Friday 12 September 2014 will be seen as a significant day for those who come to write the history of this current golden age of British nature writing. It was the last day that The Guardian’s ‘Country Diary’ appeared at the heart of the newspaper opposite the leader column. Ever since that day, it has been relegated to the back page with the bad news of weather. I’ve said before in these pages that the best contemporary nature writing is to be found in the few paragraphs published on alternate Wednesdays by the correspondent from Wenlock Edge. The sheer reach of this Country Diary writer is breathtaking and always works a kind of magic. In ‘a scrubby corner of the field’ in March 2016, ‘the great oak seemed to feel as though it was holding on to winter and would not turn until it was good and ready’. A swift sweep across the six centuries of cultural use of this landmark tree brings us to its present neglect, few visitors now seeking ‘some dark thing in its timbers’. The writer’s vernacular voice enhances the pagan mysteries hinted at in this tree’s presence. And his final sentence celebrates a natural paradox in an image that is given vivid life in a single word: ‘[a]nd yet, in the manner of great trees, it is full of life, even in death, and a faint green mist of buds forms around the twigs of its upper branches’. That word ‘mist’ is a brilliant touch, but should not deflect from the almost religious sense of death-in-life confronted and confirmed here.
Now Paul Evans has given us his second, and most substantial, book of longer pieces grouped around 10 single simple words that come to act as metaphors such as ‘Ridge’, ‘Strand’, ‘Swarm’, ‘Ruin’ and ‘Body’. In one sense, this is the stuff of material ecocriticism in close up, but invested with a simple immanence that almost subverts it: ‘[s]ome wild individuals appear as islands of themselves, surrounded by our presumptions and expectations of them’ (177). Unpacking such a thought renders notions such as Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘becoming-animal’ – in this case the butterfly – as inadequate. In many powerful moments in this book, Evans is challenging his own thinking and the adequacy of his language. Yet, again and again, it is his ideas as much as his images that take the reader into a new place: ‘I find swarms fascinating, a collective consciousness, like watching a mind thinking’ (137). Such a sentence betrays the struggles and the rewards of biosemiology. Indeed, as a naturalist who also reads ecocriticism, Evans is very much aware of the struggle for language and clarity of thought about the complexity of living in Morton’s ‘mesh’ that ecocritics confront. There’s almost a knowing nod in Morton’s direction at one point: ‘[w]hether the story of the affair between black ants and silver-studded butterflies is that of exploitation or devotion, it’s a symbiotic relationship which, to be sustained, requires an old ecology: the mesh of stories that can only be told by an entire heath’ (145). Of course, ‘old’ here does not mean ‘traditional’, but refers to the kind of far-reaching multidimensional mesh that Morton has in mind – ‘an entire heath’ and its unending context. In a similar way, Evans’ two pages on the deep roots of ecophobia (‘[w]e fear the spider and ignore the web.’) should preface the books of Simon Estok on this theme. Seamus Heaney would have called this book a ‘Hedge School’.
How many current British nature writers engage directly with the Anthropocene? The 11 references to global warming and climate change in this book confirm that Paul Evans locates his field notes firmly in the Anthropocene. In ‘Ridge’ he visits a quarry that supplied lime to Ironbridge, ‘a World Heritage Site, a shrine to the insane alchemy that is still burning up the world. Birthplace of the Industrial Revolution its sign reads but it will never admit to being the Birthplace of Global Warming’ (6). Coming on the fourth page of the book, this sets an agenda that nevertheless can engage with what ‘we remember from the past, familiar and strange at the same time’ like the ‘fungal cities that lie in wait through the woods, sending spores like thoughts to travel into the future’ (244). Even at 40,000 feet in an aircraft, ‘there is a microbiome knocking at the window’ (209). With such wit and humour, Evans himself knocks at the windows of our complacent perceptions.
So with a wide range of cultural reference – from Beowulf to bioluminescence – brought to bear on sometimes tiny forms of life, Evans often finds the oldest of dreams, fears and folklore haunting our struggle to find meanings in the present. Poetically, yet literally down to earth, and always valuing the vernacular, Evans finds a profane route to the sacred in a pagan re-enchantment of the everyday miraculous. He can make time collapse, considering, for example, the horned god hunted by the deer artist in Creswell crags ‘only a moment ago’ (131). He can discuss high theory with Lynn Margulis in Oxford, although his final image is of her swimming in order to study moss animals such as ‘Pectinatella magnifica, the magnificent bryozoan’ (206). He can admit to the elusiveness of the ultimately ‘secret wild’, the beauty of which lies in ‘its ephemeral almost-nothingness’ (250–1). And it is the combination of these aspects of Field Notes from the Edge that gift this book its living reach and richness. The up-to-date, theoretically informed naturalist searches for meaning back into folklore and myth to the earliest sources of the evolutionary subconscious. After all the apparently ad hoc following of trails through mud and mind, there is revealed a structure to the book by this observer and mediator of structure. The final section is titled ‘Plot’ and begins with reflections on gardening and wilderness, personal experience, family gardeners, before focussing on a tiny plot of frosted leaves and moss: ‘The experience is not like looking at a painting or other image, it is part of a transitory sense of being part of a wild moment, a kind of spiritual gardening’ (248). From data to dream, from virus to vision, Field Notes from the Edge is not only the touchstone for future nature writers, it is, for readers, an exemplary and challenging reminder of why we should mitigate the Anthropocene from our own edgelands.