I have always loved to read, even as a young child. Every summer, I looked forward to the Fulton County Library System’s reading program—diligently completing, often doubling, the ten-book requirement. In those days, the library system rewarded everyone who read at least ten books with free movie tickets to shows at the Fox Theatre. My dad always took me; I still remember how excited I was to have this adventure with him. 

During my decades of mothering my two sons and riverkeeping –from my 30s to my 50s – I rarely allowed myself time to read, as I struggled to stay on task at home and work. Sadly, there were many years in which I could count on one hand the number of books I read for pleasure. In retirement, this has changed dramatically. These days, I am rarely without a book nearby and keep a list of those I hope to read: an ambitious tally of more than fifty.

Although I enjoy novels – Wallace Stegner, Barbara Kingsolver, and Carl Hiaasen come to mind – I much prefer non-fiction: nature (of course), environmental science, biographies, autobiographies, and American history. There is so much to learn about our vibrant, complex (and also threatened) world and the diversity of its life. 


Linda Lear’s magnificent biography of Rachel Carson (Witness for Nature) led me to half a dozen other books about the brilliant environmental scientist and to a transformative trip to her beloved cottage on the coast in Maine. Reading David Brinkley’s books about Teddy Roosevelt (Wilderness Warrior) and Franklin Roosevelt (Rightful Heritage) deepened my understanding of their tremendous conservation achievements, notably their courageous insistence that hundreds of millions of acres of natural and historic significance be protected to benefit everyone.   

John Lewis’ powerful memoir about growing up in Alabama in the 1940s and his role in the civil rights movement (Walking with the Wind) taught me so much that I never learned in my southern schools, despite being a teenager during the movement’s most consequential years. James McBride’s beautifully written tribute to his mother (The Color of Water), both heartbreaking and inspiring, illustrates how family love and a parent’s indomitable spirit can overcome racial injustices and antisemitism. I love getting to know people – from historical figures and scientists to artists and community leaders–through their personal stories.

Nature science books about seashells, hawks, fungi, otters, trees, eels, and moss have magnified my sense of wonder and awe in all life on this planet. I highly recommend The Sound of the Sea by Barnett, H is for Hawk by MacDonald, Entangled Life by Sheldrake, The Hidden Lives of Trees by Wohlleben, The Book of Eels by Svensson, and Gathering Moss by Wall Kimmerer. Currently, I’m reading Ed Yong’s An Immense World, a book written to help its readers break out of our “sensory bubbles” and consider the planet as perceived by other animals.

Not surprisingly, climate change is a priority topic for me, both non-fiction (Under a White Sky by Kolbert) and dystopian (The Ministry for the Future by Robinson). Although these books can be tough to read, given the projected trajectory of our heating planet, I find some comfort in them – the data and science that is helping us better understand the consequences of burning fossil fuels and the heroic efforts being made to find solutions. 

Inspired to Write 

About four years ago, a friend gave me a copy of The Forest Unseen—A Year’s Watch in Nature by David George Haskell, a biologist and writer who observed a one-square-meter patch of old-growth national forest in Tennessee through the seasons. At the outset, I wondered how there could possibly be enough material to fill nearly 300 pages from what I (quite naively) thought was a limited subject. As I quickly learned, the book is a wonderful and accessible example of science writing that traces nature’s seasonal path with fascinating stories. 

Mirroring Haskell, I decided to seek a place in nature where I could also observe its beauty and complexity over the course of a year, paying close attention to the small things we often miss in our busy, self-absorbed lives. In early May of 2019, I discovered a trail to the Chattahoochee River that I had not previously walked; it winds along a creek and through an old forest in the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area to a spectacular section of the river. 

 As I began to regularly walk this trail, I remembered stories from my two decades of working to revive the Chattahoochee, as the founding director of the nonprofit Chattahoochee Riverkeeper organization. These were tales I wanted to tell—about people, adventures, challenges, and celebrations. Less than a year into my walks, the Covid-19 pandemic provided endless days of sheltering at home with lots of time on my hands. So, I wrote a book. 

In July, the University of Georgia Press will publish Keeping the Chattahoochee: Reviving and Defending a Great Southern River. I hope it will encourage readers to find a special place in nature—where they can magnify their own sense of wonder and open their eyes and heart to the wondrous variety of plants, animals, and microbes that inhabit our planet. I also hope the stories about my experiences as an environmental advocate will inspire readers to take action to help safeguard the environment, whether in their neighborhoods or across the country. 

To purchase my book, visit this link and join me on Sept. 12 at The Carter Center for the official book launch with former mayor Shirley Franklin, or at other book signing events in Atlanta and around Georgia.

Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and an environmental and sustainability advocate. Her award-winning Above the Waterline column appears monthly in Atlanta Intown.