The Cabaret of Plants: Forty Thousand Years of Plant Life and the Human Imagination by Richard Mabey. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co Ltd.; 2016. Hardcover, 374 pages. ISBN: 978-0-393-23997-3. $29.95
Described by The New York Times as “Britain’s foremost nature writer,” Richard Mabey has produced another classic, one that is witty, erudite, wide-ranging, and compelling.
The Cabaret of Plants defies classification. This is a not a reference text, yet the book is scholarly, factual, and carefully researched. Beautifully illustrated and astutely designed, this is not a coffee table book, either. It could be seen as a biography of the plant kingdom. The style is detached yet personal, as Mabey weaves in anecdotes and reflections from a lifetime of exploring plants, their habits, and habitats — chiefly from his own backyard. Mainly it is a celebration, indeed a Cabaret, of plant life.
The pivotal theme of the book is the idea of plants as autonomous, yet linked to us by a common existence. Mabey evokes our enduring sense of wonder at their variability and adaptability. The vast Californian sequoias (Sequoia sempervirens, Cupressaceae), for example, continue to draw huge crowds of admirers, as do the giant Amazonian water lilies (Victoria amazonica, Nymphaeaceae) at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. The huge, ribbed, floating leaves of these lilies inspired the structure of Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace, which was built in Hyde Park, London, to house the Great Exhibition of 1851. “Plants, defined by their immobility, had evolved extraordinary life-ways by way of compensation: the power to regenerate after most of their body had been eaten; the ability to have sex by proxy; the possession of more than twenty senses whose delicacy far exceeded any of our own,” Mabey writes.
Throughout the book, Mabey unravels the interwoven relationship between humans and plants. At pains to acknowledge that he is not a botanist, he nevertheless effortlessly and eloquently ranges between botanical science, natural history, literature, art history, paleontology, psychology, politics, and personal experience. The 40,000 years mentioned in the book’s subtitle covers Ice Age relics and ancient cave art through current concerns about climate change and the central role of plants for survival. The dearth of Paleolithic depictions of plants, in contrast to the vitality of animal cave paintings, is attributed to plants’ perceived lack of animus, or spirit. Not until the dawn of agriculture were plants represented as symbolizing the human life cycle.
The depiction of an enclosed garden in the biblical book of Genesis inspired early 17th-century botanic gardens as reconstructions of the lost order of Eden and the relationship between people and plants. Alongside the ensuing advancement of botanical science and taxonomy were waves of cultural shifts, from myth-making and the sentimental plant worship of the Victorians, through the rapacious collecting mania and destructive appropriation of plant species, to the current neo-liberal perception of nature as “natural capital,” as a provider of ecosystem services.
Through references to art and literature, Mabey explores these themes. In William Wordsworth’s poem I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud, daffodils (Narcissus pseudonarcissus, Amaryllidaceae) represent beauty and the human spirit. Romantic poets and writers viewed plants as existing for our delectation, with the extreme being John Ruskin, who was disgusted at the very idea of photosynthesis and the independent existence and reproduction of plants through insect pollination. However, Mabey does not review Ruskin’s own accomplishments as a botanist and botanical artist.
According to Mabey, the olive (Olea europaea, Oleaceae) helped shape our visual sense and may have even stirred the birth of Impressionism. In many of their works of art, Cezanne, Van Gogh, and Renoir featured the olive in a Provencal setting. Renoir bought an olive grove to save it from destruction; now, ancient olives are sold off for vanity gardens of the rich and famous.
The book covers a range of subjects, including individual plant species, people, cults, bizarre events, and specific trees, such as the Fortingall yew (Taxus baccata, Taxaceae). Mabey maintains his humor when describing the egregious destruction of what proved to be the oldest known tree in the early 1950s: a Californian bristlecone (Pinus longaeva, Pinaceae). A geography graduate student used the tree, which was loved locally and known as “Prometheus,” to study how growth rings can reveal climate information. When his boring drill got stuck, he felled the tree to retrieve his drill and cut a cross-sectional slice so as to count the rings at his leisure — there were more than 5,000. Mabey remarks, “Whatever its exact age, at the moment of its summary execution Prometheus then succeeded Methuselah as the oldest known tree in the world.”
Geographically, the book spans continents, major mountain ranges, forests, and rivers. One remarkable English botanical artist, Margaret Mee, spent almost 15 years in Brazil painting the plants and campaigning against mineral companies, loggers, and government to expose their encroachments on and destruction of the Amazon forest. Its fragile ecosystem is depicted in Mee’s acclaimed 1988 painting of the moonflower (Selenicereus wittii, Cactaceae), a cactus that blooms for just one night each year; it is depicted against an Amazonian full moon.
It is not difficult to think of animals as having a separate existence and independent survival strategies from humans, but the same is true for plants. Their potent chemicals evolved for their benefit rather than ours. As the author comments, they simply do not need us in the same way that we need them. Plant breeding has revolutionized human habitations and the production and consumption of food. Yet plants such as maize (Zea mays, Poaceae) were already diverse before they were cultivated. Apples (Malus spp., Rosaceae) continue to evolve despite the commercial drive to uniformity.
In his final chapter on plant intelligence, Mabey tentatively explores current experiments on plant reactions to music, or to threats and violence. Monica Gagliano, an Australian ecologist, demonstrated apparent plant memory by training them to ignore drop-and-jolt” stimuli.1 Chemical communication allows plants to alert neighbors to danger whether by air-blown messages or through root systems. Suzanne Simard coined the term “wood-wide web” to describe cooperative systems of signaling and protection in forests.
In The Cabaret of Plants, Mabey celebrates the robustness, strategies, and independence of plant life. These persistent, adaptable organisms, he writes, provide “different models of being alive.”
Founder and First Director,
Alternative Medicine Foundation
North Yorkshire, UK
- Pollan M. The Intelligent Plant. The New Yorker. December 23, 2013. Available at: http://michaelpollan.com/articles-archive/the-intelligent-plant/. Accessed June 21, 2016.