Margiad Evans’ writing is largely unknown outside her adopted Wales, testifying to the anglocentrism of ‘British’ culture but also to the unclassifiable nature of her body of work. In this specially commissioned essay, Steven Lovatt introduces Evans as a nature writer of precision and feeling. He argues that the example of her personal and artistic integrity is not only something from which all writers can learn, but also constitutes no less than a model for renovating the divided self and overcoming the schism between human beings and the natural environment.
In 1941 the writer Margiad Evans (Peggy Eileen Whistler, 1909–1958) began work on an autobiography. A conventional account of her life might have been thought presumptuous for a woman of thirty-two whose books, though they had been generally well received critically and commercially, had hardly made her a household name. But Evans didn’t have her life-story in mind: instead she wished the book to be ‘a record of my gravest (that is happiest) inner existence’ over a period of just a few years of her late twenties. If that sounds like a blueprint for solipsism then the book that was published two years later – called simply Autobiography – showed on the contrary a writer compelled to open herself to the world and to communicate the joy she found in doing so.
Just as the conventional span of an autobiography is shrunk by Evans to a period of three or four years, so the ‘world’ of her experience is limited to the landscape near Ross-on-Wye where she had settled some months earlier, but which she had recognised as her spiritual home on her first visit to the Wye valley as a girl of nine. But these are restrictions of time and place only in a literal and unimportant sense, for these few years in a small area of the Welsh Marches nourished Evans, fleetingly, to be sure, but on the whole with rare and remarkable constancy, with such a powerful awareness of belonging in the universe as to abolish clock-time and regain something of the ecstatic immanence of her childhood in this same landscape. So this caustic critic of religious pretence became an unabashed mystic, at the same time as she was writing one of the finest nature journals published in English for a hundred years.
Autobiography combines the most delicate receptivity to the natural world with an intensely disciplined, devotional commitment to conveying Evans’ experiences as precisely as possible. Distrusting memory, which ‘is always ready to substitute and reform’, and believing that the only chance of capturing the natural world in writing is through ‘swiftness and intensity of feeling’, she made notes outdoors and then at the first opportunity transferred them to some kind of fixed form, before the fresh, complex smack of reality departed and left them vacant. Sometimes she was so overtaken that she did not reach her desk, and instead made do with a wooden stool, kneeling on the kitchen flagstones to scribble down impressions that were already fading. Though it is undeniably what we would now call ‘nature writing’, as with any genre book of excellence Autobiography at once elevates and transcends its category. The book is remarkable, and over long passages without equal in my experience, for the quality and sympathy of its descriptions. Nothing is invented, figurative language is put to proper use as an aid to improving the transport of reality from field to brain to language to reader, and if a rare poeticism jars then this is only because the surrounding pages have achieved an astonishing standard of unpretentious truth. In his introduction to the 1974 edition, P. J Kavanagh writes that it is ‘difficult, dangerous’, to bank so ‘entirely on description’, where ‘the greatest event is the passage of a bird across a cloud’, and though this last claim is somewhat of an exaggeration, there is indeed a kind of compelling pleasure in watching Evans sure-footedly detail her feelings and the evidence of her senses using only the common domestic implements of attention and plain language.
Her desire – which is really more like a moral imperative – to be faithful to what she sees comes across, for example, in how she describes colour. The Wye in a particular light is ‘a dark yellow green’; the moon one evening changes ‘from silver white to deep ripe apricot’. One colour is seldom accurate enough: ‘The hedges were broken and purple. Particularly noticed the elder – naked-coloured stems budding in rings from the stem joints. The blackberry leaves all dry and dishevelled, purple and silver, red and dun’. It is disarming that Evans could be no more informative about the shade of the new elder stems than that they were ‘naked-coloured’. About another leaf, though she notes that it has ‘exactly the grain and surface of calf-skin when it is stretched over the boards of an old book’, it ‘appeared to have no definite colour at all’.
Why should it matter to find exactly the right colour for a leaf, and why would one admit it if no colour could be found? The answer goes to the heart of the ethics of writing, which are defined by the sincerity (not the success) of the attempt to be faithful to the writer’s experience of the world as it is found. Evans labours to communicate truth, and it is her readers’ tacit understanding and appreciation of this that underwrites our aesthetic pleasure at a well-turned sentence. In the effort to decide and convey whether a leaf is tawny, sallow, nankeen, buttery or merely yellow Evans is committing herself to the world, and by this commitment including herself within it as an observer but also as a participant and fellow presence. This presence is not only subjective and mental: to an unusual degree Evans is aware of herself as an object among objects. She loves things for their independent being. This is what keeps her mysticism grounded in muck and nettles, and it is also responsible for the wonderful physicality of some of her observations:
And again the same day I saw a man who lay down on the field and put his arm into a rabbit hole as into a sleeve. The roll he gave his shoulder as though he would pull the earth over him, as a coat.
