I have recently had the joy of stumbling across Richard Mabey, an English nature writer. Once I found his writing I could not control myself and searched the library system for his other books. Consequently I now have 3 more besides the one I started, which is Weeds - how vagabond plants gate crashed the way we think about nature (funnily renamed when I bought my version into Weeds - in defense of nature’s most unloved plants - personally prefer the first title), but have temporarily put this down to read; A brush with Nature - 25 years of personal reflections on the natural world.
This book is a collection of the columns Mabey wrote for the BBC Wildlife magazine over that 25 years. These columns are filled with personal observational reflections and also covers many questions about the relationship between language, art & life. The book has been arranged into 7 chapters and within each chapter, the columns deal with a similar aspect or issue. In the preface to the book Mabey discusses his desire he had for the column and how it changed to become more freeform.
His desire was to cover this under lying theme “that the experience of the natural world is part and parcel of our ordinary lives, and that we sideline it as a mere hobby, or as the prerogative of specialist scientist, at our - and the planet’s - peril. These other beings of what has been called ‘the more than human world’ are our neighbours, and we need to understand how to get along with them.” (pg IX & X) Reading through his many columns, I certainly feel that he is making us question this relationship time and time again.
I have picked a few columns out and want to share some things that have struck me; Nature study - in here he talks about how he is getting re-acquainted with his microscope and his observation of how algae & fungus have a good symbiotic combination. They are apt in working out their neighbour relations. He goes on to write ‘the pursuit of neighbourliness requires the exact curiosity of science and the caringness of affection. That’s not a bad combination for approaching our fellow organisms” (pg 9 - Nature study)
This working together should be something that should be embraced with weeds, as after all they green up areas for us that we have destroyed and often left as forgotten parcels of land, they thrive on those in between spaces we have neither got the time, money or inclination for to do something with. Through their action they help us breathe, and also provide alternative hosts for animal pest, alternative food sources for ourselves Mabey’s writing is poetic, his ability to describe how he moves through a fen (here we would refer to it as a wetland) made me rethink how I move through nature - “You are not just in a habitat, you are part of a living membrane, pulsing with life, its scents and vibrations linked with your own. You leave your mark, too, churning the mud, ferrying the seeds, briefly opening the canopy. The wet, for all its underlying layers of ancestral peat, is about here, now, living in the moment, taking your chances”. (pg 13 - Second Home)
Every piece of land has many layers, many ancestors who have influenced it. Whom have altered it, added, removed or enriched it in some way. Adding to that nature has its cycle, one that we disrupt at times to suit ourselves, but once we forget about a piece, this cycle simply starts again. The initial colonizer’s, often weeds, take hold, find a spot, a space that is just perfect for their needs. They green it and if left long enough prepare it for the next ‘layer’ of plants to sprout and take root.
In his another column Mabey goes on to remind his readers that just like us plants “aren’t just species, members of an abstract class. They have addresses as well as names, spots where we’ve found them, befriended them, shared a moment and a place in our lives.” (pg 15 New Nieghbours). For a gardener, every plant in their garden has this link, the knowledge of where they purchased, found or were given it, they are the layers of ancestors or whakapapa of that plant. Adding to this the plants own position within its family, with all its links and similarities. After the long dry summer we have just experienced, many of the ‘addresses’ in the garden have been vacated, mostly through death. Often many of these ‘addresses’ will be refilled with the same plant, because in a garden the features of that plant was part of that space and the overall look.
The in-between spaces, where the weeds find refuge and their addresses, a similar fate may have happened, but there is no guarantee that the space will be filled with the same plant. Nature is not concerned with the overall look. Plants in nature are simply concerned with survival. Many times we will look at such spaces without even consciously being aware of what we are looking at. The moment this awareness changes, we share a moment, whether this is one of distaste or otherwise is immaterial to these plants, as they remain a species, a member of a family (one we have decided they belong to!!).
Our relationship with plants is really one of control. In fields we plant one species so we can feed many, in a garden we select plants for their looks and behaviour, while many ‘nature reserves’ are ‘managed’ to ensure survival of certain species. We manipulate and arrange plants to often suit our needs, I am guilty of this same behaviour in my own garden (maybe that is why I like the in-between spaces so much, they are wild & suit themselves). According to Mabey we need to loosen up, as “gardening is not necessarily about fussy meddling and regimentation. It can be romantic, playful, intimate, wild, an equal dialogue with mature, and maybe the best model of all for the relationship we should aspire to”. (pg 24 & 25 - House and Garden) Mabey came to this conclusion after observing insects in his own garden & house. Am not sure that I would be happy to share my house with crickets, black ants, weevils and many other insects that he had been observing walking, flying through and generally occupying his house with him.
But I can agree with his sentiment about our need to be less meddling. We already do this for periods of time with the in-between spaces. Really only because we have no idea what to do with them. But this less meddling approach allows for plants to find their natural address, their seeds play in the wind or attach themselves to our socks, not knowing their final destination. A playful approach to finding a new home. Can we learn from this? Mabey writes that we can - “It often seems to me that we are closer to nature when we’re playing than at any other juncture of our lives. Of course, our needs for food, sex and territory are absolutely animal-based. And because play is so intricately linked with art, it can somehow seem unearthly, as abstract as higher maths.
Yet I’ve a hunch that it, and a philosophy based around it, may be our ‘way back’. (pg 19 - Play Times) He continues with “I doubt that even the most ardent behaviourists can believe any longer that animal play is simply utilitarian rehearsal for more functional business. Sometimes it looks more like the point of life”. (pg 20 - Play Times) Without play, without that spontaneous approach play affords you, life becomes boring, predicted. Mabey makes me realize that this same freedom is needed as I start new work. The time to question, but also the time to have happy accidents take place, from these inspiration develops, grows and potentially buds up to bloom.
Mabey, Richard (2010) A brush with Nature - 25 years of personal reflections on the natural world. Great Britain. BBC Books, an imprint of Ebury Publsing, A Random House Group Company