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The Perfumier and the Stinkhorn

The naturalist Richard Mabey’s latest book shows how human beings best find health and pleasure not

For those who still subscribe to the orthodoxy of "two cultures" (and there are many), science and Romanticism are bound to be at odds. If you think there are two distinct ways of seeing the world - one scientific and detached in its outlook, the other humanistic and Romantic, asserting the importance of subjective experience - then Romanticism can never be more than an exercise in imagination, valuable for what it contributes to the emotions but intrinsically inward-looking. To such people, science is concerned with the nature of things while the humanities deal with human responses to the world, two vastly different things.

The assumption made by those who subscribe to this orthodoxy is that human beings are set apart from the world. Philosophers in the dominant western tradition have tended to think of consciousness as a defining human attribute, one that no other animal possesses. Even militant Darwinists, committed to the notion that we emerged by natural selection from other animal species, invariably claim that human beings alone have the capacity to frame an objective view of the world. The insistence that human beings are great exceptions among the animals owes much to Christianity, but the idea that humankind does not belong fully in the natural world has continued to wield influence even as religious belief has declined. In many ways, the old argument about two cultures turns on this sense of separation.

Once human exceptionalism has been set aside, there is no reason why we should see natural science as being fundamentally opposed to a Romantic appreciation of nature. Richard Mabey describes Romanticism as the idea that nature isn't a machine that human beings can take apart and reassemble at will, but a living system of which they are an inextricable part. Yet as he shows in this short, wise and consistently delightful book, a "Romantic" conception of human beings' place in the world may be one that even science supports. The idea that the human mind can somehow be separated from the environment is a relic of faith, not a conclusion of scientific inquiry, and it is incompatible with evolutionary theory. Meticulous obser­vation of natural processes can undermine the sense of separation, and confirm that human beings are an integral part of the living earth. Paradoxically, a Romantic sense of participation in nature can open up a view of things that is as liberating as any that science has given us.

Mabey is a thoroughgoing empiricist and so, for him, the senses are the basis of human knowledge. In five of the six interlinked essays that make up this new book, he treats sight, taste, smell, hearing and touch in turn. His comments on the neglected sense of smell are especially worth reading. When he was young, he writes, "I needed scents to be outrageous to be memorable. The one that broke through most gloriously was the stinkhorn fungus, its reek of rotting animal unmistakable at 20 yards." Now that he is older he is delighted by subtler scents, which - as Proust, "poet laureate of scent and memory", noted - bring with them "the vast structure of recollection".

Mabey often cites the poetry of John Clare, who already in the early 19th century "perfectly balanced an intense Romantic imagination with a sympathetic naturalist's eye". Though he rejected the Linnaean categories by which living things were classified in the science of his day, Clare was far from disdaining scientific precision. He produced an extraordinary catalogue of orchids in which the species are described by their vernacular names and local addresses, an exercise that Mabey admires as "a way of seeing and talking about nature in which humans and other organisms inhabit, equitably, the same spaces". Clare could not be satisfied with any exclusively human perspective, and neither is Mabey. For each of these celebrants of the natural world, close observation of landscape offers a way out from confinement in subjectivity.

At this point, a further paradox appears: if human beings are part of the natural world, there can be no impermeable boundary between the environment they build for themselves and the life that goes on around them. The two will be constantly commingling, as Mabey describes in The Unofficial Countryside. First published in 1973, it abounds in rhapsodic pen-portraits of derelict city docks, bomb sites, rubbish heaps and canals. These redoubts of struggling wildlife "had none of the restful predictability of ancient countryside, that feeling of seasoned flow and stability that you find in downland and forest". Yet ragged urban landscapes of this desolate kind can be as refreshing as the official countryside, though their effect
is different. "It is the disorder and incongruity that I find so exciting," he writes. In these built environments, human beings seem like interlopers: "You cannot stride about in surroundings like this." The Unofficial Countryside concludes with the observation that the "sweep upon sweep of spotted orchid, in every shade of pink", which he found poking through the windscreen of an abandoned car showed that "this most delicate of flowers, hounded by new roads and car-borne trippers, had found refuge among the clutter, and was having its revenge".

Here it is possible to hear Mabey opposing the natural to the human - a dichotomy that Romanticism conversely undermines. Yet the theme that runs throughout his writings is rather that human beings belong with the rest of life on earth, distinguished from their evolutionary kin chiefly by the dubious privilege of self-awareness. Observing the natural world is an antidote to the morbid overdevelopment of this all-too-human capacity. A strictly objective standpoint would be a view from nowhere, and cannot be reached by any means, including the most abstract science. Still, it may be possible to loosen the hold of a perspective that is narrowly human.

In The Peregrine, a visionary classic of modern shamanism that has never been surpassed, J A Baker writes: "To hawks, these gritty country lanes must look like shingle beaches; the polished roads must gleam like seams of granite in a moorland waste. All the monstrous artefacts of man are natural, untainted things to them." Like Mabey, Baker turned to the countryside to escape a human-centred perspective on life. Along the way, he acquired a new perspective on his own kind. If human beings are interlopers in the world, the marks they leave on the landscape are, seen from a non-human standpoint, wholly natural. It is right to lament the destruction of so many plant and animal species, but we need not fear the disappearance of nature, for even though we rarely see it we are always in its midst.

In Nature Cure (2005), Mabey wrote movingly of how life in the country had enabled him to recover from a paralysing depression. The Perfumier and the Stinkhorn is also partly autobiography, recounting his career as a naturalist from the time of his first enthusiasms as a boy. The message in both books is salutary - health and sanity are not to be found in complete immersion in human affairs. The human animal needs something beyond itself if it is not to go mad. That something is all around us, though most seem content to pass it by.

The Perfumier and the Stinkhorn
Richard Mabey
Profile Books, 128pp, £9.99

John Gray is the New Statesman's lead book reviewer. His latest published work is “The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Defeat Death"
(Allen Lane, £18.99)

John Gray is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is Seven Types of Atheism (Allen Lane)

This article first appeared in the 25 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special