In this month’s media recommendations, I’m sharing five audiobooks about one of my favorite subjects – plants! I love audiobooks about non-fiction topics especially because I sometimes find it challenging to choose serious books over more lighthearted novels. Let’s face it, books about plants can often be dry, but the narration adds animation to the material that textbooks often lack. Audiobooks are the perfect way to keep learning while being engaged. Similarly to podcasts, there are so many listening opportunities in a day that audiobooks can fill, particularly during long drives. The narrator, often the author if we’re lucky, brings so much emotion and life to the material. The story as a whole is incredibly captivating because audiobooks are more of a performance rather than a simple recitation.
Audiobooks are available from many sources, but I primarily get mine from the library-based app Overdrive, and the subscription service app Audible. Overdrive is an amazing app that allows the user to download e-books and audiobooks for free with only a library card. Whenever the Alaska Digital Library doesn’t have an audiobook I’m looking for, I turn to the more extensive Audible collection. Unlike podcasts, audiobooks are less likely to be free so subscription services are more common.
My favorite thing about plants is how wildly different they are from animals, down to a cellular level. So many adaptions have occurred so that species from both kingdoms are able to live and pass on genes, yet there are such drastically different, complex strategies for success. I’ve always enjoyed learning about plant structures rather than human anatomy in my biology courses, hence my environmental science major.
The following are five of my favorite audiobooks about the plant kingdom. I start the list with The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan, which details how apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes have co-evolved with humans. He explores an intriguing question – are humans in control or are plants? Renowned geochemist Hope Jahren expertly weaves together her memoir, her research, and her fight to include women in science in her first book, Lab Girl. In The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohllenben does exactly as the title suggests – he exposes a secret world of communication and friendship that scientists are only recently beginning to understand. If you think seeds aren’t interesting or worth investigating, The Triumph of Seeds will convince you otherwise. Robin Wall Kimmerer, a Potawatomi woman, wrote Braiding Sweetgrass as a way to explore and interweave indigenous wisdom with scientific knowledge to form one cohesive narrative about botany and conservation.
I hope you enjoy these audiobook recommendations, I know I enjoyed listening to them! They are all available as print copies as well, if you prefer physically reading books, though I do recommend listening to the performance of these exceptional narrators.
- The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye View of the World; written by Michael Pollan, narrated by Scott Brick
Hands down, this is the best book about plants I have ever read. Pollan’s book truly does think about the world from a plant’s viewpoint – he gives plants agency and control in a world in which only human-like intelligence is perceived as valuable. The book starts off with what sounds like a wild conspiracy theory – plants, wheat specifically, domesticated humans. During the dawn of agriculture, we started intentionally planting wheat and other cereal grains because they had something we wanted. But did the wheat provide us with that so that we would propagate them and spread their reach farther than they could on their own? After all, did we cut down massive tracts of forests to plant wheat, such that wheat soon began to dominate and take over the area. Without human help, wheat couldn’t have conquered all that territory. Did we do that on our own or did the wheat biochemically alter our brains to cause us to do it? Michael Pollan does an excellent job introducing the theory that plants have more agency than we give them credit for.
Pollan investigates how four human desires, sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control are linked to four different plants – apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes. Each plant has evolved to continually capture our attention, and we have gone through incredible lengths to ensure their survival and reproduction. The quest for sweetness before commercially produced high fructose corn syrup led to many, many breeds of apples each with its own unique characteristics. I hadn’t thought about the rarity of consistent sweetness in nature, the challenge of cultivating deliciousness since only apple clones produce the same taste as their parent plant. In beauty he goes through the oft-told history of the Dutch obsession with the tulip, but Pollan sheds fresh light on the meteoric rise and how the flower really did incite a tulip fever that led to massive tracts of land converted solely for their survival.
We do all we can to ensure these four plants have everything they could possibly need to thrive and have gone through great lengths to care for them. These four plants now span the globe whereas without our fascination, they might have only stayed in one corner of the world. We have both benefited greatly from our partnership, it can’t be denied.
Similarly, the reader and the material also both benefit with Scott Brick narrating. He has narrated several of Pollan’s books, and I enjoyed his thoughtful performance. He has a knack for dramatic pauses and meaningful emphasis on some phrases, which I enjoy though I have read many reviews that dislike that tendency. It’s a very distinctive narration style and I think it enhances the material, though it is certainly fascinating on its own.
The Botany of Desire is truly an incredible book that gives plants the rightful recognition they deserve by exploring how they are not helpless organisms that mindlessly submit to the desires of humans. Plants have agency and are makers of their own destiny. I cannot recommend the book enough. After finishing this audiobook, I can’t wait to listen to some of Pollan’s other books, which mostly cover modern food science and agricultural systems.
- Lab Girl; written and read by Hope Jahren
My good friend Shoshanna Freeman recommended this book to me – she told me that she enjoyed the book, but that it had a bit too much “plant stuff” in it for her taste. Luckily, plant stuff is just my thing so I promptly borrowed the book from Overdrive.
Geochemists are not often known for their ability to write engaging prose, but Jahren excels in this field.
I wasn’t sure what to expect with this book – was it one scientist’s autobiography, an exploration into being a woman in science, or detailed geochemsitry research? It was truly all the above, and more so.
I learned so much while listening to this book. As someone not involved in the intricacies of scientific research, I had no idea how reliable the longevity of the position is on funding, how much it costs to conduct research at the highest level, and the challenge of the constant quest for funding.
At times, her descriptions of her scientific research were too detailed for my preference. Had I been reading a physical copy of the book, I might have put it down. However Jahren’s narration held me captivated. Her moving performance added so much to the material. Her voice strongly conveyed the emotions she was feeling as she dealt with finding funding for her research, as well as being a woman in science.
