Imagine a picture of a jungle. There are the familiar palms and vines, and down in a corner a monkey sitting on a branch. Ask a number of people, “What is this a picture of?” and it’s a good bet that most will say it shows a monkey.
But someone like British naturalist Richard Mabey could probably point out three or four tree species, a few kinds of vines, a variety of ferns and an orchid tucked in the crook of a branch. What’s more, Mabey, skilled at entwining human and plant history, would tell the story of one of the heroes of his book, Margaret Mee, a 20th-century botanical artist who sailed up the Rio Negro in Brazil to sketch the annual one-night blooming of the moonflower, a rootless climbing cactus.
For many people plants are so boring as to be almost invisible. We pay attention to a few flashy plant celebrities – perfumed roses, a thousand red tulips – but we are insufficiently curious about how plants live. Mabey’s highly entertaining book, “The Cabaret of Plants: Forty Thousand Years of Plant Life and the Human Imagination,” is a welcome corrective. He wants us to care about how these growing things, with which we share primeval genes, solve the big problem of life: staying alive to reproduce. Without being sentimental about it, Mabey gets us to look at life from the plants’ point of view. His science is sound, he’s witty and his language is engaging.
Plant advocate though he is, Mabey decries the trend of quantifying the usefulness of the natural world by measuring “ecosystem services.” And, by the way, who could possibly question plants’ status in the service department? Carbon dioxide in, oxygen out. But Mabey doesn’t want to reduce plants to utilities functioning on our behalf. A subtly expressed theme through his 29 chapters on 40-some plants is that they don’t need us the way we need them. Their real gift to human beings, he writes, is to demonstrate “different models of being alive.”
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“The Cabaret of Plants: Forty Thousand Years of Plant Life and the Human Imagination”
By Richard Mabey
W.W. Norton & Co., 374 pages.