The Cabaret of Plants; Forty Thousand Years of Plant Life and the Human Imagination by Richard Mabey. W.W. Norton, 2016, paper.
Richard Mabey describes interesting plant species and families raising along the way questions about the boundary between the plant and animal kingdoms. He argues that our confidence in that division should be weakened after reading his book. Plants, like animals, have agency; they shape their existence, exerting their instrumentality, even power. “Human imagination” in Mabey’s title is there to suggest that we have “invented nature,” and that being the case, we can reimagine our invention. Throughout he requires us to examine how we think with and use our language in talking about plant life, including plant/animal interactions.
We have tended to regard the five senses – sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch – as limited to animals. But plants are capable of chemical sensing (smell?) and altering their behavior accordingly. For example, plants gather knowledge through their physical interaction with insect pollinators (touch?).
Scientists are working on the possibility that animals are capable of “electronic signaling.” Carnivorous plants may use such signaling to trap insects in flowers ‘designed’ to expose the captured insect to the plant’s digestive juices. The Venus fly-trap is the most notorious of these animal eaters. Many plants secrete fluids to repel, even kill, insects that would otherwise harm them. Few digest them.
The creation story told by modern science dates back much further than the Biblical creation stories. In the beginning we imagine that a primeval forest once covered Earth until mankind arrived. The world that the Genesis myth describes is not the primeval forest but rather, Mabey maintains, more like an enclosed garden. The Tree of Life in Christian mythology is envisioned as a free-standing specimen with symmetrical branches in a park-like setting with no under canopy. Our Midwestern lawns and magnificent street trees resemble this notion of that earthly garden where Adam and Eve frolicked. Until they were put to work.
Perhaps that Tree of Life was a yew. The English trek through their countryside, seeking what Mabey calls their “yew experience.” These ancient trees are often thought to have been planted near a country church and the yew’s presence is woven into the sacredness of the building and the nearby graveyard. (The yew is, in fact, associated with the Christian rite of marriage rather than death.) The yews in those churchyards, Mabey reminds us, are much older than the churches. The spreading yew’s branches and huge trunks may have been a sacred Druid haunt that was appropriated by Christians.
We Floridians revere our ancient live oaks. Like the yews and other ancient plants, they often maintain possession of their grounds after they have fallen, living on as sprouts at the base of the still living parts of their trunks.
The “vegetable lamb” is what the cotton plant was called because it rivaled wool as a cloth material. There were species of cotton the Old World and the New. Native Americans had long understood cotton’s qualities and were skilled in its use before their encounter with the European species.
The myth of the vegetable lamb is one of several involving an imaginary creature who is both animal and vegetable. Mabey points out that the “green man,” usually an animal face surrounded by leaves was a combination of plant and animal (in this case human) forms, much used in church architecture and decoration.
An apple’s fall to the earth has been fashioned into Isaac Newton’s metaphor for an otherwise unseeable force. The apple has figured in many tales that associate humans with nature. That original apple, which most probably fell to ground somewhere in northwest China, has been bred and cross-bred. It is estimated that there are now 20,000 varieties. The Chinese brown bears were the first to begin working on a better variety. They browsed around for the largest and sweetest apple and their scat assured its dispersal.
We do not generally speak of plants as experiencing earthly pleasures, which are reserved for humans and perhaps their animal pets. But the English Romantics speak of daffodils as “dancing” in the wind. We have been asked to “consider the lilies and how they grow.” The ‘cabaret’ in Mabey’s title suggests this possibility.
Many of the phenomena that Richard Mabey describes will already be familiar to the general reader. But he attaches engaging names to these phenomena, for example, “forest gardening” practiced by Native Americans centuries before the coming of the Europeans. These were cleared patches in the forest that would grow food crops such as maize and squash. Once the forest soils were exhausted, the Indians moved on to a new area and created a new forest garden, allowing the old plot to be reinvigorated by nature.
The Cabaret of Plants is an examination of the language we use when we talk about nature.