Our Readers’ Favorite Books of 2023

The books—old and new—that our readers and staff enjoyed this year

Barn Raiser December 28, 2023

As the year wraps up, Barn Raiser asked our readers and staff to tell us their favorite rural and environmental-focused books they read in 2023. Here’s what they said:

A Bold Return to Giving a Damn: One Farm, Six Generations, and the Future of Food (2023) by Will Harris

A story of giving up a good income partnering with Big Ag and his transition to regenerative farming, there’s inspiration on every page, almost a how-to. He started with a lot of advantage with four generations before him acquiring land and cattle, but with change came lots of risk. His inherited can-do attitude and patience in learning from Nature lead the way to successfully restoring his land and producing quality meats from pasturing them to processing them and getting them into the hands of consumers who care.

-Linda Werner 

Love for the Land: Lessons from Farmers Who Persist in Place (2023) by Brooks Lamb

Love for the Land is an excellent work of environmental writing. The author highlights an important and often overlooked aspect of land stewardship–that the virtues of imagination, affection, and fidelity are not only the driving motivators of many small farmers, but also that these virtues are critical to land conservation generally. Most importantly, the author shows that imagination, affection, and fidelity for the land can be applied by everyone, no matter if you are from a small rural community or a large city. I highly recommend this book! Click here to read an excerpt from Love for the Land.

– A reader from Washington, DC

The Swine Republic (2023) by Chris Jones

If you don’t live in or near Iowa, it is true that a lot of the contents of this book will be obscure and relate specifically to people and places you will never know. But beyond the details of water politics, stream pollution and fertilizer run-off in Iowa, and the condition of the drinking water in Iowa, the meta-story (or subtext if you prefer) here is about how modern industry and industrial agriculture have grown too powerful, and how we as citizens must find ways to force ourselves and the structure of our civilization to change – or else, as it seems to me, the changes will be forced upon us in ways that we cannot fully grasp now, but which we can be certain will be more painful when they are upon us. Click here to read an excerpt from The Swine Republic

-David Wilk, Connecticut

Crossings: How Road Ecology Is Shaping the Future of Our Planet (2023) by Ben Goldfarb

Going in, I assumed roads were bad for wildlife. But I had no idea the scale of the problem until I read this book. It’s depressing but Goldfarb keeps the tone lively, suggests at least some ways forward, and I learned a ton.

-Dayton Martindale, Boulder, Colorado

How To Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals (2018) by Sy Montgomery

I loved how this book showed me to appreciate the lives of animals around us—wild or pets. It is such an insight into understanding them but even more—an insight into the gifts they give us through knowing them.

-Janet Metcalf 

Will Bonsall’s Essential Guide to Radical, Self-Reliant Gardening (2015) by Will Bonsall

All the good tips about successful, chemical-free growing of your own food wherever you may live, city or country. Also, the overarching and correct points made about maintaining that original American sense of self-governing, self-improving, and independence through one’s own efforts that makes this country what it has been, is, and can be to come.

-Anonymous

Our Home and Treaty Land (2022) by Raymond Aldred and Matthew Anderson

The Cree word “askîhk” is “land,” and means all of Creation.

The word wâhkôhtowin means living life in relation with every one and everything, it is “kinship relationality.” Land is shared and viewed as public space. Hence the European understanding of land ownership is foreign to Indigenous peoples. For Indigenous peoples the land is sacred, therefore all relationships on the land are to be sacred.

According to Rev. Dr. Anderson, oftentimes when settler-descended people like himself speak of their identity, they refer to themselves as Norwegian (etc.) Canadians, rather than being born and raised on Treaty land. 

Professor Anderson’s main purpose in co-writing this volume is stated as follows: “My part of this book is intended for others, like me, who seek right relationships to the land and to its original peoples, but don’t quite know how to begin (p. 21).” Professor Anderson also provides references to resources that can help settler-descendants to join Indigenous Peoples on water walks and walks that highlight missing murdered Indigenous women and girls, and two-spirited persons. 

