Oxford, the cabaret of plants- and us

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Richard Mabey is one of Britain’s leading writers on the natural world and our place in it, as well as a veteran broadcaster with more awards and experience to his name than I can list here. So it was mildly surreal to find myself chatting with him about the time he stole a rare rose from Merton College garden to give to his then girlfriend for her exams.

Richard’s new book, ‘The Cabaret of Plants’, a fantastic book exploring the wonders of the botanical world: “I wouldn’t call it ‘magical’”, Mabey says, “but modern botanical science is revealing the vegetal to be a universe matching the wildest dreams of fantasists.” As the conversation continues I get the strange ense of entering a deep wood, or one of the countless, wild heaths that Mabey explores in his books on the natural world: from discussion about his new work we are soon talking about our relation on the world around us, and about the history of ‘nature writing’ itself. As well as the style of nature writing that attracts the media by meditation on the self through the world around us, Mabey explains, there are many other nuances that can be seen throughout history: “the idea that this is something new or sparked off by a peculiarly modern environmental angst doesn’t bear historical analysis.” From postwar urban disillusionment in the 20s and 30s to fictionalized exploration in Forster and Woolf, right back to the 16th century via Thoreau and Emerson in America – it seems Mabey’s writings are just the fringes of a forest which is riddled with pathways and tracks, stretching back through time.

But even if the path of nature writing has been trodden before, Mabey’s writing always seems new, original and absorbing, with a voice of urgency that demands our ears. “I believe the current fad for regarding nature as a kind of complementary medicine , a green Prozac,  is rife with problems”, he argues, “not least the over -simplification of a parallel world that is as full of pain, loss, and hidden transactions as it is of beauty.” The view that nature is there for our benefit, he tells me, has to stop. “I don’t believe the natural world “answers” people’s problems at all – an intense attention and respect for it can heighten our understanding of the experience and terms of living on the Earth.” These messages are important for all of us: when Mabey speaks, we really should listen.

But as well as his strong messages about the world around us, Mabey writes with a poetry, a lyricism, that entices you onwards. When I mention his literary focus on certain areas such as the Norfolk Broads, Mabey explains how, despite his strong love for these regions, he is ‘habitat-promiscuous’: ‘I’m apt to develop crushes wherever I go.” You don’t need to go to the Cairngorms for wilderness, Oxford students will be pleased to know – the marvels of plant life can be experienced in a square inch of vegetation. “I once watched a tuft of lichen for an hour under a microscope, and found a dynamic miniature forest, with the lichen having its own fungal flora and minute insect herbivores grazing among the stalks.” This wonder and joy that oozes from his writing is infectious – as Mabey explains, the overriding incentive is to successfully enthuse himself. “If you can pull this off, and convey it, there is a chance it may be contagious.” It is certainly catching.

And Richard Mabey doesn’t just talk about new approaches to nature: as well as presenting numerous essays on the radio he sat on the Nature Conservancy Council in the 1980s. And it his actions seem to be working – Mabey talks hopefully of a sea-change in our attitudes to the world around us. “Because of the astonishing recent discoveries about plant senses, communication and intelligence, which are reviving their status as active beings, subjects in their own life stories.” We are connected with nature whether we like it or not – by evolution, kinship, ecological co-dependency, and “the simple fact that we breathe in what the plant world breathes out.” Reaching a greater acknowledgement and understanding of this is the challenge.

And what of the much-repeated news that certain ‘nature’ words taken out of the Oxford Junior Dictionary? “My own experience over many years suggests that young people reach this by immersion in the feral, more than being taught to tell a burnet moth from a cinnabar. Since our distinctive identity as a species in the biosphere is as language and symbol users, this can come about as much through literature and art as through ‘real’ experience.” There is as much wilderness in the Bodleian as in the unexplored lands beyond Jericho: we just need to open our books and find it.

When I mention his time studying at St. Catz, Richard Mabey tells me how, “unfashionably, I had a great time in Oxford.” Although nature took a back seat for a while as he got involved in radical politics, Mabey now loves exploring the green, hidden corners of (as he called it in an essay) ‘the city of greening spires’. Magdalen’s meadows and watery walks, the Botanical gardens (“and the heartening way the archway entrance just misses lining up with Magdalen Tower as the architect intended – the wild card wins again!”), the extraordinary flora of the old wall north of Christchurch Meadow, and Corpus’ garden’s  eccentric medieval mix of flowers and veg. Not to mention a bit of eco-slumming the lanes and canals round Jericho. It seems the wild is here, in Oxford- we just need to go out and find it.

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