Nebraska has nourished some of the most creative and influential nature writing in the English language. One measure of success in nature writing has been that—in the words of Nebraskan John Janovy—one “learns from nature… rather than [just] about nature.” This thought expresses the influence of a long literary tradition of romantic natural history writing reaching back to Emerson and Thoreau.
In that tradition, writing is personal and reflective, and engages the imagination. Writers in the romantic vein have often felt that contact with nature is a source of freedom and renewal. In presenting and dramatizing the natural world, romantic writers explore the fluid boundaries between human beings and nature, seeking to understand the limits of our perception of nature, and our growing responsibility for its fate. Of the three best known Nebraska nature writers, Loren Eiseley, John Janovy, and Paul Johnsgard, Eiseley felt the pull of this romantic tradition most strongly, but all three writers have acknowledged its influence in some manner.
In works gathered in this list, writers seek to change the context of our experience of the natural world. They use local knowledge, insight gained from lifetimes of observation or scholarship, and literary skill to make us look more closely at the world and our place in it.
This is a representative list, many of the authors included have written other works.
Borland, Hal. Hal Borland’s book of days. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1976.
Borland, born in Sterling, Nebraska, wrote more than 30 nature books and was for many years nature editor for the New York Times. This book is a nature diary that follows his observations through the year.
Borland, Hal. Homeland. A report from the country. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippencott co., 1969.
Essays follow the seasons in this chronological collection of Borland’s essays that appeared in The Progressive. Borland received the John Burroughs Medal in 1968, the highest award for nature writing given in the United States.
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Eiseley, Loren. All the strange hours: The excavation of a life. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1975.
A fascinating book that presents itself as the autobiography of the distinguished anthropologist. It tells the reader something about Eiseley’s inner life of the mind, while the usual personal autobiographical memoir of events in family and career is absent. It helps us understand Eiseley the romantic nature writer better, while leaving Eiseley the man in shadow.
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Eiseley, Loren. The Immense Journey. New York: Random House, 1957.
This collection of essays gained Eiseley a wide audience and critical acclaim. Available in many editions. Includes “How flowers changed the world” and “The judgement of birds.”
Eiseley, Loren. The night country. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971.
In the view of some critics, this was Eiseley’s finest collection of essays. One characteristic theme is an exploration of how we study and perceive time in the natural world.
Gates, Doris B. Nature Trails by The Pine Ridge Naturalist., 2 Vols. Chadron: B&B Printing, 1991.
A collection of a decade of the author’s “Nature Trails” newspaper columns in western Nebraska newspapers. Chatty and heterogeneous tidbits convey the fruits of deep local knowledge of the Pine Ridge, as well as a naturalist’s view of travel and current events.
Janovy, John, Jr. Keith County Journal. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978.
This book and its successor are considered to be among the finest works of American natural history. Insects, birds, plants and people in a single Nebraska county.
Janovy, John, Jr. Back in Keith County. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981.
Adds chapters to Janovy’s acclaimed Keith County Journal.
Janovy, John, Jr. Yellowlegs. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1980.
An eccentric biologist follows a sandpiper on her migration all the way from her nesting ground in arctic Canada to South America and back.
Janovy, John, Jr. On becoming a biologist. (Harper and Row Series on the Professions) New York: Harper and Row, 1985.
From the introductory chapter on naturalists onward, this book conveys Janovy’s personal perspectives and his experience in the profession he chose, as well as advice for the student.
Johnsgard, Paul A. Crane Music: A natural history of American cranes. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991.
Distinguished ornithologist, educator, conservationist, and nature writer Johnsgard offers a brief survey of the natural history of American cranes focusing on their annual migration, their habitats, dancing and other behaviors, and conservation, in a world wide context of crane populations and concern for their conservation.
Johnsgard, Paul A. Earth, water, and sky. A naturalist’s stories and sketches. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999.
