Caught by the River


4th November 2010

Weeds by Richard Mabey (Profile, Hardback) Reviewed by David Hemingway

Weeds is not so much a book about plants but a design for living; a playful invite to challenge our preconceived ideas and to up-root our prejudices. Starting with the premise that plants only mutate into weeds “when they obstruct our plans, or our tidy maps of the world”, Richard Mabey takes a gleeful meander through a world of weeds that incorporates Shakespeare and Agent Orange, The Ragwort Control Act and Will Self, the Olympic Games and The Day of the Triffids.

For poet John Clare – about whom Mabey has written extensively (and fondly) – the sight of a simple weed was a source of delight. “There’s many a seeming weed proves sweet/As sweet as garden flowers can be,” he mused in To An Insignificant Flower Obscurely Blooming In A Lonely Wild and you can feel quite forcibly that Mabey stands alongside his hero in this belief. Mabey argues that ivy-leaved toadflax is probably only regarded as a weed by “municipal fusspots” and that a weed dubbed Devil’s Guts is actually quite beautiful, whatever else its moniker might suggest.

This lovingly researched book, then, is “a case for the defence” – an attempt to reclaim weeds just as rosebay willowherb reclaimed bomb sites after the Second World War (becoming known as bomb weed) or as lamb’s ears and golden rod reclaimed abandoned sections of the New York Central Railroad. Mabey urges us to be more objective in our views of “these outlaw plants”, to think about what they are, how they grow and quite why we perceive them as so menacing. The story of weeds is, he suggests, a thoroughly human story: “Plants become weeds because people label them as such.”

The author of Food For Free, Nature Cure and The Unofficial Countryside offers a highly personal history of these “escapees” and “trespassers” and “guerrillas”. For Mabey, weeds are like “a kind of living graffiti” battling to elude developers and “puritan fusspots”. Weeds, then, may well be the first natural history book to reference Banksy’s errant stencil work and acknowledge the Pink Posse’s “tagging” of weeds in Deptford.

The archetypal weed, proffers Mabey, is the poppy. The qualities that enable it to endure are common to all successful weeds: “As a type, they are mobile, prolific, genetically diverse. They are unfussy about where they live, adapt quickly to environmental stress, use multiple strategies for getting their own way.” Likewise, field bindweed has “an almost foolproof insurance portfolio” to reproduce and regenerate. Each plant produces around six hundred seeds, some germinating in autumn, some in the summer. If they’re buried deep enough they can germinate at any time over the next 40 years. Attempting to cut the roots might temporarily weaken the plant but it also produces new shoots.

We customarily think of weeds as intruders or invaders – it’s telling that the aliens in Invasion of the Body Snatchers emerged from seed pods while (conversely) the protagonists in Pulp’s “Weeds” came across the North Sea “with our carriers on our knees/Wound up in some holding camp, somewhere outside Leeds.” And yet, notes Mabey, weeds are also part of the heritage or legacy of a place, “an ancestral presence, a time-biding genetic bank over which our buildings and tinkering are just an ephemeral carapace.” Weeds, he suggests are far from accidental. Rather, they are the result of our behaviours and our personal affections. We cultivate them, you might say. “Many of them are here because of the people we are, with our own histories and hoardings. They reflect the way we dig and mow, the walks we take, the holidays we go on.”
“But I still hoick them up when they get in my way,” he adds, unsentimentally.

Weeds is available in our shop priced £13.99