England & Evelyn

The English environmentalist and reformer John Evelyn was born on this day in 1620. Evelyn may be best known for Sylva, or Discourse on Forest Trees (1664), the first English book on silviculture (silva is Latin for “forest”) and the first book published by the Royal Society, of which Evelyn was a founding member. Evelyn’s treatise on forest regeneration was influential throughout England, and the author became widely known as naturalist and a botanical authority — thus, Crabtree & Evelyn, named after him.

Evelyn’s involvement with the Royal Society reflects his commitment to science as applied to social reform, and his wide range of interests. Among his environmental writings is the pamphlet “Fumifugium, or, The Inconveniencie of the Aer and Smoak of London Dissipated,” regarded as the first publication on air pollution and city planning, aimed at bringing relief to a London enveloped in “Clowds of Smoake and Sulphur, so full of Stink and Darknesse.” His Acetaria, the first English-language book on salads, was so influential that Evelyn gets an early chapter in The Bloodless Revolution, Tristram Stuart’s 2007 history of vegetarianism. The elaborate gardens that Evelyn cultivated on his estates were places of beauty and refuge, but his salad book, writes Stuart, is diet-friendly and recipe-ready:

Acetaria is filled with instructions on how to grow, pick, prepare and eat salad, from the sight-enhancing, anti-flatulent fennel to the eighteen types of pain-quelling, lust-calming lettuce. In the seventeenth century, eating a dish of raw leafy vegetables was something of a novelty, out of line with the predominant valorization of red meat. But with the increasing interest in botany and the rise of gentlemanly vegetable gardening, to which Evelyn himself contributed, salads were to enjoy a vogue. Sowing seeds no longer needed be the sole prerogative of the peasants — the most noble foot could grace a spade.

Regarded as England’s first advocate of the meatless diet, Evelyn combined his taste for greens and home gardening with a distaste for the high living indulged in at the Restoration Court. His book may be written “with a leisureliness and in a rhythm suited to the slow pace of a horse trotting through the winding lanes of the English countryside” (Helen Fox, in her Foreword to the 1937 Brooklyn Botanic Garden reprint edition of Acetaria), but his Preface conveys an urgency to “recall the World, if not altogether to their Pristine Diet, yet to a much more wholesome and temperate than is now in Fashion.”

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.