Reading Notes: Richard Mabey

  • Weeds, Richard Mabey

Mabey is a charming, erudite guide to the non-celebrity flora. He leads us from the medieval employment of weeds in sympathetic magic and the theological doctrine of ‘Signatures’ to the cutthroat world of 17th-century soldier-herbalists like Nicholas Culpeper; from John Ruskin’s strange disgust at the idea of photosynthesis (reducing flowers to mere “gasometers”) to the surprising botanical marvels of London’s WWII bomb craters. At tour’s end we gasp in dystopian delight at science-fiction futures when human beings and all their works are remorselessly consumed in an avalanche of kudzu.

Mabey treats his readers to a vernacular glossary of delicious variety, plants with names like gallant soldier, love in idleness, henbane, fat-hen, shepherd’s purse, pellitory-of-the-wall, stinking mayweed, giant hogweed, yellow rattle, self-heal, and (my personal favorite) welcome-home-husband-though-never-so-drunk. Mabey introduces us to “species that relish beheading,” an alfalfa seedling that sprouts “in the moist warmth of a patient’s eyelid,” plants with “leaves smelling of beef gravy,” and “the notorious Atheist’s Fig” that sprouted from the coffin of a provincial blasphemer.

A weed, Mabey reminds us, is really nothing more than a plant growing in a place we wish it wasn’t. Anything at all might become one, under the right (or wrong) conditions. “A tendency to weediness in a plant is as much a matter of opportunity as a fixed character trait,” he writes, and we’re reminded of certain people we’ve known – maybe of ourselves. In their metamorphic qualities, their talent for endurance, their rabid opportunism, their capacity for adjusting themselves to the environment, and the environment to themselves, “the species they most resemble,” says Mabey, “is us.”


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