Evans’ lived conviction of the reality of the world also informs her views on society. She believes that people are only living naturally when they are touching, working and communicating real things. She is aware that some reality drains from the world, and hence from people, when work becomes immaterial: ‘Work has turned into an abstract business – there’s no fingering about it, no telling what is happening at the other end for both are out of sight. Solids are fast disappearing, and people trade in mathematics’. Beyond the sheer economic necessity which often compelled it, this awareness of Evans perhaps helps to explain why she took physical work in the fields. One chapter of Autobiography, called ‘Beet hoeing’, describes the work:
Up and down the drills, leaving single plants about eighteen inches apart, cutting out weeds, hoeing now to the right and now to the left of the body, to rest the screwed waist. We hoed a hundred yards down the field and that was a ‘brent’; a hundred yards up and that was another brent. Two brents make a ‘bout’, and that is the whole language of hoeing.
Evans comments that ‘to me hoeing brought no monotony but rather peace and fulfilment as though the eternal longing of the body for justification before the spirit was being accomplished in an action which nature in me made natural to the world’. This last statement implicitly reveals Evans’ deepest desire, as a person and a writer, to experience and communicate life from within, as part of it. Indeed she often seems to have felt such belonging, but given the impossible gulf between the communicant (in the religious sense) and the communicator, between experiencing and explaining, she had to settle for description, yet this ontological rift remains the source of the creative tension that vibrates through her writing.
Evans’ commitment to communicating the world of her perceptions as precisely as possible isn’t restricted to the sense of sight:
In bed I heard the waterfall and separated the two different kinds of sound it makes – the overnote which has a scudding fleeting sting, and the thick spasmodic thud which is the body of water crashing into the pool.
What do we receive when we ‘pay’ attention like this? Information, certainly, but also a deepening of our awareness of reality. ‘Thick spasmodic thud’ is hard to beat for the way that the rhythm of the words conveys something of the repetitiveness, even the slightly nauseous pulse of the waterfall. But the poetry doesn’t have its source in nice wordplay; instead, it must be insisted again, it derives from the commitment to an ideal of the truth in what is described, and to sorting with infinite care among the words at hand until the best fit for the experience is found, however inadequate to the writer’s experience that ‘best’ may be. Very often, reading Evans’ descriptions, the question arises whether any really attends this hard and this lovingly anymore to the earth’s ordinary marvels. For Evans’ interest is not that of a specialist: she confesses ignorance of the names of birds, and as her most perceptive critic has noted ‘She is not interested in how things work, only that they are stitched together in a way that makes them work’.
As has sometimes been pointed out, ‘nature writing’ as a term is vulnerable for its complicity – usually unspoken, but perhaps all the more powerful and pernicious for that – in the assumption that ‘nature’ is something ‘out there’, beyond and different from us. Although Evans uses the word nature often, she also describes her work as ‘earth writing’, which seems more appropriate to our epoch of the Anthropocene. For Evans, as I have said, earth/nature writing involves the whole person, ethically as well as aesthetically, and thus implies an awareness that we are nature too. The imagined split between our minds and our bodies that is usually blamed on the philosopher and scientist René Descartes is continually rebutted in Evans’ awareness that in the deep appreciation of the natural world the body is no less a seat of thought than the mind: ‘my mind, then as now, was in my body’; ‘it was my religion to look, and to walk over the rise: watching it in all seasons, my thoughts began. Yet such thoughts are no thoughts unless the eyes, the feet and the limbs are thoughts.’ Time and again in Autobiography Evans uses her body as a sensory instrument to register the reality of the world, and though the feeling is ‘migratory’, the unity of her mind and body in nature, their indivisibility in their consciousness of the world’s reality, can sometimes lead to a vision of an enlarged body and an ecstatic community with the cosmos:
Lying on the grass in the still valleys, in the dark watching the rising and wheeling overhead of the great night suns, drinking the clear vividness of the evening, sinking the shoulders under the clear cold water – floating, lying, standing, moving with life – I have become feeling itself. My simple being is thought. It was not necessary to learn anything, neither to name the stars nor distinguish the plants. I just could not be myself without them. They are to me portions of my body – my greater being.