Overall Lab Girl is a stunning, moving portrayal of what it means to be a woman in science, how fascinating, complex, and miraculous plant life is, and the impact humans are having on the planet.
- The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries of a Secret World; written by Peter Wohllenben, narrated by Mike Grady
I have read so many sterling reviews about the groundbreaking information presented in Wohllenben’s newest book. I’ve always loved trees so this book was quickly added to my list of “must read.” The Hidden Life of Trees helped continue my depth of knowledge about trees in an entirely different direction – trees as social beings. Most people think of plants, trees especially, as incapable of thought, speech, taste, and feeling. But Wohllenben strongly argues against all of those restrictions, and more, with the latest scientific research. He retools how we think of speech. After all, what is speech but patterns of sound waves interpreted to have specific meaning? Trees speak via crackling roots. Whereas I would intuitively add quotations around “speak” and “taste” when referring to trees, Wohllenben does no such thing and argues that trees do speak and do taste, just differently than people. But different doesn’t mean wrong or impossible, we just have to expand our definition to include diverse styles of communication.
Trees help each other, strategically plan their growth and reproduction.
As all good plant books do, Wohllenben also passionately advocates for the preservation of trees and their ecosystems. He argues for this conservation on a multiprong approach – trees themselves have inherent value, they perform irreplaceable ecosystem services, and humans need them for a variety of reasons.
At first I had trouble believing that trees can taste and have friends, especially listening to the dry tones of Mike Grady narrate. His performance was very calm and gentle, not as dramatic perhaps as the material needed, but overall decent. The text was a tad dry, Wohllenben doesn’t quite have the touch of the more elegant scientific writers, but it is still highly readable. And it is quite manageably only seven-and-half-hours, which is on the shorter sides of nonfiction texts.
The Hidden Life of Trees is densely packed with fascinating information. Mike Grady offers a soothing way to learn about how trees live, love, and learn together. The forest is certainly more than the sum of its parts. The importance of healthy, blooming forest ecosystems is increasingly vital in our current state of mass deforestation. The secret world of forests is exposed in this revealing book.
- The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses, and Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History; written by Thor Hanson, narrated by Marc Vietor
The best way to describe The Triumph of Seeds is surprising, in every regard. I was surprised seeds had so much influence on the world, beyond the agricultural field. He reveals how seeds have played important economic and sociological roles as well. I was surprised I thought this book would be slightly interesting, but Thor Hanson’s colorful imagery and humorous metaphors kept me hooked. The audiobook was entirely unexpected yet rewarding.
The Triumph of Seeds has a more narrow scope than the previous three books on this list. Whereas The Botany of Desire and Lab Girl have a wider scope that appeal to audiences broadly interested in plant life, The Triumph of Seeds is an exceptional choice for a more niche audience. Even if you didn’t think you were interested in seeds, this book could change your mind with its in-depth and humorous scientitifc inqury.
If anyone can pull you into the text and convince you of the power of seeds, it’s Marc Vietor. He is a great narrator, his voice authoritative yet very pleasant. He reads aloud as if participating in an engaging, but thoroughly one-sided, conversation.
The Triumph of Seeds is a surprisingly captivating book that weaves together several scientific fields, history, and horticulture to educate the reader about the influence of seeds in every aspect of plant life. Prepare to be entertained and educated.
- Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants; written and read by Robin Wall Kimmerer
Braiding Sweetgrass is a unique, elegant book on this list; its focus is on ecological consciousness and realizing our place in the world filled with other equally valuable beings. Robin Wall Kimmerer is a Potawatomi woman, botanist, and professor of plant ecology so she is able to uniquely blend together traditional ecological knowledge with laboratory-based scientific knowledge. There is so much overlap between the two ways of knowing, but traditional knowledge can be unfortunately looked down upon as it often combines myth and fact. Kimmerer does an excellent job of presenting how the two are self-reinforcing and can be merged rather than at odds.
Kimmerer excellently weaves together origin stories of plants with scientific knowledge. This is not an area I know much about, but I thoroughly enjoyed the learning process. She specifically preaches the importance of gratitude and how that practice has the ability impacts every facet of life. I really enjoyed her discussion of the effects of gratitude, I think everyone should work on incorportatin the practice into their day-to-day life.
She tells a lovely story of species inter-dependence, and she promotes the conservation of all beings, not just keystone species or economically important species. With so much reliance on interwoven into so many ecological systems, conservation of just one aspect isn’t practical for true preservation of any species, so we need to work to practice whole-system conservation.
This audiobook is quite a bit longer than the others on this list, but Kimmerer has a gentle, soothing voice that makes the almost seventeen hours pass quickly. It’s very easy to hear when she smiles, which she does warmly and frequently. The length allows her to provide a wide variety of insights, each expertly woven together to form a cohesive whole.
Braiding Sweetgrass is not about just specific scientific details of various kinds of plants, but rather a holistic viewpoint of global interactions between all organisms. Kimmerer advocates for increasing gratitude, awareness, and conservation. This practice benefits not just us, but all living beings.
Books about plants and nature are the perfect way to continue learning because they’re so engaging and informative. Often written for someone with an interest in plants but not necessarily formal education in the matter, the books are very appealing. They lack technical terms and overly detailed methods, but still convey the essence of the material.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from scientific novels, it’s that the authors love lengthy subtitles. Short, snappy names are often followed by rather detailed subtitles, in a similar manner as scientific journals, though thankfully without the Latin binomial nomenclature (see #4 on my list!).
As usual, if you’ve read any of these books or plan to, I’d love to hear about it in the comments. Let me know of other plant audiobooks or regular print books that you’ve enjoyed!