THESE ENVOYS OF BEAUTY

For this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, and by kind permission with the publisher of my forthcoming memoir, I offer you part of the opening section of that book. Please note the trigger warning and that this book is still in an editorial stage, to be published Spring 2023. Text is copyright. Here is the publisher’s link to the book:

https://www.reflex.press/these-envoys-of-beauty-by-anna-vaught/

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A collection of interconnected essays on the natural world and its detailed and passionate observance over decades in the context of trauma and mental illness.

Trigger warning. Please be aware that this book is about personal experience and includes accounts of or references to mental ill health, OCD, self-harming, suicide, depression, anxiety, dissociation, and derealisation. Also, to violence and cruelty within a family. Importantly, some of these experiences were lived through by a child so please read mindfully.

TO go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me. But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars. The rays that come from those heavenly worlds, will separate between him and what he touches. One might think the atmosphere was made transparent with this design, to give man, in the heavenly bodies, the perpetual presence of the sublime. Seen in the streets of cities , how great they are! If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty and light the universe with their admonishing smile. (Ralph Waldo Emerson. From Nature, Chapter One[1].)

A note on the text.

All epigraphs are from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1836 essay ‘Nature’, as is the title of the book (shown in the first longer epigraph), I have included botanical names for all plants and trees because they are so beautiful and I thought readers might enjoy seeing them, too. As a kid, I loved to learn them and would roll the names around in my mouth. Like sweeties. Only – arguably – Latin is better for you in the mouth than butterscotch.

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Introduction.

So shall we come to look at the world with new eyes

There are twelve essays in These Envoys of Beauty, and each looks at some element – or elements – in the natural world and what it has meant to me. When I say that, I mean in terms of how I look at it, how I feel, how that has changed but, for the scope of this book, what any of it has to do with trauma and its management. Let me explain.

I grew up very rurally, raised by a Welsh family on the Somerset-Wiltshire border, but I have habitually spent a great deal of time in West Wales, particularly Pembrokeshire, because that is where most of my family is from. I now live in West Wiltshire. Open land, woods, riverbanks were and are my world. I am also sure that they are how I survived – not better, but intact.

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.

            I was raised on the crest of a hill, with orchards and old woods behind me and the fields below me and to one side; the river Frome in the valley, near to where it meets the Avon. The Wiltshire sign was below our house but parallel with a lower wall and I was always delighted that where I lived straddled two counties. I must have thought this was unique, back then. Or forbidden: that you had to live in one place or another, not in two. Then, the time in Wales: St Brides Bay, Cardigan Bay, the islands – Ramsey, Skomer and Skokholm – and the water lands; the Daugleddau estuary where my grandmother had once lived, where part of it ended at Cresswell Quay. There were other places that felt like a home, too – Cardiff Bay, the Brecon Beacons and the Black Mountains and I have always felt more Welsh than English, because I was raised by Welsh people in England. I feel that within me, and I like the way the two things tangle, itself a story for another book.

In many ways I was so lucky, and I am very aware of the privilege of growing up in these places. This is one story: bluebells, wild garlic, wood aconites, red campion, mud, and flood and feeling the lichen and moss and stone stiles.

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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.

She would slap me, pull my hair, kick me when I had fallen and scratch at my ears, but mostly it was the words. The confusion lay, as I say, because I grew up in a beautiful place. I could see that, empirically, but I knew it, hard, because my parents had come from large working class rural families, and had made the ascent, they would say, to the middle classes, or were very much on the way. It makes sense that they should want to remind me of blessings. But, you see, my mother also repeatedly told me I did not deserve it. She was ill a great deal and I remember feeling sick and shivering at the tension in the house. She took the time to tell me that I had made her worse. Then, when I was thirteen, my father became ill. The descent was slow at first, then rapid and dizzying. I did my best to help them both, to care for them, while feeling that I was burden and blot and then came the day that I was told I had hastened his death. I had always worried I was capable of this. Now it had come true.

At night, I would recite Latin names from plant books like mantras and talismans. I had awful ruminating and intrusive thoughts. I would feel a bad thought about someone ushering in – not something I felt, but a collocation of words in my head; a fit of diction, that was all. But by the time I was seven or eight, it was so entrenched that I was a bringer of harm that I decided I had to expel the words so as not to make the bad thing happen. I would have to go and tell that person, always an adult, a dinner lady, a teacher, the school caretaker, the vicar. What they thought I cannot imagine, but I do not remember reassurance ever being given.

