Field Notes from the Edge: Journeys through Britain’s Secret Wilderness by Paul Evans

Review published on July 29, 2015. Reviewed by Rebecca Foster

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Paul Evans writes his Guardian country diary from Wenlock Edge, Shropshire. He calls the region “my plot, my place and story.” Over the decades, he has clearly gotten used to writing in the 350-word blocks the newspaper format requires, and at first this, his second nature book, feels like lots of short, unconnected pieces shoved together, as witnessed by some repetition of facts. Although he gives some very nice species mini-portraits, like “Ringed Plover,” I wondered how everything fit together. The rough division into chapters by place type struck me as arbitrary – if not nicked from Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks (especially with the glossary of flooding terms).

Within a few chapters, though, Evans won me over. The book is full of unexpected nuggets of information and inspiration; in addition to the travel notes and field observations, he incorporates personal anecdote, folk songs, myths and scientific advances. His central idea is that we have lost our connection with nature due to fear – “ecophobia,” the opposite of which is EO Wilson’s “biophilia.” How do we overcome that fear? Mostly by doing just what Evans does: spending time in nature, finding beauty and developing an affinity for particular places and species. From that position of awareness, we’re more likely to pick up on our complicity in environmental degradation, admiring loons (northern divers) and then realising that their high mercury levels come from the coal-fired power stations that light our homes.

Evans is especially good on birds, and on coastal creatures. The sea is full of monstrosities, whether giant jellyfish and seaweed masses or Texas-sized rafts of plastic. The two tidal chapters would make great companion reading to Patrick Barkham’s recent Coastlines or Jean Sprackland’s Strands. With a professional background in gardening and a sideline in BBC natural history radio programmes, Evans is also quick to notice the ways in which nature and culture intersect. Whatever his subject, he writes exceptional individual sentences that have all the alliteration, surprising word choice and rhythm of poetry:

“The neon needle of an azure damselfly snatches a spider from the daisy petals, rolls it into a ball and eats it as I watch, transfixed.”

“Rising and falling into the wet flats are hundreds of birds: snipe, redshank and lapwing are piping, corncrake throw their rasping calls like ventriloquists hiding in nettle clumps and curlews flute and burble in the distance.”

“A tattered and exhausted pilgrim in white, red and black: a red admiral butterfly settles on the ruined tower.”

As a bonus, each chapter is headed by a wonderful line drawing by Maria Nunzia.

The highlight of the book is three central chapters that pull disparate stories and sites into focussed wholes: “Hole,” “Swarm” and “Isle.” In the first, Evans visits Church Hole and Robin Hood’s Cave, two components of the Creswell Crags gorge in Derbyshire. He marvels at how something as prosaic as nematode infestation can cause stoats’ manic dancing, then wonders about the origins of arachnophobia as he describes cave and raft spiders. Cave paintings and the similarities between Robin Hood and the mythical “Green Man” tie everything together in a culture-rich package. “Swarm,” which starts with a mass emergence of flying ants, delves into the creatures’ social life. “Isle,” the most wide-ranging chapter, goes from the environmental crisis on the Juan Fernández Islands to seabird breeding grounds on the Isle of May, by way of a Swedish island writers’ retreat and the choughs on Islay.

As Evans paraphrases the philosopher Wittgenstein, “important things become hidden because they are so simple and familiar.” Like Dave Goulson and Robert Macfarlane, Evans is working to restore our sense of wonder at a natural world we dismiss as all too familiar. He certainly succeeds here. Take this book with you on a weekend trip to a new spot – or an old favourite – and make the effort to see things afresh.

Rebecca Foster

Field Notes from the Edge: Journeys through Britain’s Secret Wilderness by Paul Evans is published in hbk by Rider on June 4, 2015

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