Notes From the Understory: A Bibliographical Essay for “Toward a Useful Ignorance”

What you’ll find below is a selected, certainly not exhaustive bibliography of the work that has most influenced my essay for The Point, “Toward a Useful Ignorance.”

Acknowledgements: Thanks to my Madison, Wisconsin, writing group: Mary Murrell, Andrew Kay, Nathan Jandl, and especially Heather Swan, who gave me the gift of ignorance. Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee and Bethany Ritz turned what I had thought was a quick Point Reyes meet-and-greet over ginger tea into a deeply engaged discussion of ecophilosophy during which I scribbled pages of notes. Gavin Van Horn lent me his steady hand and clear editorial eye. Josh and Kerstin Mabie hosted an early version of this talk at their Lyceum. If you find yourself in the Madison area, check their farm out. Jon Baskin sharpened every line and every thought of this essay, and Rachel Wiseman made sure it was both factually correct and beautiful; I’m glad it found a home at The Point. Katie Holten graciously allowed me to use her tree font (which she makes freely available here) as well as to reproduce one of the pages of her extraordinary book, About Trees. And to all the authors, artists, and scientists whose work I’ve spent years reading: thank you for your devotion.


This essay draws its intellectual nourishment from a wide range of thinkers, and most immediately from Timothy Morton’s deep embrace of the liberatory potential of the human limits of ecological knowledge. I’ve relied on his Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), The Ecological Thought (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010), Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), Realist Magic: Objects, Ontology, Causality (Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press, 2013), Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), and Being Ecological (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2018).

Morton is one of the latest thinkers in an enormous tradition of ecophilosophy and eco-ethics. Among the most important for me is Thoreau’s corpus. I rely upon The Journals of Henry David Thoreau. Edited by Bradford Torrey and Francis H. Allen. 14 vols. bound as 2. (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1962); Thoreau: A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers; Walden; The Maine Woods; Cape Cod (New York: The Library of America, 1985); Thoreau: Collected Essays and Poems (New York: The Library of America, 2001), as well as Laura Dassow Wall’s recent biography, Henry David Thoreau: A Life (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2017), and Stanely Cavell’s The Senses of Walden: An Expanded Edition (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992). Green anarchism has also been a major influence, and aside from Thoreau I rely upon Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (Forgotten Books: n.p., 2008), Murray Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy (Oakland: AK Press, 2005), and Derrick Jensen, A Language Older Than Words (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2000), as well as the anticapitalist influence of Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, Donald Nicholson-Smith, trans., (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1991) and Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, ed., Edmund Jephcott, trans., (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002). Val Plumwood’s Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (London: Routledge, 1993) has indelibly marked my thinking on hierarchy, domination, and the non-human world.

Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, 2nd ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998) lies behind much of what I’ve written here. Arendt isn’t often considered an environmental thinker, but Wen Stephenson’s essay for The Los Angeles Review Of Books, “Learning to Live in the Dark: Reading Arendt in the Time of Climate Change”  is one of the few pieces of which I’m aware that makes the case, brilliantly, for Arendt’s Anthropocenic importance.

I’ve written about Rachel Carson before, (Silent Spring & Other Writing on the Environment,” Bookforum, April, 2018), and I’m happy to have Sandra Steingraber’s Silent Spring & Other Writings on the Environment, (New York: The Library of America, 2018) as my guide. One of the best general surveys of wonder is Caspar Henderson’s A New Map of Wonders: A Journey in Search of Modern Marvels (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2017). See also his interview for Five Books.

Robert Pogue Harrison’s Forests: The Shadow of Civilization (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992) remains one of the finest explorations of what the woods have meant in western culture, and has influenced me enormously, as has Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory (New York: Vintage Books, 1995).

Those with a background in science and technology studies will recognize its clear influence in the way my essay historicizes science’s claim to authority. I’ll briefly note Bruno Latour’s “Attempt at a ‘Compositionist Manifesto,’" New Literary History 41, 3 (Summer, 2010): 471-490, as well as many of the articles collected in Steven Shapin’s Never Pure: Historical Studies of Science as if It Was Produced by People with Bodies, Situated in Time, Space, Culture, and Society, and Struggling for Credibility and Authority (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010) as pieces that have especially shaped my thinking.

The world is warming: that’s a fact. But what does it mean? In grappling with this question, I’ve turned to Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature: With a New Introduction by the Author (New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2006) and Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2011); Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011); Roy Scranton, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2015); Jedediah Purdy, After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015) and “Thinking Like a Mountain: On Nature Writing,” n+1 29 (Fall, 2017);  Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2016) (and see Steve Paulson’s interview with Ghosh, “Where’s the Great ‘Climate Change Novel,’?” in The Los Angeles Review of Books); Heather Swan, Where Honeybees Thrive: Stories from the Field (University Park: Penn State University Press, 2017); Richard Smyth, “The Dark Side of Nature Writing,” The New Humanist (June, 2018);  and Gregg Mitman, Marco Armiero, and Robert S. Emmett, eds., Future Remains: A Cabinet of Curiosities for the Anthropocene (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2018).


