me with its poignant consideration of life’s uncertainties—the epiphanic ending, which I’ll only tell you involves snorkeling in a fish-filled tropical bay, filled my merman eyes with tears. What would it be like, I asked myself as I put Miller’s book back on the shelf, to float in a world without categories?

madder

Madder: A Memoir in Weeds by Marco Wilkinson

Madder by horticulturist Marco Wilkinson is a formally restless, unabashedly experimental memoir, an ever-shifting garden teeming with literal and metaphorical weeds. Wilkinson explores his Rhode Island childhood and his maternal family’s life in Uruguay, grappling with the mysteries of his absent father and his mother’s fierce protectiveness. Through vignettes that blend technical plant descriptions with narrative and poetry, Wilkinson sheds light—or is it dirt?—on the koans of memory and queer, bicultural selfhood.

This is the sort of quirky, gorgeous book where, when your heart isn’t breaking from his recollections of his family, you’re donning “fungus funeral suits” or learning that “the pine forests of the eastern seaboard were once so vast that when they released their yellow pollen, great clouds of it would be carried far out to sea and sometimes envelop ships in the Atlantic.” Full of heart and weird, fascinating facts that have me seeing our planet with fresher eyes, Madder is a mesmerizing invitation to contemplate the interlacing roots of personal history and the natural world.

wolfish paperback

Wolfish: Wolf, Self, and the Stories We Tell about Fear by Erica Berry

Intensely personal and meticulously researched, Wolfish by Erica Berry explores what she calls “the wheeling helix of predator and prey that exists inside both humans and animals,” delving into wildlife biology, mythology, the psychology of fear, and cultural criticism. From the stark realities of wolf killings after the creature was reintroduced to Oregon in the 1990s, to Haitian werewolves, Pliny the Elder’s goofy medical advice, culture-corseting narratives like “Little Red Riding Hood,” and a GPS-tracked wolf called OR-7, she skillfully navigates the complexities of our relationship with these iconic creatures.

Written in the spirit of Australian eco-feminist Val Plumwood’s work, Berry’s whirlwind reflections on gender dynamics and media narratives show how profoundly human fears have impacted our perception of wolves and fueled sexist stereotypes. I especially appreciate the brilliant connections she makes among wolves, the #MeToo movement, and what it’s like on an embodied level to be a young woman in the US navigating her understandable hypervigilance. “Wolfish” is a brainy, timely, heartfelt, howl-inducing journey that I will be adding to my environmental lit syllabus this fall.

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mothership

Mothership: A Memoir of Wonder and Crisis by Greg Wrenn is available from Regalo Press.



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