Book review: Field Notes From The Edge

Ideas and knowledge abound in this new work of literary nature writing, says Tim Dee.

Field Notes From The Edge by Paul Evans (Rider, £14.99 *£12.99)

Nature writing is all the rage, with nature writers coming in many shades. Paul Evans, happily, is more of a true nature writer than a new nature writer. He’s been around for ages, had a previous career as a gardener, now contributes vivid ‘Country Diaries’ to The Guardian from Wenlock Edge, Shropshire, and, last year, wrote an inventive book called Herbaceous: a prose-poem about transgressive flora.

I say true because, although Herbaceous is a kind of fiction, Mr Evans is a real naturalist. In that book, thanks to intimately knowing his starting point (50 species of wild flower), he was able to apply appropriately his imagination and then, as it were, graft fancy on to living rootstock. It took.

His new book is less distinctive, but covers more ground and is crammed with life. The subtitle calls it journeys through secret wildernesses, but it isn’t really. Most of it happens in ordinary places across the British Isles, commonly in earshot of ‘the nag of traffic noise’, along footpaths, in nature reserves, on beaches—familiar territory where wildlife persists.

And that is part of Mr Evans’s point. If you know what’s there, then there’s masses to see. His book is thick with looking and especially good on small creatures, ants, spiders, butterflies and limpets. Crucially (unlike some of the new nature crowd), he knows what he’s looking at. His attention is of the kind that often involves a hand-lens. Hooray for that!

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But another sort of magnification appeals to Mr Evans. He seeks connections, border crossings and unlikely meetings. He is troubled by our ecophobia—the fear of ecological problems and the wider natural world—and he’d like to chase it down. Sometimes, this takes him towards the work of radical evolutionary biologists such as Lynn Margulis; elsewhere, he applies comparable adventurous thinking in the field himself.

There is a gripping account of a parasitic nematode, Skrjabingylus nasicola, which lives in the sinuses of stoats (having spent time in a slug and then a shrew, frog or lizard). The worm’s life cycle is remarkable enough, but the author goes on to wonder if the presence (and pressure) of a nose full of them might transform the stoat. Could its sinuous writhing dance, that seemingly transfixes its rabbit prey, be made under the influence of Skrjabingylus?

Speculations like these are exciting, but risky. Mr Evans has written ghost stories for radio, featuring time shifts and natural-history hauntings, and he sends the same spirits abroad in his new book. Repeatedly, he verbally intensifies his experiences with Nature, seeking some imaginative lift-off that blends past with present, life with land and observer with subject. But hunting a ‘numinous moment of connection’ can sometimes hobble what’s there in front of you.

One poor hare is rather clobbered with meaning, a ringed plover likewise. The reader grows wary of sentences that begin ‘I imagine…’ or moments in which a kind of generic solvent is applied to all and everything somehow metamorphoses into everything else.

I’d prefer fewer ghosts. And surely a moratorium should be called on liminal, which appears five times. I would put hiraeth (Welsh for a species of homesickness) on parole as well. I’ve heard it too often. I say this because Mr Evans is extremely good at telling us realistically about how life goes.

The second half of his book is stacked with factual revelations and scientific investigations that more than match any rootling after an old magic. There are bravura pages on what the sky is made of (astonishing numbers of microbes), on bioluminescent honey fungi (which troubled the author of Beowulf ) and—a totem for the author’s blending project—on parasitic ghost ants (which make themselves invisible with chemical mirroring). Reality used to be a friend of mine went a pop song that I liked once—Mr Evans is great when he sings along.

Tim Dee is the author of ‘The Running Sky’ and ‘Four Fields’. He’s writing a book about the spring in Europe.

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