Five Favorite Books on Place

With review of a dozen National Monuments currently underway, how we relate to place comes back into the spotlight yet again. It's a good time to return to some central questions about human-nature dynamics across time, space, and cultures. 

How do we determine which landscapes are sacred, and which landscapes we should use for resources extraction? Where can we go to experience beauty, quiet, and wonder? What does common ground look like in this tumultuous political climate?

I miiiight be biased as a writer, but I think books can provide a sounding board for these questions, among others. The ones on this list proved to be the most catalytic in my understanding of how place shapes who we are, and how we, in turn, shape place.

Though this chicken and egg relationship is more complex than I will ever know, it may be boiled down to a single yolk of truth: how we treat landscapes now will determine who we will become. 


This House of Sky: Landscapes of the Western Mind

Ivan Doig

The late Ivan Doig lives on as a Montana icon of the 20th century. In this memoir, he opens a window so we may glimpse a past when times were changing fast. It's easy for me to forget the unprecedented speed in which things catapulted into their current state of affairs: how quickly technology evolved; how swiftly we shifted into a global community; how completely we moved away from rural-dominated to city-dominated lifestyles. His lyrical writing, infused with the wild beauty of Montana's landscapes, brings history alive so we may remember the costs and gains--and above all, the inevitability--of change. 

The Heartsong of Charging Elk

James Welch

I can't recommend this book enough. Through the fictional story of Charging Elk, an Ogala Sioux navigating life following European expansion in the American West, we experience the resiliency of the human spirit. The novel follows Charging Elk as he forges a new life in a strange land. While white people and Natives continue to seek reconciliation today, as evident in the Bears Ears National Monument among other efforts, stories that bring us closer to understanding our differences and commonalities prove essential again and again. 

The Solace of Open Spaces

Gretel Ehrlich

Ehrlich's voice, at once funny and iridescent, engrossed me from the first to the last page of her memoir. She relays her (mis)adventures on a ranch in Wyoming. The book became an exploration of loneliness and community. It tangoed between these two, pivoting around a central question of how we cultivate connection: connection to one another, to the land, and within our individual selves. 

Changes in the Land

William Cronon

William Cronon is a thug in the environmental history world. If you are an American this book is a must-read. It will help explain EVERYTHING about the why and how our landscapes look the way they do today. Okay, maybe not everything, but damn near. When it comes to humans' relationships with place in the U.S.A., this book offers answers in a surprisingly fun and easy to read narrative. (I obviously found nothing of interest in it, given the lack of sticky notes marking pages.) 

Heart of Darkness

Joseph Conrad

This novel may seem a peculiar addition to the list, but beside from being my favorite book of all time, Conrad's Heart of Darkness brings alive place in the multi-dimensional meaning of the word. The river and jungle the story unfolds within serves as a mirror for the human drama. As an exploration of the psyche's primal origins, the book dives into the landscape of the mind--its lovely, terrible, and unknowable expanse. Such journeys inward may be more vital than any other pioneering efforts as we navigate the changes unfolding across our shared earth.