My Deserted Island Essential Reading


My Deserted Island Essential Reading

The British have a long-standing radio show in which people talk about what ten albums they would take with them to a deserted island.  In that spirit, here are the ten books, a couple of chapters, and three poems that have really helped shape my thinking about our work, the environment, buildings and life. In no particular order, here we go:


Stewart Brand, How Buildings Learn, 1994.

A still painfully true slam of architecture as it is currently practiced–what Brand calls architecture designed for magazines. It has many insights about how we should think about the design and construction of buildings and how buildings change over time. This book made me realize that to achieve truly sustainable design, we need to design buildings that people will love and maintain for generations.

John McPhee, The Control of Nature, 1989.

This book focuses on four snapshots of human hubris attempting to control natural events, sometimes successful, sometimes not. Like all of McPhee’s publications, there are sentences that will cause you to stop and reread them multiple times, just for the joy of his use of language.

Charles Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, 2005.

The Americas were home to many people with diverse societies before the arrival of Columbus. Contrary to popular belief, Native Americans were not mere passive participants in the landscape. Some drove themselves into ecological ruin. Others developed landscape management practices that increased biodiversity and biomass and enriched their cultures. These beneficial relationships are not unlike the current discussion of ‘re-wilding.’

Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins & L. Hunter Lovins, Natural Capitalism, 1999.

Sorry Naomi Klein, but business can be a process for improving the human and natural world. This book gives examples and principles for redefining capitalism, and provides hope for the work in which many of us are engaged. (I also must confess that I was involved in the writing of the chapters on Buildings and Integrated Design.)

Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 1949.

There are essays here that will come back to you years later.  For example, “Thinking Like a Mountain” involves the killing of the last wolf and seeing the fading of the “fierce green fire” in her eyes. This represents a fundamental shift in understanding the devastating repercussions of losing a key predator that defines the health of that ecosystem. This is a key book on the right relationship of humans in nature.

Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, 2006.

Where does our food come from? Pollan deals with questions about organic vs. local, and market production vs. foraging in a modern society. This is one of the clearest considerations of determining what is truly sustainable. What better way to have the discussion then about food?

Rachel Carson, The Edge of the Sea, 1955.

Everyone thinks of Carson for Silent Spring, but this is the book I love.  It is her in-depth exploration of a place, and in it you can see her transition from writing natural history descriptions to being an environmentalist.

Bill McKibben, Hope Human and Wild, 1995.

Bill McKibben is frequently viewed as Mr. Doom & Gloom about the future. This book provides a series of clear examples of positive environmental action; it substantiates Kenneth Boulding’s quote of “What exists is possible,” and it definitely is a source of hope.

Edward Abbey, The Monkey Wrench Gang, 1975.

Most folks would probably choose A Desert Solitaire by America’s best eco-curmudgeon, but I actually prefer this funny ribald tale of a gang of eco-terrorists defending a place that at the time few loved or appreciated.

David George Haskell, The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature, 2012.

Biologist Haskell describes how one square meter of old growth forest in Tennessee is connected to the whole world. Haskell uses beautiful prose in support of John Muir’s famous observation “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” It is amazing how one small piece of the planet can lead to thinking about so many ideas.


And now, a couple of enlightening chapters from other books:

Amory Lovins & L. Hunter Lovins, Brittle Power, Chapter 13, “Resilience,” 1982.

Amory once said that this chapter was “one of the best things they ever wrote.” I agree; it is a true insight about resilience, thirty years before it became the buzzword de’jour.

Judith Heerwagen & Gordon Orians, Chapter 4, “Humans Habitats and Aesthetics,” in Stephen Kellert & Edward O. Wilson, The Biophlia Hypothesis, 1994.

Here is one of the best and most clear compilations of the science for why we love certain places and the basis for much of biophilic design.


And three poems:

Robinson Jeffers, The Selected Poems of Robinson Jeffers, 2002, “Hurt Hawks,” “Vulture,” and “The Excesses of God.”

Jeffers can be very discomforting, but you will remember what he says. His descriptions of place are extraordinary. He is honest about the nature of nature, glorifying its triumphs while not hiding its less appetizing attributes. Tim Hunt, the editor of this compilation writes, “…Jeffers stands as a crucial precursor to contemporary attempts to rethink our practical, ethical, and spiritual obligations to the natural world and the environment.”


Oh, and if I could only take one album, it would be Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue. If you don’t know it, you will need to listen to it and then you will know why.


*Header and feature image copyright Breezy Baldwin/Flickr.