The Cabaret of Plants by Richard Mabey


I kind of have a love-hate relationship with this book.  On the one hand, Richard Mabey does a good job of arguing that it’s not always fruitful to interpret the ways of plants through human eyes.  Rather, we need to let plants speak for themselves and meet them where they root so to speak.  In the opening chapter he supports this argument in the justification of the title, that it is a Cabaret that we are witnessing – plants do plant things and we are mostly an audience.

The rest of the book explores specific human-plant relationships from the development of maize to the Victorian orchid craze (very much not Cabaret in nature).  I did like many of these little vignettes and learned a few things here and there.  I especially liked the exploration of the Yew trees of England and later the interesting journey of the giant pond lily.  Did you know that these giant leaves can support children like rafts and that first glass-houses were designed based on its leaf structure?  Like I said, there’s some neat stuff in here, but now for the hate part.

So my biggest beef with this book is that it is soooooo British.  Not in a hip 21st century British way, but in an early 20th century snobbish-aristocrat kind of way.  Mr. Mabey tries really hard to pretend that he is into modern sensibilities about how we view nature and the direction that natural sciences are going, but through it all you can just feel that he is still a product of a colonial style England. Maybe it is just a difference in styles between the two of us, where I allow my enjoyment of nature to take on a kind of spiritual reverence, for Mabey it is a mistake to indulge in such fancies and detracts from the reality.  I like to hug and dance with trees, but Mr. Mabey seems to think we are in a dance, but that we shouldn’t touch (very British). This is pretty well illustrated when Mabey describes his confusion over Wordsworth’s “I wandered lonely as a cloud,” because daffodils don’t actually dance…I mean, really?!

So, it is an interesting book and maybe I’m just showing my own version of modern snobbery.  Like I said, there are some interesting things in this book, but the language and feel were a little off to me.

Overall rating: 3/5

2 comments on “The Cabaret of Plants by Richard Mabey”

  1. Hey Kaleb, Thanks for your post. I totally can imagine the language you are referring to- ohhhhh bother. I am impressed you made it through!

    I am working on this book about birds that had such great reviews but it’s really just fucking boring. It’s too much jargon and not enough of those little vignettes that make such books worth reading. I don’t think I’ll make it to the end but your post inspires me to at least try 🙂


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