Batsford, 2018, 176 pages
Hardback £16.99 ISBN 978-1-84994-493-9
Review by Ian Rotherham
Paul Evans is a nature writer, poet, broadcaster, and senior lecturer in creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. He has written a number of books, including Field Notes from the Edge (which takes the reader on a journey through Britain’s secret wilds), and is a regular contributor to The Guardian’s Country Diary.
The structure of the book is essentially a scene-setting introduction followed by a series of nine short essays on Paul’s chosen themes and then a final extended section as a ‘bestiary’ of odds and sods from the author’s personal encounters with nature. The essay chapters include themes on garden wildlife, streetlights and nature, weeds, rivers and fish, commons and commonland, moors and heaths, the greenwood, blight, and ‘the returned’. Each account is slightly quirky with interesting and sometimes amusing insights, and peppered with anecdotes and snippets of information. The result is easy to read and for the topics covered, quite informative. Paul has set out to write a book which appeals to both urban and rural nature-lovers; and by-and-large he succeeds in bridging the gap. His personal rambles through nature and hidden wild places translate into a series of accounts and observations. In ‘The Returned’ Paul covers species like red kite and pine marten and places their return into a context of rewilding and landscape-scale restoration, but illustrated with intimate individual encounters and connections.
Similarly, in writing of the issues of conservation on moors, heaths, and commons, the style is personal and slightly lyrical, but with facts and figures from history thrown in to illuminate the first-hand observations. The intention is to lead the reader though a quiet ramble with nature but as an experience enhanced by a deeper understanding of how it has developed in the past and some at least of the pressures and challenges facing it in the future.
The accounts touch on issues such as Brexit and of climate change and of the uncertainties that permeate modern society. ‘Blight’ brings together some aspects of our changing world and global warming seems set to trigger major outbreaks of pests and diseases for our trees and for other species too. These are big issues and sobering problems for today and growing tomorrow, but the style of writing keeps the account informative but not too desperate. By touching also on the commonplace and the ordinary as well as the unusual and the exotic, the observations maintain our interest beyond the gloom and doom of ecological catastrophe.
Paul clearly has an interest in the hidden and secret nature which is there for all to see – if only we pause to look and to wonder. Setting these views and glimpses into an ecological and historical context, and with perspectives of social and environmental elements too, is a challenge and the book mostly hits the spot in this respect. Clearly the selection is very individual and some readers may find this a little eccentric perhaps. However, that is at the same time, the charm of the prose which is clearly in the mainstream of the current genre of British ‘nature writing’. One slight criticism is in the price which is reasonable for a hardback but seems a bit steep for rather basic black and white illustrations. Some of these are nicely rendered but others have not printed so well, which is a shame. Overall, this makes a nice easy read for those long rail journeys or perhaps on holiday.