Additional Reading on the Theme of Man and the Natural World

by Sara Letourneau
published in Reading

I love a good story that explores the theme of man and the natural world. Maybe it’s because I’m a nature lover at heart. Or maybe it’s because I often draw on nature for inspiration for my poetry. Regardless, when a book’s jacket copy hints at a unique natural setting, a character’s fight for survival in the wild, or animals playing a pivotal role, chances are I’m going to snatch up a copy.

As a result, I’ve read a lot of stories that cover this theme—and I’m always on the lookout for more. Maybe you are too. If that’s the case, you’ll find a number of these books in our previous Theme: A Story’s Soul post on why the theme of man and the natural world is important. But as you can tell from the title of this post, I saved some of those recommendations for today. (*wink*)

Here are five of my favorite stories that involve this literary theme.

The Distance Between Lost and Found by Kathryn Holmes (YA Fiction)

In this thoughtful debut novel by YA author Kathryn Holmes, Hallelujah (a.k.a. Hallie) Calhoun refuses to speak about a traumatic night with the local preacher’s son. Even when she attends a youth group retreat in the Smoky Mountains months later, she endures the taunting and bullying from her peers in silence. During a hike, the humiliation pushes Hallie to her breaking point, and she and two other teens become separated from the rest of the group. Thus, The Distance Between Lost and Found is as much a story of survival in the wilderness as it is a tale of a girl finding the courage to speak up.

The setting is partly what makes Distance’s delving into this theme so rich. Through Hallie’s perspective, the reader experiences some of the dangers of the Smoky Mountains, from the unease of sleeping outdoors without a tent to the terror of a bear encounter. They also witness the beauty Hallie finds in a forest sunrise and the tiny joy she feels when eating dandelions and freshwater fish.

The theme also surfaces outside of Hallie’s time lost in the woods. In the opening scene, Hallie tries to distract herself from her tormentors (who, oddly enough, are throwing twigs at her) by focusing on the campfire and on spiderwebs and a bird’s nest in the gazebo where she’s sitting. And toward the end, when she sees the preacher’s son in the hospital, she imagines she’s “facing that bear all over again” and confronts him about their past. In this way, she finds comfort and strength in her experience with the natural world.

(Learn more about The Distance Between Lost and Found as well as the author’s tips on bringing your story’s setting to life in this episode of the DIY MFA Podcast.)

The Martian by Andy Weir (Science Fiction)

How about an “out of this world” spin on man and the natural world? Andy Weir’s The Martian is a perfect sci-fi choice for this theme. It begins when the Ares 3 mission to Mars is aborted during a dust storm and the crew leaves behind botanist / engineer / astronaut Mark Watney, fearing him dead. Mark, however, is very much alive—but how will he survive with limited food supplies and damaged technology on a planet with a much harsher environment than Earth? That third and final challenge is partly what makes The Martian such a gripping read and an excellent addition to this list of “nature stories.”

During his extended time on Mars, Mark encounters one environmental danger after another. Dust storms, frigid cold, craters, lack of water—and that’s just for starters. But being the resourceful (and wise-cracking) botanist that he is, Mark draws on his knowledge of biology, plant life, and other sciences to improve his chances of survival while he waits to be rescued. For example, he figures out how to grow potatoes inside the Ares 3 habitat using a blend of earth and Martian soil, frozen potatoes, a water-producing system he builds himself, and (ahem) human waste. Yet Mark also knows he can’t hunker down inside the habitat forever. He ensures that each of his trips into the great Martian outdoors has a purpose, and each one reminds him of the planet’s unique beauty and perils. It goes to show that the natural world of any planet, not just Earth, can challenge a story’s characters.

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (Children’s Fiction)

No list of books about man and nature would be complete without this classic tale featuring one of literature’s most beloved gardens. But The Secret Garden isn’t just a story about children bringing a neglected garden back to life. It’s also about the children themselves: ten-year-old Mary Lennox, who comes to England to live with her often-absent uncle after her parents die of cholera in colonial India; and her cousin Colin, who rarely sees his father (the aforementioned uncle) and has been told he’s too sick to walk. As the cousins learn how their lives have both been marked by isolation and a lack of parental love, Mary wonders if she should tell Colin about the walled garden she’s been tending at the manor where they live—and her decision produces miracles for everyone involved.

The theme of man and the natural world blossoms early in The Secret Garden. Twice in the first two chapters, Mary plays with a pretend garden, pushing cut hibiscus blossoms into the ground. Not only does this foreshadow her later interest in the garden at Misselthwaite Manor, but it also symbolizes Mary at that time in her life. Without water or nutrients, the pretend garden won’t survive, just as Mary isn’t able to thrive in India without love and nurturing from others.