-The Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson – “Dim Lamp,” Alberta, Canada

The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (2021) by David Graeber and David Wengrow

-A reader from Lubeck, West Virginia

Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place (1992) by Terry Tempest Williams

In spite of the obedience in the church she has practiced “civil disobedience” when she has lobbied in public, put into handcuffs, for “The Clan of the One-Breasted Women” and her stance against nuclear testing. She crossed the line at the Nevada Test Site and was arrested for trespassing on government land. The officer cuffed her and was frisked—revealing a pen and pad of paper tucked inside her left boot. “And these?” she asked sternly? “Weapons,” I replied. “Our eyes met. I smiled. She pulled the leg of my trousers back over my boot.” (290). She speaks to her faith as we endure life and grief, rebirth, and eventual death. The world is ever changing, as in the symbolism of the Spiral Jetty, constantly disappearing and reappearing over and over as the water level of the Great Salt Lake moves, the spiral is in reverence of her grandmother, Mimi. The spiral is our DNA, “the expansion and contraction of the energy of evolution.” (313).

Clark Swan, Billings, Montana

The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl (2006) by Timothy Egan

Lies and land speculation: Timothy Egan’s gripping account tells the story of the Dust Bowl that you’ve never heard before. Far from simply a “natural” disaster, Egan presents a chilling tale about the dangers of human ambition that defy a concern for the health of the environment. In a time of great ecological crisis, Egan offers an urgent warning about the ordinary lives upended from catastrophes fueled by bad policy and greed.

-Laura Orlando, Barn Raiser Contributing Editor

This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Family Farm (2018) by Ted Genoways

It starts with a simple premise: Rick Hammond co-owns the Centennial Hill Farm with his wife, Heidi, where they raise cattle and crops. The Hammonds are preparing to hand down the operation to their daughter Meghan, the sixth generation to run the family farm. Highly acclaimed journalist Ted Genoways, also a Nebraskan, plans to follow this generational transition on the Hammond family farm, documenting it for one year, “from harvest to harvest.” But soon enough, we find the cards are stacked against farmers like the Hammond family. Despite their grit, tenacity and downright love for what it means to farm and to feed others, the Hammond family confronts realities that would send most regular folks into a tailspin: impending threats of groundwater depletion, climate change, corporate consolidation, monopolization and fickle trade policy. There is little consolation in the highly erratic and unrelenting forces that conspire to exploit food for profit while leaving everyone else in the dust. By the sheer weight of his observations, Genoways shows there is nothing simple about being a farmer today.

Although it was written over five years ago, this book feels as fresh and alive as ever, as the pressures facing family farmers like the Hammonds have only grown in time. The brilliance of Genoways’s writing shines through his deep attention to language and place. As the intricacies of his narrative unspool, Genoways remains guided by a sense of compassion toward his subjects along with an unsparing directness about the seemingly insurmountable challenges they face. It becomes chilling once you realize that the Hammond’s situation is far from unique. Genoways’s deft pen dispels the false comforts of romanticized notions of the family farm, and the dangerous futility of creating nostalgia for a past that, if it did exist, existed only fleetingly. More than eulogizing the decline of the family farm, Genoways exposes the internecine systems that ravage the land and its people without repentance, and ripple effects of what this loss means, no less for our nation and sense of collective spirit than for our planet’s future. Reminiscent of John Sanford’s Life on the Land, the prose reads as if Eudora Welty and Robert Frost hopped in the back of a pickup truck ambling down a gravel road and collected their conversation falling from the dusty air, preserved in the rich soil.

-Justin Perkins, Barn Raiser Deputy Editor & Publisher

The Death and Life of the Great Lakes (2017) by Dan Egan

Having lived on the shores of Lake Superior and later Lake Michigan since childhood, this saga of the harm that we as a society have done and are doing to the Great Lakes was a wake up call. These lakes, which hold 20% of the Earth’s fresh water supply, need both our attention and protection.

-Joel Bleifuss, Barn Raiser Editor & Publisher

Demon Copperhead (2022) by Barbara Kingsolver

This unrelenting take of a youth trying to make it in Appalachia provides the reader with both an engrossing story and a dissection of how our dominant culture and institutions have relegated rural America’s poor to the margins of society.

-Joel Bleifuss, Barn Raiser Editor & Publisher

Forgotten Populists: When Farmers Turned Left to Save Democracy (2023) by Steve Babson

Steve Babson provides a needed corrective to those who misuse the word ‘populist.’ By going back to the agrarian roots of the Populists of the late 19th century. As he writes in his introduction: ‘Recovering the historical meaning of the Populist challenge to corporate absolutism is the first step in linking that past to current struggles against the corporate behemoths and right-wing authoritarians of our time.’

-Joel Bleifuss, Barn Raiser Editor & Publisher

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