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Issue 264
January/February 2011
Leadership

Reviews

Earth's Immune System
by

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Cover: Woman and Snow Bird by Pitaloosie Saila. Courtesy: Kinngait, Dorset Fine Arts

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Earth's Immune System

Miriam Darlington defends the weeds and the wild, Weeds: How Vagabond Plants Gatecrashed Civilisation and Changed the Way We Think about Nature by Richard Mabey. Profile Books, 2010. ISBN: 9781846680762.

“Plants become weeds when they obstruct our plans, our tidy maps of the world,” writes Richard Mabey in this exploration of our relationship with weeds. “If you have no such plans or maps, they can appear as innocents, without stigma or blame.”

Halfway through this weeds’-eye-view of Britain I found myself out in my garden, arrested by a plant I had never noticed before. Infected by Mabey’s enthusiasm, I was transfixed by something prickly and spindly that I could not name. Its delicate, wavy leaves were scalloped, uneven, beautiful in their asymmetry. Suddenly this thistle did not appear ugly and threatening; it was sculptural in all its stages of bloom and decay, a living work of art. Later, beside my local river, I found myself, nose lifted, sniffing the air for the scent of Himalayan balsam, which only a few weeks before I might have been tempted to trample.

With his characteristic lyrical appeal to the senses as well as to the mind, Mabey invites us to expand our consciousness, to make a shift from seeing ourselves as the rightfully dominant species, and to open our hearts to an old enemy. As every aspect of our long war with weeds is inspected, the narrative unearths the closely stitched kinship we have with these prickly neighbours.

Weeds thrive in the company of humans; they flourish when we disturb the earth and disrupt its patterns. And, of course, it depends on what you mean by a weed, Mabey points out, as he scours the ragged arcadia of our building sites, verges and wastelands, giving these vilified species a lingering look. It is our choosing of definitions that have made the difference to our plant kin, he says. In fact, our drawing of boundaries between Nature and culture has defined the character of most of the green surfaces of the planet. After the Fall, God raged at man, and outside the Garden thorns and thistles were part of the implied punishment.

Throwing light on our entwined ecology, Mabey quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson’s alternative definition of the weed as “a plant whose virtues are not yet discovered”. Mabey goes on to look at our urban lifestyle, where the subtle social considerations of “fashion, community solidarity, class, and horticultural fervour” led us to further overlook, persecute and marginalise certain plants.

Reaching into the past, Mabey shows that weeds were present for a long while before they were written about in Genesis. He unearths ancient fossil evidence of the weeds that have been more recently considered ‘invaders’ already layering pollen thousands of years ago beneath the city streets of London. He moves through the socio-cultural aspects of the weeds that have been alongside us for so long, their medicinal and toxic aspects, their linguistic derivations, and their global economic implications. He looks at the threats, real and perceived, from alien invaders. But above all, he seems to move his magnifying glass repeatedly back to his own patch, revealing that the familiar, harmonious rituals of naming and foraging are a force connecting us to our biological roots.

This book is a celebration of belonging, not only to our sense of place and our familiarity with it, but also to the huge and intricate biological family to which we are intimately connected. Mabey searches the names of plants, and in doing so makes them feel both fantastical and familiar, drawing out an unexpected kinship even with the most exotic.

We worry that over-virulent weed immigrants will swamp our biodiversity, but the author reminds us that many cherished and now familiar parts of our scenery came from beyond our shores: the conker tree, the snowdrop, the Michaelmas daisy, alexanders. Botanical naturalisation, he points out, ought to depend on acceptable and appropriate behaviour, not country of origin.

The underlying question of how to dwell in trust and harmony with a place is a powerful undercurrent in Weeds. The peasant poet John Clare, who did just this, celebrated the unpretentious plants that grew in the wall crevices, fields and common land around his home. Writing with simplicity and grace, he appreciated weeds for their vitality and independence. He loved his local flora precisely because they were local, known and familiar to him.

This marvelling at familiar, loved plants is exactly what Mabey does too. But his acutely observing modern eye is balanced by pervading considerations of wider global and economic threats to the natural world. In this period of environmental anxiety it is possible to fall into the trap of apocalyptic fear and panic, and Mabey wisely suggests that it is not weeds that will bring down civilisation. In fact, he says, weeds might hold some biological solutions; they might just be the living pioneers that rebuild it.

Some of the most touching passages in the book are Mabey at his lyrical best: his description of the troublesome burrs from the burdock plant, with their “fuzzy flexible hooks and thin spines”, the inspiration for Velcro. Celandine, whose glossy yellow petals many of us chase from our lawns but love to see on a dappled forest floor in sharp spring light “as if they were made of yellow metal, or oil, or molten butter”. In the case of the bee orchid, Mabey marvels at how our sense of what a flower should be like is challenged by “the chimerical sense of a pink fairy’s wings joined to a brown bumble bee’s body. They seemed to transcend the realm of the vegetable altogether, to be ornaments of porcelain and velvet that had been mysteriously animated by the sun.”

Mabey’s profound scientific knowledge and his passionate fixation with these plants gives one of the most honest and balanced accounts of the plant world I have ever read. Some of the more toxic biohazards that ‘displaced’ weeds have presented are lucidly discussed, but in other places there is huge tenderness towards weeds, which are, he suggests, simply wild flowers in the wrong place.

He concludes that the effect of the human battle with weeds has only been to encourage the evolution of ever more resilient strains, but also, ironically, to create a backlash where there is a growing sympathy for them. Taking the poppy as an example of an extremely effective, almost indestructible survivor of agriculture, Mabey stresses that many such weeds are unfussy about where they live, adapt quickly to environmental stress, and use multiple strategies for getting their own way. “It’s curious that it took so long for us to realise that the species they most resemble is us.”

In opening our hearts to this subversive, pulsing undercurrent of life-energy, Mabey shows that weeds actually stabilise the soil, conserve water and provide shelter for other plants. In doing so, he suggests, they are a kind of ‘immune system’, which moves in to repair the damaged tissue of the earth.

There may be, beyond this book, a different way of seeing: “If weeds are the boundary breakers, the stateless minority who remind us that life is not tidy, they might help us now,” he asserts. “They might help us to live across Nature’s borderlines again.”

Mabey’s story of weeds is both enlightening and heart-warming, but it is also a chilling reminder about our blind spots. Our technological culture grants little value to the mystery and intelligence of Nature, and this book allows us to wonder anew at the magnificence of it. “Whatever institutions humans created to preserve their civilisation from the wild, weeds found ways of exploiting them,” Mabey writes; our attitude and our economic activities have merely encouraged more cleverness and defiance from an unfathomably ingenious ecosystem.

Taken to its conclusion, this book suggests a seismic shift in cultural perspective and behaviour. The question remains, where is the moral or spiritual basis for our actions towards the natural world? If some sacred texts have demonised Nature, and science has not yet expanded our understanding fully, what comes next? Above all, this book is a case for defence of the wild. Read it. You will never look at your garden weeds in the same way again.

Miriam Darlington is a poet and doctoral student specialising in Nature writing.

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