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Reviewed by Barb Scharf

HERBACEOUS adj resembling or having the nature of herbs (any non-woody seed-bearing plant which dies down to the ground after flowering but whose roots etc. survive); a state or quality of being characterised by such plants.

So reads the frontispiece page of this slender and rather unusual book.

Herbaceous confounds me somewhat, as it falls between easily defined genres. It is not what one would typically call a gardening book, despite an enthusiastic promotional reference to “gardening with words.”  A memoir of sorts, perhaps, for there are numerous anecdotes drawn from the author’s long and varied personal experience. If so, a very vague memoir indeed, mere snippets of incident.

It’s almost poetry, but not quite. (Though Paul Evans is indeed a poet, among his many other lives: writer, broadcaster, playwright, university lecturer, gardener, nature conservationist, philosopher).

Prose poems, perhaps, as suggested by another reviewer.  I’ll give a nod to that. And perhaps best appreciated by those who already have at least one foot in the world of nature. Country dwellers, and, yes, gardeners, and those urbanites who consciously step over and not on the plantain growing in the crack of the sidewalk; who note the glisten of a snail’s slimed trail along the back of a bus shelter bench; who find in the sheeny purple bloom of a city pigeon’s plumage an evocation of a country kingfisher’s flash of blue.

Paul Evans minces no words. This is not a book of conventionally pretty images, though it contains its share of beauty noted. Cowslips come from shit; an abandoned knapsack lying beside snowdrops is  “heavy with stories, secrets, worries”; a mad woman clutches daisies; a domestic beast escapes the abattoir and hides in brambles. We are faced with passages like this, from Forget-me-not:

These are the last dark days before the end. These are the days of butterflies. The sound is a grind of jawbones clogged with earwax, the drone of bees and traffic far off. The smell is a desperate fragrance of April gardens through which butterflies roar above the shouts and tears of a family break-up, their blue wings flashing with the insignia of extinction.

Entries are loosely themed by colour – Yellow, White, Pink, Blue, Brown – and also somewhat in order of progression through the year, from spring’s first glimmering celandines and wallflowers (Yellow), to the aging stalks of lady’s bedstraw, willowherb, knapweed, and devil’s-bit scabious (Brown).

Evans’ images remain fixed in the mind; I have been carrying them around for several months now, ever since the publisher sent me a draft copy of Herbaceous to review. This is a sure sign of a desirable quality of reading for a gardener – which I am, by inclination and profession – for doesn’t much of our appreciation for the natural world and its artistic tweaking in our gardens stem from our imaginations and perhaps, I muse a little fancifully, our shared tribal memories? Paul Evans is definitely tuned in to all of these, on every level. Sight, sound, touch, smell, taste.  Remembrances, daydreams, nightmares. All are present in Herbaceous.

Six black and white and gray shade illustrations by Kurt Jackson enhance the text, rendered in a variety of media: ink, pencil, etching, metzoprint. The illustrations are more evocations of their subjects than detailed depictions; readers are presented with the artist’s conception and must fill in the visual blanks for themselves. Something like Paul Evan’s word-pictures, in fact – a double challenge.

Occasionally a more conventional tone is sounded, as the author-poet-naturalist-gardener shares with his readers some esoteric snippets of information, referencing legends, folklore, historical figures and other writers with intriguing frequency. These include a sixth century poet, Llewarch Hen, telling of the brutal fate of a chieftain fallen in battle in Marsh marigold; the ill-fated 18th century Jesuit explorer, Pierre Nicholas Le Cheron d’Incarville, in Incarvillia; Thomas Moore’s poem ‘Light of the Harem’ in Basil, and many more, leaving me wondering and curious and a bit more educated than I was before I spent time in the author’s company.

Here and there the info-snippets strike a mildly forced note, inserted as they are into the more emotionally focused passages. But, upon further consideration, it is that conjunction of fact, folklore and poetic license which just might keep this book on the shelf of the gardener’s working library, rather than relegating it to the less frequently visited domain of the poets.

A final excerpt, from Dandelion, gives a sample of Paul Evans’ appreciative thoughts regarding one of my own favourite flowers:

Bold as brass, a dandelion bursts from the muddy, dog-peed path … One day of warm sunshine and the dandelion flower is an entire landscape, a piss-a-bed daystar around which other planets orbit … All of a sudden it’s warm enough and bright enough to believe in the dandelion … There is a fly that does, too …. From a distance the fly seems just a blemish on the flower but for the dandelion it is the reason for its explosion of life. This is an ephemeral solar system. Once pollinated by the fly the flower will turn into a clock, to blow away on solar winds.

As mentioned earlier, this book is a slender thing, a mere one hundred pages or so of generously spaced text, so temper your expectations accordingly. No substantial tome this, but instead a slight but pithy collection of nature-inspired diversions for a thoughtful gardener to treat oneself to, or to give to a like-minded friend.

The publisher has thoughtfully provided a link* to Paul Evans reading a brief excerpt from Herbaceous on the Little Toller Books website. I found this a welcome resource, allowing me to read with the author-poet’s own voice echoing in my head, something I found added immensely to the experience.

*Link no longer available

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Barb reads and gardens on a riverside farm deep in the Canadian countryside, and blogs mostly about books at Leaves & Pages.

Paul Evans, Herbaceous (Little Toller Books, 2014). Illustrated by Kurt Jackson. 112 pp.

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