Of humans and nature

To start the new year, we offer you a collection of books looking at different facets of our relationships with nature. The books we propose explore our current struggles – from industrialisation and loss of traditional ways of life to extreme social inequalities, environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity. They also explore how our view of nature – as something to be reigned in and dominated – has contributed to these challenges and how this perspective can and should be challenged.

The Old Man Who Read Love Stories – Luis Sepúlveda (tr. Peter Bush)

This short but powerful novel will transport you to the Amazonian jungle, where a remote village struggles to defend itself from nature’s wrath. Challenging our commonly accepted definition of ‘development’, Sepúlveda explores the impacts of industrialisation on indigenous peoples and human relationships with nature. It will invite you to consider if we really are the masters of this planet as we tend to assume so often.

Luis Sepúlveda (1949-2020) was a Chilean novelist, playwright, journalist, and activist. A fervent opponent of Pinochet’s regime, he escaped from imprisonment in his native country in the 80s. He was exiled in Europe, where he worked for Greenpeace and other humanitarian causes. In this novel, he draws on his experience of living for a year with the indigenous Shuar people in the Amazon under a UNESCO programme.

The Invention of Nature - Andrea Wulf

Andrea Wulf’s “The Invention of Nature” is a remarkable biographical account of Alexander von Humboldt’s (1769-1859) explorations and the impact these had on our perception of nature. His scientific legacy lives on in the names of multiple plants, animal species, towns, mountain ranges and waterfalls. However, his ideas - revolutionary for his time - are now somewhat forgotten. Von Humboldt argued against the dominant view of man as separate from the natural world and dominating it. Instead, he was one of the first European scientists to shed light on human activity’s negative impacts on nature and propose that the world is an interconnected, web-like organism. Instead of separating disciplines and subjects into silos, he argued for connecting the dots between various disciplines to see the bigger picture. While von Humboldt received recognition in his lifetime, his ideas and holistic approach to understanding the world have consequently fallen out of favour. This captivating book tries to bring this visionary and his ideas back to life.

Awake - Harald Voetmann (tr. Johanne Sorgenfri Ottosen)

This novella by a Danish writer and translator of Latin classical works explores the life and work of Pliny the Elder, a Roman scholar who lived in the 1st century AD. Pliny published a 37-volume work entitled ‘Naturalis Historia’, or Natural History, that aimed to catalogue knowledge on everything that was known to man at that time. This work was the primary source of scientific information for many generations of Western scholars and went unchallenged till 1492. However, this treatise contained multiple unsupported claims and exaggerations, rooted in magic and superstition, and deeply affected science and medicine in the subsequent years. Harald Voetmann’s work juxtaposes the realities of Pliny’s life and his titanic and futile attempt to encompass nature. Featuring passages from Naturalis Historia and the voices of Pliny the Elder, his nephew and his slave, this novella is an exciting exploration of man’s desire to ‘reign in’ nature.

The History of Bees - Maja Lunde (tr. Diane Oatley)

Maja Lunde is a Norwegian author; with this debut novel, she won the Norwegian Booksellers’ Prize in 2015. Not your typical ‘dystopian-future’ novel, this book spans about 250 years, exploring our relationships with nature - and bees - throughout generations from the Industrial Revolution to a not-so-distant future where bees go extinct, causing economic turmoil. Three disconnected stories set in different eras are brought together in a skilful narrative exploring the themes of family and connectedness. This well-researched and engaging read looks deeply into the roots of our current challenges and the history of our domination over nature. It also invites us to learn something from bees while they are still around.

Birnam Wood - Eleanor Catton

This novel by Eleanor Catton, a Booker-winning author from New Zealand, is a literary thriller and a satire about a clash between eco-idealism and wealth. Set in New Zealand, the story pits characters from different ‘camps’ against each other: guerilla environmentalists vs. billionaires. While the author’s sympathy is with the idealist eco-warriors, she offers a clear-eyed view of their illusions and confusions. Tackling a rather daunting issue - the helplessness of environmentalists confronted with extreme wealth - the book is masterfully written and altogether quite unputdownable.

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