A prolific and talented British nature writer explores 40 plant species and how they have influenced the human imagination over the centuries.
Comprised of equal portions of knowledge, delight, and surprise, Mabey’s (The Ash and the Beech: The Drama of Woodland Change, 2013, etc.) botanical history advocates for elevating the status of plants within the natural world. Rather than being taken for granted as passive vegetation and viewed as merely “the furniture of the planet,” the author recounts “a story about plants as authors of their own lives and an argument that ignoring their vitality impoverishes our imaginations and our well-being.” Each section opens with a brief essay presenting a theme—e.g., “How To See A Plant,” “The Shock of The Real: Scientists and Romantics,” “The Victorian Plant Theatre”—followed by an exploration of specific plants. For those unschooled in botany, these preliminary excursions are nifty gateways into the unknown. Mabey artfully combines historical and contemporary scientific writings, literary musings, and his personal recollections concerning his plant subjects. The author ranges across time from the interest showed by Paleolithic cave artists and the vegetation in their environment to how both Neolithic farmers and 18th-century scientists attempted to understand the mysteries of agriculture and plant cultivation. Though many of the individuals and a handful of the plants Mabey discusses may be unfamiliar to some American readers, the author skillfully melds together this bounty of insights, opinions, and scientific facts into a coherent and intelligent narrative, overcoming any initial unfamiliarity readers may experience. Numerous drawings and photographs enhance the book. What Mabey does best is invite readers to think about plants in a radical new way, even posing the question as to whether a plant’s sensory abilities—electrostatic charges, chemical communication through pheromones and bio-acoustic sound waves—actually constitute intelligence.
An unusual and vastly entertaining journey into the world of mysterious plant life as experienced by a gifted nature writer.