Once Mary arrives at Misselthwaite Manor and learns about the garden, the theme continues to flourish. Mary befriends Dickon Sowerby, who frequents the local moors and rescues animals, and Ben Weatherstaff, the manor’s gardener. She also meets Dickon’s pets, Captain the fox and Soot the crow, and finds companionship with a robin who helps her find the key to the garden door. Most importantly, as Mary takes care of the secret garden, she develops healthier relationships with the people around her and learns the value of kindness and compassion. In a way, her relationship with nature allows her to grow into a happier, more confident person and to heal from her past. The same can be said for Colin, who becomes increasingly optimistic about his health—and eventually learns to walk—as he engages with the garden.

Wesley the Owl: The Remarkable Story of an Owl and His Girl by Stacey O’Brien (Memoir)

Let’s be honest: That adorable cover makes you want to read the book, right? Fuzzy cuteness aside, Wesley the Owl is a fantastic example of the human-and-animal “love story” approach to this literary theme. It begins on a fateful day in 1985 when the author, biologist Stacey O’Brien, meets a four-day-old barn owl with nerve damage in one of his wings. One of O’Brien’s colleagues at Caltech’s owl laboratory offers her the chance to raise the owl, since the injury compromised the owl’s ability to fly and survive in the wild. O’Brien says yes, of course—and her decision changes her life forever.

O’Brien spends a fair amount of Wesley the Owl teaching the reader about owls. Their diet, types of calls, hunting and mating habits—you name it, O’Brien covers it as she recalls various experiences from her and Wesley’s twenty years together. She also points out some of his behaviors that we humans can relate to on an emotional level. For example, when Wesley hisses and refuses to look at O’Brien after a failed attempt at flying, O’Brien realizes it’s because she was laughing at him and thus made him feel embarrassed.

So why is Wesley the Owl a memoir and not a reference book? Probably because the reader learns how the natural world has been an integral part of the author’s life. O’Brien recounts childhood memories of her dog Luddie, her trips with her father and her sister to the ocean and Angeles Crest National Park, and examining the tiniest of creatures under her microscope. With Wesley in particular, she shares evidence of how the owl viewed her as his mother (and, as he reached sexual maturity, how he sometimes viewed her as his mate). She also recalls how Wesley influenced her life, from scaring off the men she dated to giving her a reason to live despite a debilitating illness. In this way, Wesley the Owl reminds us of what happens when we allow the natural world to fascinate us and open our hearts to even a single baby bird.

The Wolf in the Whale by Jordanna Max Brodsky (Historical Fantasy)

The Wolf in the Whale imagines what may have happened when the Inuit and the Vikings first encountered one another in North America over 1,000 years ago—with a fantastical twist. Omat, a girl raised as a boy, is being groomed as a shaman who can commune with nature and animal spirits to protect her people. But soon the spirits stop listening, and her family is on the verge of starvation. When Omat is forced to become the wife of a second Inuit clan’s leader, it sets off a chain of events that leads Omat into the path of Norse explorers led by the ruthless Freydis Eiríksdóttir, sister of Leif Eiríksson—and to a mythic clash between gods and spirits that could spell the end of all Omat holds dear.

Like with other books on this list, the setting is integral to The Wolf in the Whale’s examination of the theme of man and the natural world. The climate and landscapes of the Canadian arctic impact the lives of the characters who live there; and the animals who also call it home—wolves, whales, and caribou, just to name a few—provide meat for nourishment, hides for clothing and shelter, and much more. In addition, nature is ingrained in the Inuit’s way of life. The spirits they pray to are tied to the moon, the sun, weather, and different animal species. (The same goes for select gods and goddesses from Norse mythology.) Omat also draws upon wildlife and the setting when using metaphors or making comparisons. These and other aspects of the story illustrate the Inuit’s deep respect for the natural world and their acceptance of the wonders and perils that are part of it. 

Need more suggestions for books about man and the natural world? Check out these book lists from BookBub, Early Bird Books, The Globe and Mail, and Goodreads.

What other stories featuring the theme of man and the natural world would you recommend?

Sara Letourneau is a freelance editor and writing coach based in Massachusetts. She’s currently taking clients with manuscripts in speculative fiction, literary fiction, or YA, though she’s open to other genres as well. She’s also a poet whose work has appeared in Amethyst Review, Canary, Muddy River Poetry Review, Soul-Lit, and elsewhere. A Massachusetts resident, she can often be found performing her poems at local open mic nights, reading good books, and enjoying a cup of tea. Learn more about how Sara can help you with your writing at Heart of the Story Editorial & Coaching Services. You can also connect with her at her writer website, Twitter, Goodreads, or Instagram.

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