One of the great pleasures of writing this essay has been wandering through the groves of recent work that consider the sylvan world. I’ve purposely limited myself to writing that has appeared in the last twenty years or so. For a much more exhaustive list of sources, especially those that focus on the nineteenth-century US, see my article “Reading Tree in Nature’s Nation: Toward a Field Guide to Sylvan Literacy in the Nineteenth-Century United States,” The American Historical Review 121, 4 (2016): 1114 – 1140.

Among the nonfiction I’ve consulted for this essay: Joan Morgan and Alison Richards, The Book of Apples (London: Brogdale Horticultural Trust, 1993); Laura Rival, ed., The Social Life of Trees: Anthropological Perspectives on Tree Symbolism (Oxford: Berg, 1998); Michael P. Cohen, A Garden of Bristlecones: Tales of Change in the Great Basin (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1998); Gayle Brandow Samuels, Enduring Roots: Encounters with Trees, History, and the American Landscape (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1999); Lori Vermaas, Sequoia: The Heralded Tree in American Art and Culture (Washington: Smithsonian Books, 2003); Lawrence S. Earley, Looking for Longleaf: The Fall and Rise of an American Forest (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004); William Bryant Logan, Oak: The Frame of Civilization (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005); Richard Preston, The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring (New York: Random House, 2007); John Fowles, The Tree. With a New Introduction by Barry Lopez (New York: HarperCollins, 2010); Theodore W. Pietsch, Trees of Life: A Visual History of Evolution, (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012); Jennifer L. Anderson, Mahogany: the Costs of Luxury in Early America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012); William Kerrigan, Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard: A Cultural History (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012); Jared Farmer, Trees in Paradise: A California History (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013); Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think: Toward and Anthropology Beyond the Human (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 2013); Manuel Lima, The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2014); Jill Jonnes, Urban Forests: A Natural History of Trees and People in the American Cityscape (New York: Viking, 2016); Mike Shanahan, Gods, Wasps and Stranglers: The Secret History and Redemptive Future of Fig Trees (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2016); Fiona Stafford, The Long, Long Life of Trees (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016); Josh Macivor-Andersen’s incredible recent collection, Rooted: The Best New Arboreal Nonfiction (San Francisco: Outpost19, 2017); Richard Higgins, Thoreau and the Language of Trees (Oakland: University of California Press, 2017); Lynda V. Mapes, Witness Tree: Seasons of Change with a Century-Old Oak (New York: Bloomsbury, 2017); and Michael Taussig, Palma Africana (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2018).

Of course, I’ve spent the most time with David George Haskell’s, The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature's Great Connectors (New York: Viking, 2017); Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate (Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2016), and especially Katie Holten’s, About Trees (Berlin: Broken Dimanche Press, 2016). See also Holten’s “Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto, Reforested” in Dark Mountain 13 (Spring, 2018). And, in an act of incredible generosity, Holten makes her tree front freely available. You can find it here.

I especially want to point to an essay that I can’t shake and have read two dozen times since I first came across it: Sohini Basak’s “The Tree. Which Tree?” in 3:AM Magazine (August, 2016).  “We must stop projecting our own sorrows onto trees, onto young women, we must refrain from shoving our stupid dreams down someone else’s pipe,” she writes. 

I’ve spent many hours pouring over photographers’ books of trees, but I’ll only mention three here: Robert Adams, Tree Line (Göttingen: Steidl, 2009); Gretchen C. Daly and Charles J. Katz, Jr., The Power of Trees (San Antonio, Trinity University Press, 2012); and Rachel Sussman, The Oldest Living Things in the World (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2014).

Poets have seemingly always found inspiration in the trees. I’ve found mine in Mary Oliver, White Pine: Poems and Prose Poems (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1994); W.S. Merwin’s marvellous collected corpus, The Collected Poems of W.S. Merwin, J.D. McClatchy, ed., (New York: The Library of America, 2013); Cecily Parks, O’ Nights (Farmington: Alice James Books, 2015); and Vievee Francis, Forest Primeval (Evanston: Triquarterly Books, 2016)—a book I picked up immediately after tea with Vaughan-Lee and Ritz.

You’ll notice I only include one work of fiction (though I wrote very briefly about sylvan novels here): Richard Powers’s The Overstory (New York: W.W Norton & company, 2018).  Though I’ve limited this essay to a consideration of recent nonfiction, I included The Overstory because it is so philosophically rich, and is also one of the best general cultural histories of trees that I know of. See also Everett Hammer’s interview with Powers, “Here’s to Unsuicide” in The Los Angeles Review Of Books.

Finally, for those with a predilection towards academic history, The Forest History Society’s searchable database is an incredible gift. You can find it here.