An award-winning writer even before publishing a book, Amy Leach has a fresh, vital approach to nonfiction in general and to the natural world in particular. Her debut collection of essays, Things That Are (Milkweed, $15), immediately evokes Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in its wide-eyed ebullience and genre-pushing meditations on flora and fauna. Rife with humor, and treating scientific fact with a playful spirit, Leach infuses her poetic prose with a whimsical effervescence that lends buoyancy to her thoughts and conjectures. Leach’s essays range among pea plants and panda bears, sea cucumbers and lilies, to consider the expanses of the cosmos. You’ll find yourself snorting with delight, reaching for the dictionary, and seeing the wild world anew.
Like the diversity it celebrates, Eric Dinerstein’s tour of The Kingdom of Rarities (Island Press, $24.99) is many wonderful things at once. Dinerstein, World Wildlife Fund chief scientist, visited regions “where rarity is common,” traveling from Michigan and the Andes to the Himalayas and Hawaii as part of the organization’s efforts to nurture vulnerable wildlife; together these reports have the trajectory of a spiritual quest as Dinerstein realizes that “the global conservation crisis is ultimately a spiritual crisis in disguise.” This account is also a double adventure story, following scientists’ harrowing treks into mountains and rainforests as well as the struggles of the plants and animals themselves to survive climate change, industry, poachers, introduced species, and other threats. Approaching these sites as a rigorous scientist but also as someone who simply revels in the looks, sounds, smells, and colors of nature, Dinerstein vividly describes species you’ve likely never encountered—the kouprey, the golden langur, the silversword—and he makes you want to. Whether rare because of dwindling populations or because their range is naturally narrow, these creatures contribute much to the “gross national happiness,” as Bhutan puts it, of the world at large.
Along with many other biological imperatives, The Homing Instinct (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27) shapes the lives of nearly all animals. Noted biologist and author Bernd Heinrich looks at a range of birds, insects, and mammals, considering what home—as both noun and verb—means to each. “We have learned much,” he reports, and vividly describes how butterflies align their inner compass with the earth’s magnetic field—a field some birds can probably see—while night-flyers navigate by the North Star and seabirds map a kind of landscape in what to us is a watery monotony. Still, for all the observations of bees’ and cranes’ dances and the prodigious distances migratory species travel to return at the same time to the same pinpoint of ground every year, these glimpses have “left us with the mysterious, magical, and miraculous.” Heinrich preserves the magic even as he illuminates the experiments scientists have devised for investigating how living creatures, including Homo sapiens, find and make homes. In one of the greatest of these we “went to the moon but saw the Earth instead.”