November Reading List: Five Books on Symbiosis

For all its beauty and splendor, the American West is a region defined by its harsh and oftentimes unforgiving landscapes. History is riddled with stories of those who arrogantly attempted to “tame” the West, only to eventually discover that they were no match for its merciless climate, wildlife, or topography.

Those who have found ways to thrive within the West’s landscapes have done so not through force of will, but through symbiosis–a cooperative, mutually beneficial relationship between people and their surroundings. 

In the world of land stewardship, Ranchlands is a case study in symbiosis. Its philosophy–“working together to live with the land”–reflects a humility and generosity toward a landscape that demands respect. Because of deliberate and thoughtful land stewardship, the land, soil, and animals benefit from their relationship with Ranchlands. And, in exchange, the Ranchlands community benefits from a healthy landscape and its bounty.

Below are five books that explore the idea of symbiosis and offer insights on forming cooperative relationships with everything from food to communities to our minds.

It All Turns on Affection: The Jefferson Lecture and Other Essays

by Wendell Berry

If I had to pick a single present-day thinker who has positively impacted my ideas around the symbiotic relationship between people and the land, it would be Wendell Berry. Berry is a prolific writer and poet, and you can’t go wrong with any of his work. But if you’re looking for an entry point in the mind of Berry, this short, easy-to-read collection of essays and transcribed conversations is an excellent choice. While there are plenty of impactful ideas in this short collection, his explanation of “boomers and stickers” will likely change the way you think about the importance of community and place.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life

by Barbara Kingsolver

Plenty of people dream of “living off the land,” but Kingsolver and her family actually tried to do it. Soon after moving to the verdant hills of Virginia, the Kingsolver family resolves to only consume food that they grow or that can be procured locally. The resulting story not only reveals the challenges and realities of eating locally and seasonally, but it illuminates much of the ridiculousness that defines our country’s food systems and supply chains. Educational, enlightening, and entertaining, this book is a must-read for anyone passionate about their food.

My Side of the Mountain

by Jean Craighead George

I’ll state it proudly, on the record: My Side of the Mountain is the greatest young adult novel ever written. And I’m not alone– countless friends and past podcast guests credit this book with jump starting their love of nature and wild places. It’s the story of 12-year-old Sam Gribley, who runs away from New York City and into the wilds of the Catskill Mountains. Sam builds a comfortable home in a hollowed-out hemlock tree, trains a falcon to be his hunting partner, makes pancakes from acorns, and countless other exploits that I clearly remember 30 years after first reading the book. A mandatory read for adventurers of all ages.

Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History

by Dan Flores

Over the past century, the relationship between coyotes and humans has been anything but symbiotic. As Flores brilliantly describes, the coyote has been on the receiving end of some of we humans’ most aggressive eradication campaigns. But despite the unrelenting human pressure, this versatile, nimble mammal has successfully created symbiotic relationships with almost all aspects of its habitat. Thanks to its biological cleverness, coyote populations have boomed, their territory has expanded, and you can now find the “trickster” animal thriving everywhere from the swamps of Florida to the streets of New York City.

Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind

by Annaka Harris

Of all the symbiotic relationships in our lives, none is more critical than the connection between an individual and his or her mind. Our minds are wholly responsible for how we understand and interact with the world– whether we’re content or miserable, good or evil, productive or destructive members of society. In just 113 pages, Harris lays out everything you’ve ever wanted to know– plus a lot that you’ve likely never considered– about the inner workings of our minds and what it means to be conscious. A challenging read, but it’s well worth the time– what could be more important than a symbiotic relationship with the gray matter between our ears?

For more book recommendations from Ed, head over to his blog, Mountain & Prairie.

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