Getting along with the neighbours

PUBLISHED: 11:19 22 December 2015 | UPDATED: 11:19 22 December 2015

author richard mabey

author richard mabey


Catherine Larner talks to revered nature writer Richard Mabey about his new book about the colourful lives of plants and finding solace on the Suffolk/Norfolk border

Richard Mabey's bookRichard Mabey's book

Documentaries about lions, dolphins, polar bears, even the behaviour of cats attract vast television audiences, but can you remember being entranced by a programme about trees, flowers or ferns?

Plants are just as extraordinary, just as weird and wonderful as the animal kingdom, argues the respected and much loved nature writer, Richard Mabey, but we don’t celebrate their extravagance, their inventiveness, their flamboyance.

“Despite the fact that we love plants and admire their beautiful exteriors, we tend to regard them as objects which we can only relate to for their usefulness to us,” he says. They beautify our gardens, provide us with medicines and food, and help us build our homes.

“The more you think of these organisms simply as commodities to be traded, then the less you expect them to be inventive living things.”

So, for his new book The Cabaret of Plants, Mabey, who lives on the Suffolk/Norfolk border, has made plants the subjects of their own life stories.

Consider a vine, which changes the colour and shape of its leaves to match those of the plant it is entwining. Or an orchid which sends its beautiful, scented flower underground. Or a cactus which only blooms on one night of the year.

Selecting 40 ‘provocative plants’ – plants whose ways of life are weird and challenging – Mabey has explored key occasions when they have been discovered, or celebrated by people with equally extraordinary gifts of imagination. He hopes this will engender a respect and wonder for plants and generate an acceptance that they are quite different from us.

“The plant world has up to 20 senses, four times the number we have,” he says. “This includes radar from roots, sensitivity to light in frequencies beyond our own, and the ability to emit ultrasonic noises. This is the cutting edge of botanical research and it’s completely mind-boggling.”

Plants are so clever, in fact, that they are offering their own solutions to environmental problems. He points to the resilience of the Dutch Elm, which has been seen to counter the attack of beetles carrying the deadly fungus, so that the tree seems to suffer something like a dose of flu rather than a mortal illness.

“When you learn things like that, your attitude towards tree diseases alters, and you realise that forests have always been dynamic changing things. In a world where nothing got eaten, in a perfect woodland with no insects eating the leaves and no fungus rotting the trees, it wouldn’t be wood, just a load of leaves on poles.”

It means that our attitude towards conservation might sometimes be flawed, argues Mabey.

“With a very simplistic single goal, we can forget or ignore the other things our actions might do, but the more we’re prepared to watch and learn how the natural world, and the plant world, sorts its own problems, the more likely our intervention is going to be intelligent and helpful. I am not against our intervention, I just want it to be informed by a respect and a knowledge of the things that we are engaging with.”

Mabey’s own responses often seem to run counter to current thinking. When he was asked to plant a tree in a nature reserve in Norfolk he refused, saying he would cut one down instead. He advises against planting buddleias to encourage butterflies, stating that it is too simplistic and undermines the activities of other plants and insects that are just as important to our ecosystem.

“I make an unfashionable plea against the current fashion for walking. I would encourage long pieces of standing still. If you are in a wood, look for hollow trees and spend half an hour inside one, seeing what it feels like and what is going on in there. Stand still, get very close, touch, smell, and you can begin the journey.”

Richard has been writing about his own journey since first being published in 1974. Among more than 30 books are seminal works – Food for Free, Flora Britannica, biographies of Gilbert White and Flora Thompson, and Nature Cure, his memoir of his battle with depression and his liberating move to East Anglia.

Mabey’s thatched farmhouse is surrounded by trees and hedgerow, as you might expect, but when he is writing, he doesn’t seek out a desk with a view of his garden.

“I don’t want the natural world to intrude into my imaginary world when I am writing.” Nevertheless, windows and doors are left wide open as often as the weather and climate allows, and blackbirds, robins, finches, tree creepers, even a stoat have been known to step inside. And to spot one of his beloved barn owls, Mabey will scour a map for a likely location then take a walk before supper.

“Owl-watching season starts pretty much when the clocks go back,” he says of his passion during the winter months. “There’s not a lot I enjoy about winter, but I just love being with them.

“I’ve learned to understand the relationship I have with them is how I feel about the whole of the natural world – they are neighbours. When the weather’s bad, I worry about them in the same way I would worry about somebody who lives down the street and I’m not sure if they can get out to get food.

“You share the same environment, you suffer the same stresses of weather. It is not ‘my’ neighbourhood, but ‘a’ neighbourhood and all the other things that live in it are my neighbours.”

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