By my late teens I had developed severe anxiety, depression. I first tried to take my own life when I was fifteen and again when I was nineteen. On the first of those occasions, my mother would not take me to hospital but instead said I should go to my room. I did not tell anyone this until after the birth of my first child, when I was dreadfully unwell and being looked after by a consultant psychiatrist in outpatients and a kindly GP. This is the first time I have written about it. I don’t know whether she hoped I would die – I had taken a considerable amount of paracetamol – or if it was simply too much for her to think about. I did not understand then, and I still don’t and will never have the opportunity to ask. Both my parents were dead by the time I became an adult.

From the age of twenty one I have been in and out of care – such as is available – and, ever since my teens, I have had difficult periods, of varying length and intensity, where I don’t know where or quite who I am; where my edges are. It is exhausting. It was never talked about by my parents, and they did not try to help me. My mother said mental health problems were an indulgence. She said moods were a myth, especially moods in teenagers, a licence for bad behaviour. PMT, she said, was made up. People who were mentally ill were those who had failed to control themselves. I don’t know why she said these things, but I feel now, looking back, that there was such burning life in her which had been thwarted. Moreover, mental illness – and severe mental illness – was rife on both sides of my family and I wonder if neither of my parents could bear to accept it within our family home. They rejected it because they were frightened and wanted to retain control and function; in doing so, they created something that was dysfunctional. Any one of us can be ill – and any one of us can have things go wrong with our mind.

I remember that it often felt so cold in our house, though a fire was often lit. I remember the day when my mother bought lamps as a development from the days of big light. I felt like we had arrived, and I loved the soft pools of light which fell on the floor and then, wonders, beside my bed. But you see that softness did not last and it was cosmetic. I looked outside.

Oh, there was a lot more than I feel I can tell which went on, but you can infer as we go because the point of this book is not degradation and terror, but joy and survival. Of course, I learned a good deal from some – not all! – of my therapy received sporadically over the decades of adulthood, but all that time, today, this afternoon, it was my connection with the natural world (and my reading[2]) and all things in it which shored me up. On my worst days, I cannot go far, so I am just outside, but I am listening intently. I am a rural girl, but I am observing wherever I go.

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In this book, stay with me as I try to show you the world I explored, what it meant to me then, and now. The essays are not chronological, but dart back and forth between them and within, memories and ideas associating and cohering. I do not mean to mythologise nature, because it is also full of facts and yet it illuminates, calms, and makes things intelligible. Sometimes I feel it as a metaphor, sometimes just as a sense or a reminder or prod – in the hard lines of something or the delicate feather of rime – to think about something with a different attitude. Also, even when it is small about me, I perceive space; that’s how it was for me as a child.

‘We constantly refer back to the natural world to try and discover who we are. Nature is the most potent source of metaphors to describe and explain our behaviour and feelings,’ notes Richard Mabey in Nature Cure[3] and that is true, I think. When I was very young, and I would run out, or just stand and stare, I would look to plants and trees to help me explain to myself a bewildering world. There was something else, encapsulated by Wilson A. Bentley, known as ‘The Snowflake Man,’ who studied the snow and published many extraordinary photomicrographs of snowflakes. Bentley saw the snowflakes, as he observed them from Jericho, in Vermont, as a metaphor for all things beautiful on earth, but also ‘The snow crystals…come to us not only to reveal the wondrous beauty of the minute in Nature, but to teach us that all earthly beauty is transient and must soon fade away. But though the beauty of the snow is evanescent, like the beauties of the autumn, as of the evening sky, it fades, but to come again.’[4]

I want to reiterate. Nature has not been my cure. It has been my inspiration, teacher, and companion.

I am not better, but I have never been alone.

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[1] Ralph Waldo Emerson, Selected Essays, Lectures and Poems, ed. Robert D. Richardson, Bantam 1990, 2007. ‘Nature’ was written in 1836

[2] If you like, you can read an account of reading, the imagination and survival in an essay I wrote for Trauma. An Anthology of Writing about Art and Mental Health, Dodo Ink, ed Mills and Cuell, 2021); it also uses some sections from my first book, which was a work of autobiographical fiction.

[3] Nature Cure, Richard Mabey, Chatto & Windus, 2005, Little Toller, 2021, p. 32

[4] Quoted in The Snowflake Man, a Biography of Wilson A. Bentley, Duncan Blanchard, Macdonald and Woodward Publishing Company. 1998.


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