| I ’M A geographer |
Richard Mabey is one of Britain’s foremost nature writers. He lived most of his life in the Chilterns before moving to Norfolk in 2002 after a period of clinical depression. His latest book, Weeds, is a cultural history of vagabond plants ‘from the Garden of Eden to The Day of the Triffids’. He talks to Olivia Edward about the holidays that inspired his bestselling title Food for Free and what Genesis’s Expulsion from Eden myth tells us about the emotional state of early farmers
I can’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t, in some way, romantically and intellectually engaged with the natural world.
I wrote my first piece of nature writing at the age of seven. It was about a dead pipistrelle bat I found on the way to school. It had been hit by a car. I was astonished at how undamaged it was and the way it remained warmed by the sun. I tried to write about the strange vivaciousness it had, even in death.
I went up to Oxford to study biochemistry. I crashed within the first few weeks. I had done no formal biology training and I had completely underestimated the really quite ghastly experimentation we would be required to do. On our very first day, we were expected to suck out the contents of our own stomachs with a tube. I changed subjects and went for PPE [philosophy, politics and economics] instead.
After I graduated, I taught social studies at a college of further education. I really enjoyed it. It was all very Tom Sharpe, and a very political time. Another colleague and I were repeatedly in trouble for stirring up the students. A tutor who taught them mechanical craft after me once complained furiously that they were coming to his class ‘in no condition to work the lathe’.
By the age of 18, I had started going out to the Norfolk coast to stay in a friend’s father’s converted lifeboat moored at Blakeney. Gangs of us would go there on weekends in the late 1960s and early ’70s. I became fascinated by the local habit of gathering edible plants. It gave me the idea for Food for Free, which started my book-writing career.
A weed can be anything. It all depends on someone’s sense of what should be in a particular place. Weeds is an exploration of the boundaries between wildness and domesticity. The fascinating and provocative thing about weeds is that they don’t respect those lines. They’re outlaws and boundary breakers, refusing to be categorised.
Weeds are encouraged by the disruption of settled patterns of living, which is why you get the same weeds in battlefields as you do in arable fields, and why invasive plants can travel around the globe and find conditions that are absolutely blissful for them. It’s because, in all these circumstances, they’re moving into a situation in which all the normal checks on their behaviour – the pathogens, the nibbling insects, the soil chemistry – are gone.
An ecosystem can be disrupted very quickly. I’m terribly fond of the Burren in Ireland. It was a fantastically species-rich limestone turf that has been 8,000 years in the making, an extraordinary mix of alpine and Mediterranean plants, but after two years of intensive cattle droving along a fixed path through it, it has completely gone to weeds. You see the same stuff – plantains, docks, knotweed – you would on a cattle station in Australia.
Farming has influenced our relationship with nature more than any other activity. It’s responsible for the displacement of more wild organisms and ecosystems but, perhaps even more importantly, it changed the human mindset. For the first time, humans became gods – they were able to direct the course of life. They began to say: ‘We will grow this.’ The word ‘grow’ becomes a transitive verb. Outside of cultivation, it’s an intransitive verb: things grow. Farming allowed us to be the subject and the natural world to be the object.
It’s quite clear that the Genesis myths came out of a frustration with the experience of having to farm. The change from being a semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer society to being a settled agricultural society was very traumatic. When God expels Adam from the garden of Eden ‘to till the ground from whence he was taken’, the ecological subtext is a sense of bitterness about the arrival of agriculture.
The idea that the natural world is dependent on us is a terrible heresy. The message you get from a lot of conservation writing is that it needs our careful attention and management in order to function at all. It’s really just the old Homo sapiens hegemony over the world sung in another key. It’s very patronising and refuses to recognise the strengths and resilience in natural systems. Instead, I would like our relationship with nature to be one of passionate neighbourliness.
1941 Born in Berkhamsted
1952–59 Attended Berkhamsted School
1960–63 Studied philosophy, politics and economics at the University of Oxford
1963–65 Worked as a lecturer in social studies at
Dacorum College, Hemel Hempstead
1967–73 Worked as an editor at Penguin 1972 Food for Free, a book about foraging, published 1974 Became a full-time writer 1988–present Director of environmental charity Common Ground 1996 Flora Britannica, a guide to British wildflowers, published 2005 Nature Cure, a book about Mabey’s recovery from depression, published
82 www.geographical.co.uk JANUARY 2011