One of the world’s leading authorities on bird behavior, and the author of over forty books and countless professional publications, Johnsgard writes engaging personal essays about his encounters with birds, all illustrated with his own pen and ink drawings.
Johnsgard, Paul A. The nature of Nebraska: Ecology and biodiversity. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001.
The most comprehensive guide to the ecological regions, processes, and flora and fauna of the state. With some of Johnsgard’s pen and ink illustrations. An accessible and engaging work by a writer who knows the scholarship, the wildlife and the place itself.
Johnsgard, Paul A. Prairie birds: Fragile splendor in the Great Plains. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2001.
In this work, dedicated to the memory of Aldo Leopold and to Annie Dilliard, Johnsgard offers a handbook to the behaviors, ecology, and conservation of prairie birds. Johnsgard gives careful attention to the history of landscape conservation, offers his personal observations of bird behavior, and includes his own pen ink drawings.
578.74 Joh Johnsgard, Paul A. Prairie dog empire: A saga of the shortgrass prairie. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.
An introduction to the ecological history of the short grass prairie and this key species. Moves from behavior and habitat of the prairie dog and its associates to the destructive effects of human domination and prospects for conservation.
Johnsgard, Paul A. This Fragile Land. A Natural History of the Nebraska Sandhills. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.
The most thorough guide available to the natural history and regional ecology of the Sandhills, a place where travel is difficult and population sparse. This book explores the regions, habitats, ecology and plants, birds, wildlife and insects of the Sandhills. With line drawings, maps, and habitat profiles. By a world renowned ornithologist who loves the Sandhills.
Knopp, Lisa. The nature of home: A lexicon and essays. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002.
Knopp’s essays have won critical acclaim for their intertwining explorations of ecology and personal perception. These essays relate Knopp’s thoughts about nature in and around Lincoln, Nebraska.
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Sandoz, Mari. The Buffalo Hunters. New York: Hastings House, 1954.
The story of the buffalo and their slaughter by a great Nebraska writer who sought to recover, in the mind’s eye, the grandeur of a natural world destroyed, who understood the spiritual meaning of the destruction for the native tribes, and who could put events in a powerfully evoked historical context.
Sandoz, Mari. Love Song to the Plains. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1961.
This is a celebration of the natural world and of the way that history has revealed the character of the inhabitants of the plains. At the same time, Sandoz puts the exploitation of this natural region casually but accurately in global contexts that included European financial markets and world trade.
Will, George F. (senior) and George E. Hyde Corn Among the Indians of the Upper Missouri. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1967 (1917).
George Hyde of Omaha was an informant and researcher for George Bird Grinnell. In this book Will and Hyde give a broad comparative ethnographic account of farming practices by the Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara and other groups. The knowledge, the seeds, and the practices that conserved them had crossed a gulf of horrors beginning with disease, war, and dislocation in the 1830s, and yet were still recoverable. Using seeds and information passed to them by Myron Gilmore and tribal elders, Will and Hyde cultivated and passed strains of corn adapted to cold and aridity along to the Montana Agricultural Experiment Station, making possible a 50 fold increase in Montana corn production between 1910 and 1924. This pioneering work sharpens our understanding of the interdependencies of culture and nature.
The work that Gilmore, Will, and Hyde undertook would now be called ethnobotany. A contemporary writer whose work in this field has been widely admired is Gary Nabhan. Nabhan recalls the efforts of Will and Hyde in the closing chapter of his Enduring Seeds: Native American agriculture and wild plant preservation (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1989).
Young, Kay. Wild Seasons: Gathering and Cooking Wild Plants of the Great Plains. Illustrated by Mark E Marcuson. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993.
This compendium of botanical information and recipes offers a delightful alternative path to appreciating the natural world. Nebraskan Kay Young helps us find the wild foods of the Great Plains and better understand the natural history of where we live. How to cook nettle greens, make chokecherry jelly, cattail pollen pancakes, prickly-pear cactus dressing and many other good things.