Across nature’s borderlines


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.

Richard Mabey

Richard Mabey

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,

Durer's 'Large piece of turf''

Durer’s ‘Large piece of turf”

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.

Splendid weeds at the edge of a vineyard - photo taken yesterday (31st March)

Splendid weeds at the edge of a vineyard – photo taken yesterday (31st March)

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



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10 responses to “Across nature’s borderlines

  1. bonnie poppe

    I think I first heard it called Poke Sallet —

    • I knew the song, but had no idea what it was about till I read Pigs In Heaven, and Weeds. Sallet does seem to be the correct (i.e. most used) term for a dish of cooked poke (or other greens), but as far as I can find out it’s a Middle English variant of salad,which comes from a Latin root originally just meaning salted. Whether this is from the salt added to the raw greens, or from the salted meat or fish which were often put on top,I’ve no idea. It’s interesting that ‘salade’ here means a lettuce, but in Oc ‘salat’ is salted meat, ‘carnsalada’ is charcuterie.

  2. Thanks, another one for the ever growing list. “Food for Free” is still one of my favorites.

  3. Sounds like a great book. If you spend any time in the tropics check out Edible Leaves of the Tropics, by F. W. Martin, R. M. Ruberte, L.S. Meitzner

    A fantastic book. Possibly along a similar vein as Weeds.

  4. jan

    Weeds are just flowers in the wrong place, as someone once said.

  5. Ceridwen

    I do so agree with his view that we have to accept and even embrace ‘weeds’ as members of our plant society now, all bringing and contributing something new and often useful or decorative. Just like our attitude to humans incomers/migrants must focus on the assets they bring to our human society instead of attempting to uproot them.

    • Thanks for saying that. And in this book, Mabey encourages us to see those who settle on our margins – plants or people – most positively as hope for our future, maybe our only hope since human activity so far has made such a mess of the environment. And again I mean environment both physical and political. I won’t go on about tax havens and secret bank accounts and the pensions of failed bankers – this pretends to be a botany blog after all – but I know who I’d weed out.

  6. Pingback: In a square foot of earth: Agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria) | an entangled bank

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