1. John Muir
The ‘Father of the National Parks’, Scottish-American writer and naturalist John Muir was an early advocate for the protection and preservation of wilderness. In 1903 he even managed to drag President Theodore Roosevelt out on a three-night camping trip, bending his ear about the importance of Yosemite to the American nation. A true evangelist for the benefits of spending time outdoors, Muir’s writings are simple, elegant and powerful.
2. Ralph Waldo Emerson
There has possibly been no greater intellectual champion of nature than American essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. His work proved hugely influential on the transcendentalist and romantic movements, inspiring a generation of successors, from Henry David Thoreau to William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. An individualist in every sense of the word, he remains a hero for trailblazers and radical thinkers alike.
3. Jack Kerouac
The ‘king of the beats’, Kerouac’s writings defined a generation. The spontaneous prose of On the Road captured the dreams and frustrations of post-war American youth, as Kerouac flitted restlessly from city to city via boxcars, bars and wildernesses. But there was a brief respite from his hobo existence – during the summer of 1956, Kerouac spent 63 days as a fire lookout for the U.S. Forest Service, marooned atop Desolation Peak in Washington’s North Cascades. He remains a cult hero for wandering souls and seekers of solitude alike.
4. William Wordsworth
As the preeminent poet of the Lake District, no-one – with the possible exception of Wainwright – has conveyed such a love for the fells and tarns of Cumberland and Westmorland as William Wordsworth. When it came to stamina, WW probably also trumped AW. As his diaries reveal, he often walked ‘scarcely less than twenty miles a day.’ In fact, it is estimated that Wordsworth walked 175,000 miles in his lifetime, an impressive feat and something that any serious walker might want to aspire to.
5. Henry David Thoreau
In July 1845, a 28-year-old writer called Henry David Thoreau retreated to an area of private woodland near Concord, Massachusetts. He built a simple cabin near Walden Pond, and lived there for the next two years, two months, and two days. What resulted was the book Walden, or Life in the Woods. Part memoir and part spiritual quest, it is a powerful exploration of self-sufficiency, allied with close observation of harmony and beauty in nature. It would become one of the seminal works of American literary history.
6. Nan Shepherd
Scottish writer and poet Nan Shepherd’s artistic life was a paean to the majestic and powerful landscapes of the Scottish Highlands. Her memoir, The Living Mountain, based on her experiences of hill walking in the Cairngorms, has influenced virtually every subsequent British nature writer. Nobody has better captured the allure of mountains, their exquisite majesty and changing aspects through the seasons, their inexorable pull on those with an affinity for natural landscapes, or their importance as a habitat for a myriad of interconnected birds, animals and plants.
7. Sara Wheeler
For centuries, the polar regions have been a backdrop for feats of heroism, endurance and frequently, desperation. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, these great white expanses were the almost exclusive preserve of swarthy, bearded explorers. The resulting written output concerning life in the high Arctic or the far South has been overwhelmingly male dominated. In 1995, Sara Wheeler offered a refreshingly different perspective when she became the first female writer-in-residence with the U.S. Polar Program, spending seven months in Antarctica. Her book recounting those experiences, Terra Incognita, is a wonderful meditation on the polar regions both real and imagined, a place where scientists, dreamers and weirdos collide in far-flung, frozen research stations.
8. Robert Macfarlane
The leading light of the so-called ‘new nature writers’, Robert Macfarlane’s books on landscape, memory, place, people and language have struck a chord across the generations with all those who feel an affinity for the natural world. No writer has more eloquently captured the collective unease about the way that contemporary society and human behaviour continues to erode and destroy some of our most precious landscapes, nor the importance of nature to man.
9. Edward Abbey
As a former ranger for the U.S. National Parks Service, perhaps it is no surprise that Edward Abbey became such a prominent advocate and campaigner for environmental issues. His outspoken views on public land in America and his criticism of the existing U.S. political system were – and remain – controversial. His books, particularly the novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, have also been cited as an inspiration by environmental and eco-terrorist groups. A maverick and radical, he articulated the vital importance of wilderness better than almost any other contemporary writer.
10. Lord Byron
‘Mad, bad and dangerous to know’, George Gordon – Lord Byron – became infamous for his hedonistic lifestyle during the Romantic age. He was the original ‘rockstar’ poet. And though not generally acclaimed as a poet of nature, he had his tender and more reflective moments, as the quote above reveals. He was also a daredevil – aged 22, while on a grand tour of Europe, he famously swam across the Hellespont, a tumultuous four-mile strait in northwestern Turkey. Not bad for a man who was born with a club foot.
11. Roger Deakin
The nature writer’s nature writer, Deakin’s deceptively simple, heartfelt and eloquent books are now championed by a slew of contemporary commentators. They demonstrate a wholly authentic and deeply pure love for nature in all its forms that few others can match. Deakin’s ability to describe fleeting moments and the tiniest details in shimmering prose was much undervalued. Waterlog, the only book published in his lifetime, has become a spiritual bible for wild swimmers everywhere. His death in 2006 was a huge loss for all lovers of beautiful nature writing, though his books now garner the wider attention they always deserved.
12. Cheryl Strayed
It takes a certain kind of person to want to walk a very long way for no particular reason. But few writers have summed up what drives long-distance backpackers and thru-hikers better than US author Cheryl Strayed. Her book, Wild – subsequently made into a major motion picture starring Reese Witherspoon – is not a conventional account of life on the trail. It’s a memoir that documents a journey of self-discovery as much as it is an account of hiking 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. But it is both hugely readable and incredibly inspiring, and has made countless hikers want to lace up their boots and set out on life-changing adventures.
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