The Cabaret of Plants shows us the value of looking down

Richard Mabey leaps around the world as easily as Ariel, and reminds us that it's vital to see plants as more than "the furniture of the planet".

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It has been said that there are two kinds of football writers: those who have been influenced by Brian Glanville and those who should have been. Perhaps the same is true of Richard Mabey and nature writers – though if you suggested that, he would probably reject the compliment on the grounds that there is no such thing as “nature writers”, only good writers and bad writers.

When I was 14, the world was divided up sciences and science people; on the other, there was art. I was in upper fourth arts. I was proud to be an artist but sad that I was no longer allowed to be interested in biology. This ancient ancestral division has given us two ways of understanding the wild world: by means of the imagination and without precision, or by means of evidence and without soul. Or if there is a bit of soul creeping in, it comes with words such as “magnificent” (all birds of prey, all mature trees) and “iconic” (just about anything).

Mabey has not so much bridged the division as soared over it. Art and science are one, both part of human wisdom. “Dormancy is an extraordinary phenomenon both botanically and philosophically,” he declares, before going on to consider “the existential status of a dormant seed”.

This new offering can be read in a pick-up-and-put-down sort of way, so that it takes you a little by surprise (if you aren’t used to Mabey) by offering a coherent vision at the end of it. And that is all about plants as “vital, autonomous beings”. Note the purposed ambiguity of that “vital”.

Mabey always makes me feel inadequate as a naturalist. That is because – sorry and all that – I’m a birder first. Mabey is a botanist before anything else. Birders sometimes refer to such people as “stoopers”, people who have their eyes on the ground while we look to the heavens.

Mabey shows us what we are missing. His emotional and imaginative understanding of plants, allied with an apparently effortless understanding of the science of it all, makes me feel as if I have only ever heard half the story: that by raising my eyes to the falcon, I have missed all the tales told at my feet. It is a bit like listening to the Goldberg Variations and hearing only the right hand.

The Cabaret of Plants is a series of interlocking essays, often full of unexpected facts and unexpected conclusions:

Despite Britain’s belief in a special relationship with the tree, as the nation’s “heart of oak”, the oaks’ botanical heartland is Mexico, where there are 160 species, 109 of which grow nowhere else.

Mabey leaps around the world as easily as Ariel. One moment, he is with the gloriously grotesque baobabs of Africa; the next, with bromeliads in the rainforest canopies of the New World, before sweeping back home to churchyard yews, green men in Norwich Cathedral cloisters and Wordsworth’s daffodils.

The mission of the book is to stop us seeing plants as nothing more than “the furniture of the planet”. I have too often thought of a tree as something that a bird perches on, feeds on, nests in, sings from. Life is not restricted to the animal kingdom.

That’s not life as in “not being dead”: that is life you can engage with emotionally, have empathy with, something that can move you and bring you new vistas of meaning and understanding. This is a revelation essential to all birders and all other human beings. Sorry, no, that’s wrong. I don’t mean essential. Vital. 

Simon Barnes’s “Ten Million Aliens” is published by Short Books

Richard Mabey appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 28 November

The Cabaret of Plants: Botany and the Imagination by Richard Mabey is published by Profile Books (£20, 386pp).

This article appears in the 29 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Israel: the Third Intifada?