top of page

God of the Garden Reading List

Hello, folks! I had good intentions of adding this resource list to the Rabbit Room’s annual “Stuff We Liked in 2021” post, but the document kept growing and I missed the boat. I ended up posting these on social media, but thought it would be helpful to compile them here for your perusal. One of my favorite parts of writing The God of the Garden was the excuse to read a whole bunch of books about place, culture, gardening, community, and the natural world, and to read them through the lens of my belief in Christ, his Kingdom, and the promise of a New Creation. Lest you think I read more than I do, I confess that I read a few of these in 2020, and a couple of others were first read years ago but were referenced in my book. I hope some of these will ignite in you a love for this creation that God so loves.

As I wrote in the afterword, “We have a mandate to take care of the place, and we’re told in Scripture that the master of the house is returning. This is more than an environmental concern (though it is certainly that, too). It extends to the way we build things, the way we get around, the way we do the business of life. If God intends for us to flourish, we disregard the flourishing of his creation at our peril. Infrastructure, city planning, creation care, justice, neighborliness, and stewardship of resources are all theological concerns.” Happy reading!

William Wordsworth: Poems Selected by Seamus Heaney

It can be difficult to know where to begin with a poet, so it’s not a bad idea to let another Great Poet point the way. This little pocket edition lived in my backpack for about a year, and is the reason the chapters of The God of the Garden were structured around Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality.”

Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne

Selborne is a lovely little village in Hampshire, England, right up the road from English L’Abri. I have good memories of walking with Jamie through the pasture below the church and into the hills along muddy footpaths, where we were chased by cows. We learned that it’s difficult to run in Wellies, especially in ankle-deep mud. We also climbed the famous zig zag path he cut with his brother in 1753, up a steep hill into Selborne Hanger, where White spent a lot of his time carefully observing the minutiae of natural life. It’s a lesson in paying attention. Last summer we met some good friends for tea at the museum there, where we saw his original manuscript and then wandered the gardens he planted. He was a humble man, and pastored the church there for his whole life. His grave in an unassuming corner of the churchyard is nondescript, which feels beautifully appropriate.

Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry

I’ve written at length about this one, so if you aren’t convinced yet, you never will be. One of the great works of American literature, says I. In 2014 I had the honor of “opening” for Wendell at an event here in Nashville, where I played about five songs, all of which were inspired by him (“Planting Trees,” “The Magic Hour,” and “World Traveler,” among a few others) with Mr. Berry and Tanya listening on from the front row. I was a mixture of wildly intimidated and wildly thankful. I brought my first edition for him to sign, and it’s probably the one book I’d rescue if the Chapter House were ever on fire.

The Art of Pencil Drawing by Ernest W. Watson

Drawing trees has taught me as much about them as reading. For the most part, the drawings in this book are all from either sitting in front of the tree itself, or from pictures I’ve taken with my phone. A few people have asked for sketching advice, which is kind of hilarious because I don’t really know what I’m doing. But songwriting and book writing have both taught me that the only way to learn is to do, and I’m committed to the long game. It really does come down to practice. That said, this book is full of good, practical advice on things like which pencils to use and when, how to compose a sketch, and techniques on textures and such. To be honest, though, YouTube has also been just as helpful. Simply find a how-to video of a tree you like, turn on some good music, and prepare to be disappointed. Try again the next day, then the next, and in a week your disappointment will decrease a little. Whatever you think of the final product, you’ll have learned a bit about trunks, branches, the habits of certain species, and I guarantee you’ll find yourself looking at the trees in your backyard with a better eye. For what it’s worth, I like Strathmore drawing paper and Derwent pencils. If you’re working from a photograph, edit the photo to black and white, since those are the values you’ll be working with. Once you lose the color, sometimes you’ll find that the photo you like doesn’t make for a good drawing because the values aren’t varied enough. As you’re finishing the drawing, don’t hesitate to darken it up. If it’s black on the photo, make it black on your paper. I’ve found that even the drawings I don’t like get better once the darks are really dark. Finally, don’t be afraid to screw it up, because there’s always more paper.

Tree of Life by The BibleProject

I love everything the BibleProject team does, from the videos to the printed materials to the podcasts. Their “Tree of Life” video and podcast series are excellent primers on the centrality of trees in the Bible narrative.

Gardener’s World by Monty Don

In February and March, when I can’t stand another dreary day of winter, I find myself wistfully watching old episodes of Gardener’s World. It’s a feast for the eyes, but it’s also extremely practical. Monty and the team are genuinely interested in helping viewers to see the great good of gardening and to grow things better.

A Hidden Life by Terence Malick

It’s safe to say that no film has ever affected me like this one. Made by a Christian, about a Christian, pointing to the suffering of Christ, the beauty of his world, and the coming of the New Creation, it is a resounding rebuke to anyone claiming that there’s no good art by Christians. Many of Malick’s films are eccentric, experienced more like poems than stories, but this I think is the one with the most straightforward narrative—that of Austrian Franz Jäggerstätter, who because of his faith refused to swear allegiance to Hitler and was executed. I beg you to see this film. So many of the themes of The God of the Garden are much better expressed there. A stunning portrait of moral courage—and timely.