Yet Evans’ awareness of her ‘greater being’ is the precise opposite of any abstract or effortful mystical ‘vision’; her spiritual awareness is ‘sensible’ through and through – it comprises only what is in theory accessible to any woman of twenty-nine out strolling around Ross. Naturally, if one’s object in walking is to get to the supermarket before it closes, or to fire up the glutes, then one’s susceptibility to the vision will likely be diminished, but Evans can hardly be blamed for that.
And even the most heedless walker in nature can be seized by revelation. Evans recalls the sudden appearance of a stoat on the lawn, ‘turning and winding, as if with an invisible companion to his joyous pattern of flow and bend’ […] ‘He must have been brownish or silvery red, but I didn’t notice. All I seemed to see was silence, innocence, delight’. Even a long time afterwards ‘I never pass the spot without the feeling of incompleteness that he isn’t there […] I shall always recall the sight which will not only characterize the place to me forever, but in a sense spiritualize it’. Autobiography is full of such matchless descriptions of animals. Of a nest of ants found beneath a stone she writes,
I’ll tell it at leisure and in detail, for it was very wonderful. They were a dark, very dark brown race, and their nymphs showed up among them like grains of rice, half as long again as themselves. Proportionately they were as double-bed bolsters to smallish-sized landladies. There was something in the grip too which recalled the business of bed-making.
Above all, Evans seems to have loved bees. She sits on a path in the sun, watching them, but when it becomes very hot she ‘put[s] a saucer of water for them among the strawberry leaves with match sticks floating – this is until they find the stream’. Another bee required more care:
There was one on the parlour windowsill, squatting in a coma as if sunstricken. She was medium-sized, dark brown or black with very thick glossy fur. Caked in a groove in each of her hindmost legs above the joint, was a flattish lobe of pollen, greeny grey and waxy. They were such immense loads that she looked as if she were carrying panniers, and even more like an antique paddle-steamer. I saw she was exhausted and must die […] so having refreshed her with a flower […] I fetched a very delicate, sharp pair of curved nail scissors and sheared away the lumps as near her legs as I dared. Then I put her on the outer sill, where she began to crawl more briskly; and when I next looked she was gone.
[I can never read this extract without emotion, because it reminds me of my own mother feeding fingertips of sugar-water to the lacewings we used to find around the house.]
Evans’ strong sense of the simultaneity of the world made the job of writing about it, as she notes with dry understatement, ‘difficult’. The great problem of writing the earth is one of Autobiography’s main themes, and Evan’s insights into it would alone be sufficient to recommend the book to any other writer, whether novice or pro.
Always the difficulty is in communicating what she experiences: ‘Writing is explaining; it is nearly always impossible for me to explain. How could I fill anybody else’s mind with the evening, the darkening of the air and the paling of the ground?’ But it is not only the problem of finding the right words. Her very discipline, attentiveness and facility with language brought her up against the unfortunate truth that sometimes the right words simply aren’t to be found:
[…] oh I can’t explain. I want words. More words for colour – for the blue which is beyond the grey sky; or another blue which the hills keep for days and which is substantial in a disappearing earth […] I want words which open, words for space, words which will not bend the thought.
The anguish of the writer who feels the inadequacy of her resources recurs throughout Autobiography. ‘I could write forever’, Evans laments, ‘and never arrive at the subtlety’. Nevertheless, if writing is, as Ian Hamilton Finlay pronounced, ‘an unnatural act’, Evans gets as close as anyone to eliminating the distance between what she has seen and what the reader experiences through her words.
Like all writers of the highest quality, Evans is entirely original, but our attitudes to art are still enough influenced by ideas of sui generis ‘genius’ for me to feel the need to explain that by this I don’t mean she was writing without tradition. Autobiography is full of both direct and allusive references to writers who Evans admired, particularly Thoreau, the Brontë sisters and the English Romantic poets. Evans also belongs in the company of artists who have taken inspiration from river landscapes. Even restricting ourselves to rivers whose catchment areas touch the Welsh Marches, we might mention Evans’ contemporary, the composer Gerald Finzi, who drew from the Severn, and Henry Vaughan’s love of the Usk. Freeing ourselves from categories as far as possible, though, in the widest circle of fellowship we can place Evans in a tradition of those writers who simply apply themselves with urgency to the task of communicating the truth of what they sense around them. ‘Attentiveness’, the German writer Walter Benjamin claimed, ‘is the natural prayer of the soul’, and by this criterion Margiad Evans was a modern Hildegard, albeit in shorts and with a packet of cigarettes. As a writer, her closest kin of all may be Nan Shepherd, who was writing The Living Mountain at the very same time that Evans was keeping the journals that would become Autobiography.
