Reviewed by Marian Van Eyk McCain
This book is, as the author himself frankly describes it, Natural History writing (with) interruptions by anecdote and digression.
It carries the same title as a book from the 1940s by Shropshire naturalist and photographer Frances Pitt that was written specifically for WW2 evacuees from the cities, many of whom would have been encountering the countryside for the first time. Nature writer Paul Evans, who writes the ‘Country Diary’ column for the Guardian and contributes to Nature programs on BBC Radio 4, was asked by the same publisher as Pitt, to write a modern version of her book, not for children this time but for the adults of today, some of whom know as little about Nature as those children did.
As Evans points out, not only has our British countryside changed a lot in this last half-century, we too have changed, both in our scientific understanding and in our limitless access to information, but also in our realization of how much this countryside of ours is under threat in these days of anthropogenic climate change and ecological emergency.
Now, we have not only our biophilia – our love of, and affinity with, the natural world – but, as he points out, …we suffer from ecophobia – the fear of Nature’s answering the consequences of our existence on Earth with violent retribution, from which we have tried to protect ourselves and now realise our retaliation has gone too far.
Together with his wife Maria, whose beautiful line drawings grace the book’s pages, Evans offering to his readers, along with his Nature observations, a large and varied medley of impressions, descriptions and knowledgeable commentary. Wherever he takes us, whether it is a Welsh mountainside, a weir on the River Severn or a patch of waste ground next to a railway line, not only does he tell us, in beautifully-described detail, the flora and fauna that he observes there, but by letting his mind roam freely among all the associations that his observations bring up for him – which could be anything but are unfailingly appropriate, informative and interesting – and sharing them, we not only see Nature through his extraordinarily observant gaze but we learn as we go along.
For example, when, in the course of pegging out some washing on his backyard clothes line, he spots a tiny creature hovering in the air nearby and identifies it as a marmalade hover-fly, it stimulates a train of thought that ends up as eight-pages of writing that take the reader from the etymology of the hover-fly through to various other subjects including history, biology, botany, herbalism, art and ornithology.
To me, this whole book is like going on a series of Nature rambles in the company of an interesting and very knowledgeable teacher. I found myself needing to slow down to an unhurried pace, stop trying to get anywhere and simply wander and see and listen.