Inside the Life of Plants: In the Third in a Series of Essays on Landscape and Nature, Richard Mabey Explores How the Extreme Weather This Summer Has Generated a Floral Phantasmagoria

By Mabey, Richard | New Statesman (1996), July 30, 2012 | Go to article overview

Inside the Life of Plants: In the Third in a Series of Essays on Landscape and Nature, Richard Mabey Explores How the Extreme Weather This Summer Has Generated a Floral Phantasmagoria


Mabey, Richard, New Statesman (1996)


It's been the Summer of Trudge. A raft of books, celebrity pilgrimages, lit-fest readings on the hoof, have all homed in on the notion that ritually treading in the old ones' footsteps, or following some insistent motherlode in the land itself, is the pathway to revelation. I, too, enjoy a stroll, but have found that a spell slumped on the turf is a better way of sorting out my own head. I cite the current doyen of transcendental saunterers, Edward Thomas, in support. In an essay in The Heart of England he writes: "I have found only two satisfying places in the world in August--the Bodleian Library and a little reedy, willowy pond" (thus granting kinship to landscape and text as early as 1906).

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

I, too, am sitting by a willowy pond, on our village green, and contemplating an unspectacular but mightily symbolic plant. It's growing straight out of the water through a posy of spear-shaped leaves, and bears tiny, three-petalled blooms, striated with pink, at the end of the flower-stalks, which radiate from the main stem in whorls that diminish in diameter the closer they are to the tip of the plant. It is called water-plantain, Alisma plantago-aquatica, and looks rather like an old-fashioned wireless mast. But John Ruskin thought that its proportions were the type of divine beauty.

  If the reader will take the trouble to measure the lengths
  [of the ascending flower-stalks] and compare them he will
  find that ... the uppermost AE = 5/7 of AD, AD = 6/8 of AC,
  and AC = 7/9 of AB; a most subtle diminishing proportion
  [and] typical of that unity which we attribute to God.

And he argued that the perfect curvature of Alisma's leaf and its interior ribs, echoed in the slope of glaciers and the side of bay leaf, appeared beautiful to us because it approached the infinity of God.

Why the Almighty had bestowed so much less aesthetic attention to the jazzy profiles of oak leaves and the unholy chaos of a bramble patch he never explains. But Ruskin's troubled mind was full of such contradictions. No one looked at plants with such loving attention, and no one disrespected more their integrity as living things. Ruskin was appalled at utilitarian explanations of their forms and behaviour. He derided the process of photosynthesis ("beautiful" to many of us) because it made us look at leaves as no more than "gasometers". Beauty of form in plants had nothing whatever to do with their own needs but was installed by "the Deity to be an everlasting source of pleasure to the human mind". Alisma's stalk-length ratios are roughly as Ruskin measured, but why this is so, and whether it is of any significance, especially to the plant itself, isn't a question often asked.

Faced with the floral phantasmagoria generated by the extreme weather this summer, we've all become a bit Ruskinian, eyes widened and imaginations frozen by prodigious growths and precocious appearances. When the mild and drought-dogged winter coaxed plants into flower months before their "proper" season, normally rational gardeners began talking about nature becoming "confused". It was as pure an example of the pathetic fallacy, the assumption that organisms with hundreds of millions of years of experience shared our wobbliness in bad weather.

But then our species has never been any good at getting inside the life of plants. We like their looks and enjoy the masterfulness of cultivating them, and yet, like Ruskin, we don't want to believe that they might have intelligent agendas of their own. Among all the acutely observed and brilliantly comprehended animals that prowl the cave paintings of southern Europe, there is not a single plant to be seen. It is a curious and telling omission. Green things fed and sheltered Palaeolithic people, drove the movements of toe migrating herds they lived on, provided the hallucinogenic drugs that may have helped them conjure up their transfixing images of aurochs and wild horses. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Inside the Life of Plants: In the Third in a Series of Essays on Landscape and Nature, Richard Mabey Explores How the Extreme Weather This Summer Has Generated a Floral Phantasmagoria
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.