Richard Mabey is one of Britain's foremost nature writers. He lived most of his life in the Chilterns before moving to Norfolk in 2002 after a period of clinical depression. His latest book, Weeds, is a cultural history of vagabond plants 'from the Garden of Eden to The Day of the Triffids'. He talks to Olivia Edward about the holidays that inspired his bestselling title Food for Free and what Genesis's Expulsion from Eden myth tells us about the emotional state of early farmers
I can't remember a time in my life when I wasn't, in some way, romantically and intellectually engaged with the natural world.
I wrote my first piece of nature writing at the age of seven. It was about a dead pipistrelle bat I found on the way to school. It had been hit by a car. I was astonished at how undamaged it was and the way it remained warmed by the sun. I tried to write about the strange vivaciousness it had, even in death.
I went up to Oxford to study biochemistry. I crashed within the first few weeks. I had done no formal biology training and I had completely underestimated the really quite ghastly experimentation we would be required to do. On our very first day, we were expected to suck out the contents of our own stomachs with a tube. I changed subjects and went for PPE [philosophy, politics and economics] instead.
After I graduated, I taught social studies at a college of further education. I really enjoyed it. It was all very Tom Sharpe, and a very political time. Another colleague and I were repeatedly in trouble for stirring up the students. A tutor who taught them mechanical craft after me once complained furiously that they were coming to his class 'in no condition to work the lathe'.
By the age of 18, I had started going out to the Norfolk coast to stay in a friend's father's converted lifeboat moored at Blakeney. Gangs of us would go there on weekends in the late 1960s and early '70s. I became fascinated by the local habit of gathering edible plants. It gave me the idea for Food for Free, which started my book-writing career.
A weed can be anything. It all depends on someone's sense of what should be in a particular place. Weeds is an exploration of the boundaries between wildness and domesticity. The fascinating and provocative thing about weeds is that they don't respect those lines. They're outlaws and boundary breakers, refusing to be categorised.
Weeds are encouraged by the disruption of settled patterns of living, which is why you get the same weeds in battlefields as you do in arable fields, and why invasive plants can travel around the globe and find conditions that are absolutely blissful for them. It's because, in all these circumstances, they're moving into a situation in which all the normal checks on their behaviour--the pathogens, the nibbling insects, the soil chemistry--are gone. …