This review of Richard Mabey’s Weeds (Profile, £15.99) appeared in the Daily Telegraph.
British nature writing, traditionally a mellow reed-bed that banks the literary mainstream, has bred exotic specimens in recent years. In the works of the late Roger Deakin, the baleful canal-side excursions of Iain Sinclair or Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places, a newish sort of nature has flourished: desolate, unruly, even rank and unwelcome, but suited to an age of ecological decline and catastrophist visions. Richard Mabey is in several senses the modest eminence behind this almost-movement. In the early Seventies, withThe Unofficial Countryside, he divined among ruined factories, railway sidings and motorway verges a modern Romanticism. Mabey’s patch has always been a dialectical one; he is immune to nostalgia but convinced of the intimacy of nature and culture.
Weeds is in a way the svelte summa of his writing to date: a meditation on the most despised types of plant and landscape, which turn out in a typical Mabey paradox to be central to our ideas about nature and our place in it. It’s a vexed territory. There is first the problem of definition – there are no botanical criteria by which to call plants “weeds”. They are plants that have grown in the wrong place or, as Thoreau put it, plants “whose virtues have not yet been discovered”. In some cases, they are plants whose uses have declined or been forgotten. The hated ground-elder, for example, was introduced to Britain by the Romans as a cure for gout, and bracken was for centuries a fuel and a weed-suppressant.
In part, Mabey’s is an erudite guide to the virtuous prehistory of the modern gardener’s worst nightmares, sedulously traced in the pages of early modern herbals and botanical illustrations. But it’s also a map of intriguing migrations: the way weeds have followed us around in our efforts to reshape the natural world. If on the one hand they “refuse to be constrained by our cultural concepts”, they are also our partners in development, the green shadows of civilisation. The cultivation of crops may have originated in the accidental germination of discarded seeds in the middens of ancient hunter-gatherers, and been sustained by the presence of unloved flora which kept valuable soils from simply blowing away.
It’s in the story of weeds and modernity, however, that Mabey’s book starts to truly fascinate. Among the more amazing tales is that of the railway’s part in the spread of species around Britain. Rosebay willowherb was once a rare plant till its seeds were caught up in the slipstreams of trains and travelled on the clothes of Victorian commuters. Its apotheosis came after the Blitz, when a purple haze of “bombweed”, as unaccustomed Londoners called it, grew among the ruins. Weeds, writes Mabey, are part of the aesthetics of picturesque decay. Present-day Detroit, long crumbled from its industrial heyday, is among the prime attractions for the botanically curious urbanist.
Yet Mabey is not a sentimentalist in the face of vegetal invaders. Weeds is stocked with horror stories about the depredations of non-native species upon fragile ecosystems. Forget your domestic tussles with ground-elder and consider the Triffid-like progress of the kudzu vine across the southern states of the US, where it smothers two million acres of forest. So invasive is the plant that a conspiracy theory has arisen alleging it’s a Japanese plot to throttle the American economy. Globally, Europe has been a worse culprit than Asia, vast tracts of the US and Australia having vanished under weeds innocently introduced centuries ago. When it comes to fears of colonisation and migration, weeds are a metaphor for the porousness of geopolitical borders.
As ever with Mabey, there’s a poetry to all this creeping ecology. Even the book’s glossary of plant names is a verbal joy, full of sun spurge, fumitory, lady’s mantle and spotted medick. As readers of his Flora Britannica andNature Cure will know, he’s a precise and witty writer, here alternating loving description of loathed weeds with interludes in his own Norfolk garden. (In a telling anecdote, a prissy neighbour mows Mabey’s wildflower verge while he’s on holiday.) His book is strewn with literary invocations of wildness, from Shakespeare’s “bank whereon the wild thyme blows” to John Clare’s greeting an April daisy (“Welcome, old matey!”) Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote: “Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet”. And Mabey’s ambiguous ode teaches us they will be around to inspire and unnerve us no matter how rigorous we are with the weed-killer and the hoe.