A Shrubbery of Unexpected Delights and Also Triffids,
This review is from: Weeds: The Story of Outlaw Plants (Paperback)
Weeds: How Vagabond Plants Gatecrashed Civilisation and Changed the Way We Think About Nature is a book stuffed to the gunwales with endlessly re-tellable stories and factlets. An excellent representative of Mabey's brilliant non-fiction output, the narrow remit of Weeds perfectly suits his skills as a writer of beautiful entertaining prose and as an unparallelled linker of apparently unrelated trifles. By turns witty, informative and dazzlingly well read, Mabey is the perfect companion for this cultural odyssey into the natural world.
Full disclosure: As a lazy and economically challenged gardener with a tendency to embrace the appearance of weeds in my patch (all that ground-cover reduces watering on hot days, attracts beneficial wildlife and fills in the gaps where the plant budget runs out... right?) I am naturally delighted by arguments in their favour. And make no mistake, this is a book which comes out cheering on the side of the thistles and the tares. Lovers of hoed bare soil between regimented clumps of begonias should look away, or at least attempt to approach with a (wide) open mind.
Weeds has the merit of being both refreshingly funny and charmingly enthusiastic about the characters (both human and plant) that fill its chapters. Organised around individual plants, although always prone to digression, the book is beautifully produced and illustrated. It's also the kind of book that frequently sends the reader scurrying to the internet or home library in search of illustrations of the plants referred to in the text or pursuing more elusive quarry: Janet Malcolm's burdock portraits or Simon Starling and his Island For Weeds.
As Mabey observes, the names of weeds have the character of found poetry: rosebay willowherb, scarlet pimpernel, green alkanet, fuller's teasel. In his monumental Flora Britannica he collected the common names of many of the British species of wayside plant; names that reflect historical uses and forgotten customs as well as the sense of place and familiarity created by a local weed population. Here he speaks of the fondness people feel even for invasive foreign plants such as Indian balsam (perhaps more commonly known as policeman's helmet) and quotes the lovely Ann Stevenson poem (Himalayan Balsam) likening the scent of the plant to that of "a girl's breath through lipstick".
As Mabey outlines in his opening chapter:
"How and why and where we classify plants as undesirable is part of the story of our ceaseless attempts to draw boundaries between nature and culture, wildness and domestication. And how intelligently and generously we draw those lines determines the character of most of the green surfaces of the planet."
Confidently covering the criss-crossing trails of botany, gardening, farming, art, religion and popular culture, Weeds opens up the paradox of our own attitudes to weeds while allowing the plants the dignity of their own eloquent histories. From Culpeper to Ruskin to John Wyndham, this is a smart, wise and fascinating look into a world both foreign and familiar.