The Cabaret of Plants: Forty Thousand Years of Plant Life and the Human Imagination
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"Highly entertaining…Without being sentimental about it, Mr. Mabey gets us to look at life from the plants' point of view. His science is sound, he's witty, and his language is engaging." ―Constance Casey, New York Times
The Cabaret of Plants is a masterful, globe-trotting exploration of the relationship between humans and the kingdom of plants by the renowned naturalist Richard Mabey.
A rich, sweeping, and wonderfully readable work of botanical history, The Cabaret of Plants explores dozens of plant species that for millennia have challenged our imaginations, awoken our wonder, and upturned our ideas about history, science, beauty, and belief. Going back to the beginnings of human history, Mabey shows how flowers, trees, and plants have been central to human experience not just as sources of food and medicine but as objects of worship, actors in creation myths, and symbols of war and peace, life and death.
Writing in a celebrated style that the Economist calls “delightful and casually learned,” Mabey takes readers from the Himalayas to Madagascar to the Amazon to our own backyards. He ranges through the work of writers, artists, and scientists such as da Vinci, Keats, Darwin, and van Gogh and across nearly 40,000 years of human history: Ice Age images of plant life in ancient cave art and the earliest representations of the Garden of Eden; Newton’s apple and gravity, Priestley’s sprig of mint and photosynthesis, and Wordsworth’s daffodils; the history of cultivated plants such as maize, ginseng, and cotton; and the ways the sturdy oak became the symbol of British nationhood and the giant sequoia came to epitomize the spirit of America.
Complemented by dozens of full-color illustrations, The Cabaret of Plants is the magnum opus of a great naturalist and an extraordinary exploration of the deeply interwined history of humans and the natural world.
35 color illustrations
In my late twenties a girlfriend had given me a watercolour of the flower, painted in 1778 by Louisa, Countess of Aylesford. I think it had been part of a large folder of sketches. Louisa was twenty-seven at the time, a precociously gifted artist who went on to produce twenty-seven volumes of illustrations. Her painting of the upland primrose is so ethereal and daintily done I’d assumed it was a miniature – and probably a faded one – of something altogether more substantial. The leaves are
the social values of the people rich enough to indulge in it. The collector Frederick Boyle smugly decided that orchids were ‘expressly designed to comfort the elect of human beings in this age’, and it was the filling of the elect’s customised glasshouses that fuelled the nineteenth-century plunder of a whole botanical family. Before the 1830s there were comparatively few cultivated orchid species in Britain which had their origins in the tropics. The first to be successfully grown was Bletia
Journal, Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 2001. p. 137 ‘Forest gardening’: Forest gardens: see Anderson, Plants, Man and Life, op. cit.; Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff, The Forest Within: The World-view of the Tukano Amazonian Indians, Totnes: Themis, 1996. p. 139 ‘During the mid twentieth century’: Anderson, Plants, Man and Life, 1967, op. cit. p. 141 ‘If this were a story’: Evelyn Fox Keller, A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock, San Francisco:
ancestral baobab species, which are cosseted in large buoyant pods, floated out across the Mozambique Channel and fetched up on the East African mainland. The seeds germinated, and the resulting trees evolved over millennia into a seventh species. Adansonia digitata proved to be the most adaptable and successful of the genus, and soon spread across the continent, eventually helped on its way by local people, who found it an inventive, accommodating and adaptable companion. In 1832, in the early
reaction against classicism and their desire to paint naturalistic landscapes and ordinary working people. The picture, made in 1818, is dominated by a young, straight and lightly branched oak. It rises beside a pond in which four village youngsters are bathing, or maybe just paddling. They are half clothed and facing away from the viewer, adding to their sense of rural informality. Whether the tree still exists is uncertain. There is an oak beside a pond in Poringland (an expanding village south