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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An enthralling, literate look at the history of weeds, 29 July 2011
This review is from: Weeds: The Story of Outlaw Plants (Hardcover)
In 'Weeds', Richard Mabey has shown himself to be a true Renaissance Man. As he explores weeds and their history with man (for without man, there are no weeds), he effortlessly combines history and myth with science, art, literature and architecture. And he does it using language that makes no attempt to dumb itself down to the lowest common denominator, and yet to the literate reader is as enthralling and readable as mass-market paperbacks are to the masses.

The book itself is divided into twelve chapters, each given the common name of a plant that is considered to be a weed. But the chapters aren't mere discussions of the virtues (or not) of that plant, they have wide-ranging themes and touch on many plants and their stories. They are all tied together by the main story arc of how our perceptions of weeds have changed through the ages, and scattered with entertaining anecdotes. In 'Adonis', for example, we discover that Edward Salisbury raised more than 20 species of plant from the debris he found in his trouser turn-ups!

'Knotgrass' looks at the way weeds and theology have become entwined through the ages and how that has coloured our view of them. It's all caught up with the development of agriculture (before which 'weeds' as a concept did not exist) and the simultaneous advent of a life of toil and strife, before which we lived free and easy lives as hunter gatherers and weren't cursed by pestilent weeds.

'Self-heal' discusses the different ways that medicinal plants have been selected since history began, including the Doctrine of Signatures that professes that a plant's medicinal qualities (and the ailments they cure) can be seen in their form by an experienced practitioner. There's an echo of these ideas later on in 'Burdock' when Mabey revisits Ruskin's attempt to classify plant species on the basis of their aesthetic qualities, at a time when our understanding of botany and evolution was beginning to give us a real understanding of why plants grow in the way the do.

I got bogged down in 'Love-in-idleness', which is about the presence of plants in literature. Shakespeare I can cope with, but as I have no appreciation of poetry the latter half of the chapter was heavy going. I skipped it and moved on to 'Gallant Soldier', which is fascinating because it talks about the ways in which weeds are transported around the world, and also because it mentions locations with which I am more than familiar. Mabey makes it clear that the biosecurity genie is well and truly out of the bottle. We have been transporting plants around the globe - on purpose and unwittingly - for as long as we have been on it.

Mabey rounds out the book with a glossary of plant names, a bibliography and an index and his hope that whilst our concept of weeds is an indication of our separation from the natural world, their habit of refusing to accept or acknowledge boundaries could show us the route back to a life more in tune with nature. If you have even a passing interest in plants and their impact on our lives, this is an essential read.
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