CHRISTMAS OFFER Subscribe to EADT Suffolk today CLICK HERE

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.”


Welcome , please leave your message below.

Optional - JPG files only
Optional - MP3 files only
Optional - 3GP, AVI, MOV, MPG or WMV files

Please log in to leave a comment and share your views with other EADT Suffolk Magazine visitors.

We enable people to post comments with the aim of encouraging open debate.

Only people who register and sign up to our terms and conditions can post comments. These terms and conditions explain our house rules and legal guidelines.

Comments are not edited by EADT Suffolk Magazine staff prior to publication but may be automatically filtered.

If you have a complaint about a comment please contact us by clicking on the Report This Comment button next to the comment.

Not a member yet?

Register to create your own unique EADT Suffolk Magazine account for free.

Signing up is free, quick and easy and offers you the chance to add comments, personalise the site with local information picked just for you, and more.

Sign up now

More from People

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

What makes the perfect Christmas? For most of us it’s good food, good drink and good company, wherever we call home. And in Suffolk we’re lucky to have some great people in the food and drink industry who ensure we always have a great time | Words: Jayne Lindill

Read more
Friday, November 23, 2018

From her great uncle’s First World War diary Vicky Gunnell pieced together the career of a pioneer in aerial photography at Orford Ness and Martlesham Heath

Read more
Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Spirit Yachts is a Suffolk success story. After 25 years of designing and building luxury vessels sailed all over the world, it has plenty to celebrate | Words: Ross Bentley

Read more
Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Private, intimate and unforgettable: here’s why you should consider a bespoke package wedding at a stately home

Read more
Friday, October 26, 2018

An exclusive charity sale at Bishop & Miller gives Ed Sheeran fans the chance to own some of the singer’s personal items

Read more
Tuesday, October 23, 2018

October . . . the month for the unusual and the unexplained. Pip Wright delves into Suffolk’s strange, bewildering history of witchcraft | Words: Pip Wright

Read more
Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Tessa Allingham sits down to dinner prepared by some of the county’s most talented chefs and their most promising protegés

Read more
Friday, October 5, 2018

John White has lived and worked at the tiny hamlet of Felixstowe Ferry for almost all of his 79 years | Words & Photos: Mike Trippitt

Read more
Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Thinking of boarding school for your child but have concerns? There might be a flexible boarding option to suit you at Royal Hospital School, Ipswich

Read more
Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Barrister Sarah Langford hopes her fictionalised accounts of some of the challenging cases she’s defended will give people a deeper understanding of the justice system | Words: Catherine Larner - Photo: Sophia Schorr-Kon

Read more

Newsletter Sign Up

EADT Suffolk Magazine weekly newsletter
Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter

Our Privacy Policy

Topics of Interest

Food and Drink Directory

Local Business Directory

Search For a Car In Your Area

Property Search