Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Branch Manager

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Branch Manager

Article excerpt

The Cabaret of Plants: Botany and the Imagination

Richard Mabey

Profile Books, 374pp, 20 [pounds sterling]


It has been said that there are two kinds of football writers: those who have been influenced by Brian Glanville and those who should have been. Perhaps the same is true of Richard Mabey and nature writers --though if you suggested that, he would probably reject the compliment on the grounds that there is no such thing as "nature writers", only good writers and bad writers.

When I was 14, the world was divided up sciences and science people; on the other, there was art. I was in upper fourth arts. I was proud to be an artist but sad that I was no longer allowed to be interested in biology. This ancient ancestral division has given us two ways of understanding the wild world: by means of the imagination and without precision, or by means of evidence and without soul. Or if there is a bit of soul creeping in, it comes with words such as "magnificent" (all birds of prey, all mature trees) and "iconic" (just about anything).

Mabey has not so much bridged the division as soared over it. Art and science are one, both part of human wisdom. "Dormancy is an extraordinary phenomenon both botanically and philosophically," he declares, before going on to consider "the existential status of a dormant seed".

This new offering can be read in a pickup-and-put-down sort of way, so that it takes you a little by surprise (if you aren't used to Mabey) by offering a coherent vision at the end of it. And that is all about plants as "vital, autonomous beings". Note the purposed ambiguity of that "vital".

Mabey always makes me feel inadequate as a naturalist. That is because--sorry and all that--I'm a birder first. Mabey is a botanist before anything else. Birders sometimes refer to such people as "stoopers", people who have their eyes on the ground while we look to the heavens. …

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