All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot

This is the kind of book I would have rolled my eyes at when I was a teenager, but I gobbled it up as an adult. It’s a somewhat fictionalized memoir about a 1930s country veterinarian in the Yorkshire Dales, telling his tale with good humor, as well as lush descriptions of the fells and valleys of one of the prettiest places on earth. The opening scene features the rookie vet in a barn, his arm buried up to his shoulder in the rear of a pregnant cow, while the old codgers tease him. It’s a funny scene, but it’s also subtly profound, demonstrating in just a few pages the deep connection between the people and the land, the beauty of community, and the noble humility of humans willing to work and keep God’s creation. (P.S. The new show is a bit hokey, but it’s wholesome and beautifully made.)

The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben

What a splash this book made! Wohlleben’s research peels back just one layer of the onion of creation, showing that trees are more alive and mysterious than we ever knew. It changed the way I see the little patch of trees on our property.

Culture Making by Andy Crouch

I think every American Christian should read this book, especially in light of the craziness of the world in the early 21st century. Andy casts a beautiful vision of the Christian’s role in the world, which is more about caring for and building cultures than waging war on them.

The Shepherd’s Life and English Pastoral by James Rebanks

Rebanks is a Lake District sheep farmer, and he talks like one. I imagine him as a sort of British Wendell Berry with a twist of sea pirate. These two books are memoirs of his life as a farmer and are funny, wise, and elegantly written.

The Brother Gardeners by Andrea Wulf

This one traces the history of horticulture in England, demonstrating how it became the garden mecca that it is. The “brothers” she focuses on were 18th century botanists John Bartram (America), Peter Collinson (England), and Charles Linnaeus (Sweden), among several other luminaries. It was a true delight to read of their delight of the natural world, and the great pains they took to catalogue and name the thousands of species. Gardening trips to Lowe’s and Home Depot were richer because I recognized plants Collinson had naturalized, and could chortle with self-satisfaction and inform other customers the significance of this or that Latin genus. I’m sure they were quite impressed.

Mariner by Malcolm Guite

If, like me, you’re relatively new to the wonder of poetry, Malcolm Guite’s spiritual biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge is a great place to start. A fun fact: in 2019 Jamie, Skye, and I spent a few days in Devon, in the southwest of England. I booked a random Airbnb room in an old parsonage, and just happened to be reading Mariner on the trip. We checked in, and I opened the guest information book to discover that the very room we were staying in was where Coleridge wrote “Kubla Khan,” one of his most famous poems. I almost fell out of my chair. He was well-known for his epic walks all over England, sometimes with William Wordsworth as his companion. Footpaths and poetry. How could I not love him?

A Contemplation Upon Flowers by Bobby J. Ward

This is the perfect bedside book. It’s an index of flowers, and each entry compiles references to poems, plays, and novels written over the centuries. It’s a wonderful thing to learn, for instance, that hellebores (which are growing right outside the Chapter House door) are mentioned in 16th century Christmas carols, Swedish folk tales, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and even as far back as 2,200 years ago by Hippocrates as an ingredient in a “poison paste to kill wolves and foxes.”

The Well-Gardened Mind by Sue Stuart-Smith

Smith, both a clinician and a gardener, makes a strong case for the psychological, physiological, and even relational benefits of getting your hands dirty.

The Geography of Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler

A great primer on how the U.S. became so placeless. It’s enlightening and infuriating in equal measure—infuriating because of the greed and shortsightedness that got us to where we are—and though I don’t agree with all of it (mainly Kunstler’s disdain of Disney World), I highly recommend it.

Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson

If you’re not too put off by Bryson’s occasionally salty language, I don’t see how you couldn’t love his writing. He somehow manages to be at once hilariously wry and deeply thoughtful, cantankerous yet kind. He grew up in Iowa but married a Brit and now makes his home in England, so he has in some ways a deeper appreciation for the island than Brits do. He makes plenty of fun of them, which is their love language. I don’t know that I’ve ever been in an English house that didn’t have this book on the shelves—which makes me happy because it’s a rousing call to protect their precious countryside.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs

I have my editor to thank for this one. Jane Jacobs was a New Yorker who stood up to mogul Robert Moses and basically saved Greenwich Village from being bulldozed to make a highway. It’s a tome, but if you’re interested in digging deep into the way cities work (or ought to work), this is a good one. She spends about 100 pages on sidewalks. Sidewalks! And it’s fascinating. We live on the outskirts of Nashville, so a lot of Jacobs’s analysis doesn’t directly apply. She makes a disclaimer early on that her expertise is city life, which has completely different rhythms and principles than country, suburban, or even town life. And yet, her work demonstrates how deeply one can think about the way humans flourish (or don’t), depending on the built environment. There’s a documentary about her called Citizen Jane: The Battle for the City, if you want a lower-risk commitment than a 1,000 page book.

