I’d like to share with you the best book on plants I’ve bought this year: Weeds, by Richard Mabey, published in 2010 by Profile Books (HarperCollins). OK, it’s not exactly hot off the press, but it’s so good I had to write about it.
It’s hard to know where to begin with the superlatives: Mabey is one of the best writers in the world on natural history, sharp-eyed and with a gift for adjectives and images that go instantly to head and heart. His aim is to change our view of nature, and especially to show that those neglected or despised parts of it hold hope for our future. ‘Many of them’, he writes of these plants, ’may be holding the bruised parts of the planet from falling apart.’ He makes us rethink many of our values, especially towards outsiders and outlaws.
Watch him speaking at a recent writers’ event here.
This book also shows his breadth of cultural reference, with insightful forays into art (for example, Dürer’s Large piece of turf , and burdock in the work of Lorrain,
Stubbs and others), poetry (especially John Clare), Shakespeare, and fiction , including a long analysis of Rose Macaulay’s oddly unsettling 1950 novel The World my Wilderness. Encouraged by Mabey, I found the novel on CL’s shelf of course, and read it: it’s an intriguing dissection of the state of immediate post-war Britain and France – it’s set partly in Collioure. Chiming with Mabey’s view of weeds as the supreme chancers, the ‘spivs of the vegetable world’, Macaulay holds a fine ambivalence towards weeds and wildness, both human and botanical, in the undergrowth of the bombsites of London. It features more named plant species than any other novel I’ve read.
Mabey views weeds not just as ‘plants out of place’, that is, not wanted in spaces cultivated by humans, nor even in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s more positive view as plants ‘whose virtues have not yet been discovered’, but as our ‘familiars’: plants whose history is inescapably linked to our own. They gave us our first vegetables, our first medicines, and our first dyes. If weeds had been eliminated when agriculture began, the dry soils of the Middle East would have simply blown away: goodbye farming and human civilisation. He argues for a ‘rapprochement with weeds…our most successful cultivated crop’.
I started looking for quotes and began to note so many just from the first chapter that I decided to tell you to read it for yourselves: you can get a taste here.
I have a couple of minor caveats: the pencil sketches don’t very well illustrate the text, and I often wished for colour photographs. These would, of course, have made the book much more expensive. Secondly the flora referred to is mostly British, but the wider issues are just as applicable to the Mediterranean.
Weeds on our borders: in ten metres along the vineyard above I saw: fumitory, coltsfoot, false rocket, grape hyacinths, irises, mallow, mallow-leafed crane’s bill, mercury, marigolds, henbit deadnettle, chickweed, sun spurge,thistle and groundsel..
And to illustrate the range of Mabey’s cultural sources, here’s a song he mentions, ‘Polk salad Annie’ – this version the funky original, recorded in Muscle Shoals in 1969 by the man who wrote it, Tony Joe White. Polk, or poke (Phytolacca americana) is an edible weed growing in the southern states of America, and by coincidence I recently came across it in another novel I’d recommend: Barbara Kingsolver’s Pigs in Heaven. In both song and novel, collecting poke confers the stigma of the underclass, and shows how far we’ve come from what’s good for us. There’s also a video for readers of this blog in the southern USA showing how to find and prepare poke – you HAVE to cook it.
Coming up soon: The social life of plants – they’re not just standing there, you know