The power of attention: women, nature writing and climate change
Diana Wallace, Professor of English at University of South Wales
In Margiad Evans’s extraordinary Autobiography (1943), a collection of nature writings, is an essay entitled ‘The Autobiography of an Afternoon’. She records how, having finished her dinner, she took her dog and a basket and walked to a nearby hillside to find a spot to rest. The essay is ‘the story of what was around and within me that afternoon’. She describes in detail what she can see and hear: “Bit by bit and sense by sense I began to be profoundly conscious of the place where I was lying … the smell and heavy goldenness of the gorse bloom, the different strands as it were in the tiny waterfall below me, the bracken canes and stones and weeds and brambles.
“A ladybird and two spiders sunned themselves on ridge of dried mud but my closest companion was a woodlouse asleep on a large dead oak tree.”
Evans’s defining quality as a writer is the attention she pays to the immediate – to what is close by, small, ordinary, overlooked – and how this connects us to the wider natural world: ‘One is in everything’, she writes, ‘One lives throughout the universe and beyond’.
Her work is particularly valuable because, as Kathleen Jamie has pointed out, female nature writers are much rarer than male ones.
There are reasons for this. As Evans wrote to Derek Savage, the joys of Autobiography were ‘snatched moments from the type of life lived by any poor woman without help’, things seen while ‘fetching water, mending a sheet or a shirt etc’.
Rereading Evans’s essay, I notice that she plants a row of onions before she leaves for the hillside.
For women juggling – jobs, housework, childcare, elderly parents – “snatched moments” are often all we have. And yet we need, more than ever, to pay attention to what is going on in the natural world if we are to be aware of the damage done by climate change and to think about how we are going to address this.
‘Attention’, wrote the philosopher Simone Weil, “is the rarest and purest form of generosity”.
We need to notice the lack of birdsong, the reduction in biodiversity, the declining numbers of small mammals, the effects of drought or flooding.
Evans’s work shows us how pay attention to what is happening in our own milltir sgwâr and how to begin to connect that to the wider world.
Margiad Evans’s Autobiography has been republished by Honno with an introduction by Professor Diana Wallace.
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