The Wilderness World of John Muir by John Muir

I’d never read anything by Muir before, so this was the perfect primer—a chronological collection of his writings, along with notes on his life. I was stunned when I read about his thousand-mile walk from Indiana to Florida in 1867. I got out a map and retraced it, discovering happily that he would have walked right past my Florida hometown of Lake Butler just a few years after the Civil War. Also amazing, Muir wasn’t just a naturalist, he was a genius inventor. When he was young he invented and built an alarm clock that flipped up his bed in the morning, a la “Wallace and Gromit.” My dad told me to read this because Eugene Peterson told him to read it (as a recommendation in one of his books). I’m so glad I did, because few people have written with as much affection for God’s creation than Muir. The writer of the preface points out that Muir’s favorite descriptor is the word “glorious,” and he’s not wrong. Glory is indeed what you experience when you read about his time rambling across our continent.

Ents, Elves, and Eriador by Matthew Dickerson and Jonathan Evans

I met Matthew Dickerson at Laity Lodge a few years back, and I loved his lectures on Tolkien. This book is an academic work, so don’t expect a breezy read, but it was a convicting and enlightening exploration of the way Tolkien’s love for Creation and his understanding of its proper stewardship shines forth in The Lord of the Rings. I love this: “…environmental writers like Wes Jackson, Wendell Berry, Gene Logsdon, and others have not been deterred from trying to foster an alternative perspective on farming, food production and consumption, agriculture, and the economic and cultural issues surrounding them as part of the broader environmental movement. We suggest that the name J. R. R. Tolkien belongs on this list. His perspective on Christian stewardship—heartfelt devotion to a particular place, knowledge that the place ultimately does not belong solely to us, and a willingness to give it up to preserve it for others—is his plan for how such an idyllic vision can have a positive influence on this world.”

A Natural History of Trees by Donald Culross Peattie

Someone heard that I was working on a tree book and emailed me a few suggestions, including this one. It’s a big, fat, beautiful book with tons of illustrations and everything you ever wanted to know about the trees outside your window.

The Seven-Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton

A soul-stirring memoir by a truly great writer. His physical and spiritual journey from his birth in France to the monastery in Kentucky is remarkable. An American classic.

Oak & Ash & Thorn by Peter Fiennes

A fascinating history of England’s trees and forests, abounding with references to poetry and mythology.

Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England by Frederick Law Olmsted

The undisputed father of landscape architecture is Frederick Law Olmsted. He designed Central Park, Biltmore Estate, and the interconnected park system of Louisville, among many other notable projects. Imagine my delight when I discovered that when he was a young man he sailed to England and wandered on foot for a month in 1850. Walks and Talks was a fascinating glimpse into what would inspire Olmsted’s passion for shaping the land.

Native by Patrick Laurie

I absolutely loved this book. Patrick Laurie bought a piece of ancestral property in Galloway, Scotland and set about reclaiming the land and raising a rare breed of traditional cattle. He’s a gifted writer, and we get delightful passages like this:

Every ripple and rock in Galloway has a name of some small fame; there’s Gutcher’s Lane to the Brockhole Stane; and the Hingin Bane by the Cuddy’s Wame; there’s words and words to the far horizon, but you soon lose words if you don’t use them. And there’s no logic to the ones we keep. Of course we respect old names for mountains and rivers, but I like the tales we tell for smaller things because those are all around us. There’s Crummie’s Knowe, where the bold dog Crummie went in for a fox and never came out. And that wide tree is called Chick’s Brolly because Chick was an old Clydesdale horse and he’d always stand there when the weather was wet. —Patrick Laurie, Native

Until I read this one I didn’t know much about curlews (there’s one on the bottom left of the cover), and his descriptions of their call made me ache to hear one. When Mark Meynell and I reached the end of Hadrian’s Wall and stood wearily at the shore of Bowness on Solway at dusk to read the Every Moment Holy liturgy for arriving at the ocean, I heard my first curlew. It took my breath away.

Farming and Gardening in the Bible by Alastair MacKay

The title says it all. If, like me, you ever wondered how many species of trees show up in the pages of scripture, or how people would have farmed, or what kinds of things people ate back then, this is the book for you. A simple and practical reference.

Landmarks by Robert MacFarlane

MacFarlane is one of my very favorite writers (perhaps best known for The Lost Words, his poetic collaboration with artist Jackie Morris, written to rescue vanishing words like “acorn,” “bramble,” and “otter”), and this is a collection of essays about varying landscapes in the UK (flatlands, uplands, waterlands, coastlands, etc). Each chapter features a “word hoard,” a glossary of words that, because of our modern disconnection from the land, are falling out of use. For example, “ammil” is a word for “the fine film of silver ice that coats leaves, twigs, and grass when freeze follows thaw.” Or this one: “pirr,” which is “a light breath of wind, such as will make a cat’s paw on the water.” One of my favorites is “smeuse,” which is “the gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal.” I see gaps like that here at the Warren and I love that now I can call them something. If you’re a word nerd with an affinity for the created world, you’ll love this book. The final chapter on childhood is marvelous. And if you don’t have The Lost Words, then fix that right away.


bottom of page