At first glance, Field Notes from the Edge is a fairly straightforward nature-writing proposal: Paul Evans, a conservationist, broadcaster and author who has contributed to the Guardian’s “Country Diary” column for 20 years, sets out to explore in-between places and in-between states — tidelines, ruins, islands, floods, caves — and writes about the wild life he finds there. But this is one of those books that’s all in the execution, and to define it in such simple terms is like calling Turner’s “Rain, Steam and Speed” a painting of a train.
Field Notes’ magic lies partly in the sheer quality of the prose, partly in Evans’ ability to loop together disparate threads in a way that feels both natural and carefully patterned: images and words recur, subtly altered each time, layering meaning upon meaning so that each chapter becomes rich with significance. It makes for a profoundly satisfying read.
Evans was born and still lives on Wenlock Edge in Shropshire, a dramatic limestone ridge clothed in ancient woodland, and it’s there that the book begins: “a land between England and Wales, betwixt clod-stubborn reality and mysterious shadow”. From the first paragraphs it’s clear that Field Notes is more than just a mixture of nature observations and personal musings.
“I take the path from the main road at the top of the dingle which begins in a tangle of nettle and bramble at a broken stile,” he writes. “As with ancient processional ways through the land walked by ancestors practising religious rites, the path is a preparation for a different way of thinking about and experiencing the world.” Evans is something of a mystic — at the very least, an existentialist — and his book is as much about ontology as it is about nature: through his interest in other forms of life, and their unique ways of being in the world, he explores what it means to exist.
If this all sounds a bit metaphysical, rest assured: there’s plenty of straightforward botanical and zoological material to get your teeth into, too. Evans’ learning is worn lightly but communicated easily and well. Each chapter has its totems, or tutelary spirits: lapwings, damselflies, lion’s mane jellyfish, dormice. Evans uses these creatures as jumping-off points, exploring their history, their place in folklore and their etymology, as well as their biology and behaviour — but remaining always alive to their essential mystery. It’s a very human book, too, from the ghosts haunting abandoned crofts to ancient hunter-gatherer cultures to our own, little-understood microbial biome.
Writers on nature and landscape face a choice: whether to include themselves in their narrative, or opt for a more detached, objective style that avoids the risk of what Evans calls “purple”. It’s a decision that has profound implications for the work, and wider implications, too — both philosophical and ecological — concerning the relationship of humans to nature. Evans is alive to this dilemma, and comes down firmly on the side of subjectivity: “bearing witness, being truthful, requires emotional honesty”, he writes. He’s right; and it’s his feelings, as well as the facts, that give life to this gloriously motley book.
It’s hard to write about nature, these days, without a sense of loss, and there is a valedictory tone to Field Notes from the Edge, as to many others. Evans identifies ecophobia as one of the bricks in the wall beyond which the natural world is slowly disappearing: our blind fear of everything that is not ourselves. “This is a work of dark wonder for what is happening to the land,” he writes. “It is a journey with no idea where it’s going, no ideological compass and no map on which the secret wilds can be plotted. These are a few field notes from along the edge between the fear and love of Nature, without which there is nothing.”
Field Notes from the Edge: Journeys Through Britain’s Secret Wilderness, by Paul Evans, Rider, RRP£14.99, 272 pages
Melissa Harrison is author of ‘At Hawthorn Time’ (Bloomsbury)
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