Gessner was born in Boston, Massachusetts, and grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts. He attended Harvard College where he worked at the Harvard Crimson drawing political cartoons, most notably a drawing of Ronald Reagan urinating on an unemployed man in the gutter called "The Trickle Down Theory." He graduated in 1983.
He returned to Harvard as a Briggs-Copeland Lecturer in Environmental Writing in Fall 2003. In 2004 he began teaching at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where he is professor and currently the chair of the Creative Writing Department. He is the Editor in Chief of Ecotone the environmental journal he founded in 2004, which has published the work of writers as diverse as Wendell Berry, Denis Johnson, Gerald Stern, Sherman Alexie, and Marvin Bell. Recent work from the journal has been chosen for many anthologies, including the Pushcart Prize and Best American Short Stories edited by Salman Rushdie, as well as Best American Poetry and Best American Essays.
Gessner is the author of ten books of nonfiction, including, most recently, Ultimate Glory: Frisbee, Obsession, and My Wild Youth; the New York Times bestseller All the Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner and the American West; The Tarball Chronicles; and My Green Manifesto. The Tarball Chronicles won the 2012 Reed Award for Best Book on the Southern Environment and the Association for Study of Literature and the Environment’s award for best book of creative writing in 2011 and 2012.
His essays have appeared in many magazines and journals including The New York Times Magazine, Outside, The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2008, Onearth, The Georgia Review, The American Scholar, Orion, The Boston Sunday Globe Magazine, The Harvard Review, and the 2006 Pushcart Prize Anthology, for which the essay "Benediction" was selected. In April 2007, Gessner won the John Burroughs award for Best Natural History Essay of the year. In 2008, his essay, "The Dreamer Did Not Exist," appeared in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2008, edited by Dave Eggers, and in September of that year his essay on teaching and writing, "Those Who Write, Teach," appeared in the Sunday New York Times Magazine.