Apart, though inseparable, from the Wye valley there was one ‘place’ above all others that fed Evans’ inner life, and this was her own childhood. Autobiography is full of the most profound psychological insights into how childhood encounters with landscape can sustain the whole of an adult life while at the same time haunting it, causing it to pine for the unity of mind, spirit and body, of self and universe, that it struggles to recall. ‘Pine’, of course, because we can never go back, but while Evans rejected the escapist fantasy of a return to childhood, she nevertheless treasured remembrance of her first encounter with the landscape around Ross as an ‘[i]mmortal hospital for every kind of misery, physical and mental that a human being can suffer in themselves’. In fact ‘treasured’ isn’t quite the right word to use here, if it is understood to mean only something preciously guarded in secret, since it is the evidence of her writing that Evans used the sanctity of her memories, their ‘incorrupted peace’, as the most profound source of meaning that she knew, to make sense of and enrich every value that she subsequently encountered in adulthood. ‘Even when I was a child’, she writes, ‘I could not look at a bird or a last summer’s leaf and say “This hasn’t anything to do with me”’. Evans’ writing is fed by the past to an unusual, or at least unusually acknowledged, degree. Some writers send out their imaginations ahead of them like a hawk from the wrist, but Evans’ creativity is of a kind more akin to the words of the poet who defined originality as ‘the act of being incrementally faithful to one’s sources’.
When we are young, unless we are exposed too early to some terrible suffering, the world is young with us, and the freshness of our first perceptions is transferred to the world itself, which we regard with innocence and wonder. It is difficult to read Autobiography now without realising that we are unwilling witnesses to grievous loss, for a great deal of what Evans wrote about has gone. The elms that sheltered the millennial rookeries are absent; in the Marches, as elsewhere hundreds of miles of hedgerows have been torn up; and many of the common farmland birds that she recorded are now scarcely to be found. Such depletions are in principle reversible, but the pleasure of reading Evans’ account of the Wye frozen in winter (‘this afternoon the sunset on the rough ice, chopped red…’) now brings with it more sinister apprehensions of the effect of man-made climate change. We live under a shadow in a way that Evans’ generation, pre-nuclear and with little or no apprehension of ecocide, did not. Neither is this creeping anxiety reserved only for exterior landscapes, since in our age of distraction we fear also for the interior reserves of childhood, grounded in our faith in the reality and eternity of the world, nurtured in solitude, a promise of spiritual independence and compost for our mature vision and conscience. At least among sectors of the ‘educated class’, as I know from experience, the self is now widely asserted to be an illusion. If the very existence of the self is doubted, then how would we know that the self needs to be fed, much less how and what to feed it? How can writing entertain the spirit, as the great Isaac Bashevis Singer said it must, if the spirit is not recognised at all?
Margiad Evans is a writer who entertains the spirit, and it would have been self-evident to her that the disenchantment of the landscape by profiteering is as one with the desolation of humanity’s inner landscapes. I do not know of a writer who has better, and without preaching, articulated the link between nature and the human spirit and shown that the needless and independent reality of the natural world is the greatest ‘commons’ of all, and necessary food for individual human beings.
In 1957, knowing that her life was nearly over, Evans wrote with typically mordant humour that ‘I show every symptom of becoming a rare cult after I am dead’. That is exactly what happened, and were it not for the steady interest shown in her by readers and academics in her adopted, beloved Wales, she would now be much more obscure even that that. Slowly, though, the tide seems to be turning. All of her novels and short stories are now back in print, and this February saw the publication of The Nightingale Silenced, extracts from her journals and letters. The publisher, Honno Press also has plans to republish Autobiography. In these fearful times of public dissimulation and private dread, we have a greater need than ever for writers of Evans’ relentless honestly and stubborn insistence that human health and the health of the natural world thrive or die together. For that reason, Autobiography is not only important as superb nature writing, but may also rightly be seen as a manual for the recovery, in nature and in ourselves, of what we now so fear losing.
by Steven Lovatt
Steven Lovatt is a writer, editor and teacher, based in South Wales. His creative and critical writings have been widely published, including in Critical Survey, the New Welsh Review and the online nature magazine The Clearing.