Sunday Reading: These Envoys of Beauty by Anna Vaught

Just published this year, These Envoys of Beauty explores Anna Vaught‘s relationship with the natural world throughout her life, and how she uses it both as a refuge and a comfort.

Structured as a twelve essays, Vaught shares her love for, and admiration of, the natural world, and explains how she continues to find solace in the beauty of nature: not only as a kind of mindfulness technique, but actually as a survival mechanism.

Here’s the blurb on the back:

In These Envoys of Beauty, Anna Vaught explores her relationship with the natural world, how it fed and feeds her imagination, and how it gave her hope of something different beyond the world she experienced as a child and young person. She writes about how she oriented herself to the natural world and lived within it while growing up in a rural home; about wishing trees, talking streams, and her early knowledge of plants, animals, and botanical names; about her passionate relationship, even when very young, with foraging and what was edible, how things smelled, licking the rain from leaves, drinking, growing, and cooking.

Over twelve essays, Vaught uses her relationship with the natural world to explore themes of loneliness, depression, and complex and sustained trauma within the family home, issues that shaped her early life and continue to have a far-reaching impact decades later.

Make no mistake: this is no light and fluffy read about muddy river banks, meadows and mindfulness. This delves into the dark places of childhood abuse, and Vaught shows us how nature has saved her; as an outlet for her feelings, as a source of joy and wonder, and as a sort of multisensory comfort blanket that continues to nourish and support her today just as it did throughout her earlier life.

After reading this, you will never look as a tree, a muddy river bank, a cave, or a rockpool the same way ever again.

(Oh, and here’s a strange coincidence: this book was published in the same town where I work, and a large part of the book focuses on places in Pembrokeshire, Wales, where my family and I holiday most years, so I could easily picture the places Vaught describes).

Here’s an extract, as taken from Vaught’s website:

What I show you in this book rests on formative incidents as a child and adolescent: bookish, nerdy, and socially awkward (all of which I still am, only I do not mind now). I spent as much time outside as I possibly could and was always scrambling about somewhere, up trees, in ditches, into rivers and streams and home to look things up and, sometimes, preserve specimens in books or a flower press – or found antique treasures in pillboxes and tins. That is still me today. If you had looked in my primary school books or those in the early years of secondary school, what I wanted to be when I grew up was a botanist. I would spend hours out there and, afterwards, hours in there, looking at my guides and drawing plants and animals – a particularly tame wren on the dog roses; a tree mallow with its flowers open to the sun, looking happy. Lavatera arborea: I loved the rhythm of those words as a child and would linger there now…

This is one story: bluebells, wild garlic, wood aconites, red campion, mud, and flood and feeling the lichen and moss and stone stiles.

But there is a second story.

I did not understand the dynamics of my immediate family, that I was blessed in where I lived made me think it was terrible to confess it, and I am not sure who I could tell. There was deep weirdness, death, unspoken illness, and psychiatric problems the nature of which I did not understand in my father’s family and, since the day he died, when I was eighteen, I have not seen them: they cut me off, just like that, my world there and everything that it brought into my imagination at first, had disappeared. I did not understand at first that its best bits could live on in that imagination, lively and fresh, though wrought by that deep weirdness. Then, my parents and sibling. I did not understand and still do not and, because I have explored it elsewhere and it is not the main thrust of the book – though you can see and infer much, reading through – I will not do so. But there were events which still, as I write, make me feel unsettled. My mouth becomes dry, and I feel that I am under threat. I do not expect to get better from this. It is all because of my mother. She was a splendid woman and I loved her, really, against my will. Because although there were streaks of that splendidness with me, what I was given and what I was left with was the sense that I was evil, the bringer of harm, a blot, a brat, a harlot, a slut, a terrible, selfish thing. This, she would always tell me, even when I was very small, was what everyone else thought too. I did not know any different.

I highly recommend this book, but please be aware of these trigger warnings: These Envoys of Beauty includes accounts of or references to mental ill health, OCD, self-harming, suicide, depression, anxiety, dissociation, and derealisation, as well as violence and cruelty within a family.

These Envoys of Beauty can be purchased directly from the publisher here.


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