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. …

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