Putting Plants in their Proper Place

Issue 296
May/June 2016
Days of Hope

Reviews

Putting Plants in their Proper Place
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Michael McCarthy hails a masterpiece of Nature writing. The Cabaret of Plants: Botany and the Imagination by Richard Mabey. Profile Books, 2015. ISBN: 9781861976628

The emotion of wonder is a curious phenomenon: we can recognise it easily enough, but defining it is harder. It has elements of astonishment, and elements of admiration, but it goes deeper than either; it touches on the spiritual, and we might say that wonder is a sentiment that makes us feel that there is something unknowably remarkable about its object, perhaps through what that object lets us sense about the world as a whole, and about our place within it.

Take the great whales: seen in the wild, in the open ocean, they are truly wondrous, and it is hard to encounter them without feeling that the world is a special place; and the same might be said for many of the great beasts, the charismatic megafauna, from tigers to elephants. Birds can similarly be wonder-working, from the hummingbirds and the birds of paradise to a thrush of dull brown plumage: hearing a nightingale duet with silence, in the middle of a midnight wood, is a wonder indeed. Even butterflies can excite wonder, and many will know the celebrated passage in The Malay Archipelago where Alfred Russel Wallace, in capturing his first golden birdwing, scarcely credible in its beauty and its dimensions, comes close to having a heart attack.

But plants…. Hmm. Do plants excite wonder? Do they trigger excitement like tigers? It is the aggrieved contention of Richard Mabey that they very much do, but that today we have forgotten how to feel it. “Plants in the 21st century”, he writes, “have been largely reduced to the status of utilitarian and decorative objects… They have come to be seen as the furniture of the planet, necessary, useful, attractive, but ‘just there’, passively vegetating.” And so, in a book of astonishing ambition, he sets out to give the plant kingdom its wonder back. 

Britain’s most lauded Nature writer, expert botanist as he principally is, stands uniquely qualified to attempt such a task, and he succeeds triumphantly. The Cabaret of Plants has the feel of a book that is a magnum opus, the summation of a career, the assembling in a fiery purpose of everything that has been learnt and experienced in a long life closely observing, and loving, flowers and trees; Mabey is determined that, as the book’s subtitle suggests, botany and the human imagination should together reach the heights once again.

He reunites them with a long parade of essays, or stories – it feels a little like a botanical Canterbury Tales – concerning plants, some famous and some not, but all with marvellous histories, or biologies: I would say, personalities, although Mabey himself is at pains to shy away from the anthropomorphic. These accounts range from the yew and the hazel with their magic, to the baobab and the sequoia with their grandeur; from ginseng, improperly credited with wonders, and samphire, colonist of bare mud, to the moonflower of the rainforest, flowering but one night a year. Victoria amazonica is here, the world’s supreme water lily, as is the titan arum, the stinkiest plant on the planet, and Newton’s apple, which in falling prompted the idea of gravity. (The variety, Mabey informs us, was Beauty of Kent.)

Every one of these organisms has attached to it what in old Fleet Street used to be called a cracking tale, but Mabey’s reach is broader and more serious than mere anecdote, and it is the wonder not just of individual species but of the very nature of plants themselves that he is seeking to celebrate: he is marvellously illuminating on their two key, astonishing biological processes, photosynthesis and pollination. Yet his ultimate fascination is with the human response they have provoked, and as the book progresses he moves steadily towards the floral beauty that down the centuries has captured people’s hearts.

For example, he offers an invigorating new look at why the daffodils of Gowbarrow Bay had such an effect on Wordsworth; and a riveting account of why the Cretan springtime flowers in the gorge of Samaria have had such an effect on him. Best of all is the longest chapter of the book, on orchids and their “mysterious glamour” – this alone is worth the cover price. Mabey writes: “There seems to be some quality or mana attached uniquely to orchids that underlies their universal appeal. An aura … of voluptuousness, exoticism, perhaps even decadence; a hint of ambiguity … to humans, of flowers designed to lure rampant insects.”

From start to finish the prose is luminous and lyrical, backed up by a truly formidable erudition that puts me in mind of Keith Thomas’s magisterial Man and the Natural World (where plants came a poor second to vertebrate animals) or even Edward Gibbon – that sense of enormous knowledge, lightly worn. Mabey is never pompous; indeed, he is unaffectedly humble: he generously credits all those he has drawn upon, and although he once owned a beech wood in the Chilterns, he refers to himself merely as its custodian.

At 75, Mabey has now written 30-odd books on the natural world since he virtually began modern Nature writing in 1972 with his surprise best-seller, the foraging guide Food for Free. There was the award-winning and very moving biography of Gilbert White, author of The Natural History of Selborne; there was the groundbreaking Flora Britannica, a volume the size of a doorstep, which sold 100,000 copies and brought the glory of our wild flowers to an audience beyond the botanically committed.

Today Mabey wholly deserves his place as the doyen of our Nature writers: in that world he is the sage, he has attained something of the towering eminence of Dr Johnson, and now he is putting that eminence in the service of his lifelong friends the plants, to restore them to our consideration, to our esteem, to our imagination, which, he feels, they have so unjustly lost. The Cabaret of Plants does indeed give them back their wonder, and lets us see how they make the world a special place. In doing so, it is a wonder itself.

Michael McCarthy, former environment editor of The Independent, is the author of The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy.

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