Happy 80th Richard Mabey, bestselling nature writer

19 February 2021

Richard Mabey is one of our greatest nature writers. He is the author of some thirty books including the bestselling plant bible Flora Britannica, Food for Free, Turned Out Nice Again, Weeds: the Story of Outlaw Plants and Nature Cure which was shortlisted for the Whitbread, Ondaatje and Ackerley Awards. His biography, Gilbert White won the Whitbread Biography Award.

To celebrate Richard turning 80, we’ve collected his books below. Which will you pick up first?


 

GILBERT WHITE

Richard Mabey tells the enthralling story of Britain’s first ecologist.

When the pioneering naturalist Gilbert White (1720-93) wrote The Natural History of Selborne (1789), he created one of the greatest and most influential natural history works of all time, his detailed observations about birds and animals providing the cornerstones of modern ecology. In this award-winning biography, Richard Mabey tells the wonderful story of the clergyman – England’s first ecologist – whose inspirational naturalist’s handbook has become an English classic.

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WEEDS

A lively and lyrical cultural history of plants in the wrong place by one of Britain’s best and most admired writers

Ever since the first human settlements 10,000 years ago, weeds have dogged our footsteps. They are there as the punishment of ‘thorns and thistles’ in Genesis and , two millennia later, as a symbol of Flanders Field. They are civilisations’ familiars, invading farmland and building-sites, war-zones and flower-beds across the globe. Yet living so intimately with us, they have been a blessing too. Weeds were the first crops, the first medicines. Burdock was the inspiration for Velcro. Cow parsley has become the fashionable adornment of Spring weddings.

Weaving together the insights of botanists, gardeners, artists and poets with his own life-long fascination, Richard Mabey examines how we have tried to define them, explain their persistence, and draw moral lessons from them.

One persons weed is another’s wild beauty.


 

THE PERFUMIER AND THE STINKHORN

Inspiring meditations through the author’s rich store of memories

In these elegant, short essays, revered nature writer Richard Mabey attempts to marry a Romantic’s view of the natural world with that of the meticulous observations of the scientist. By Romanticism, he refers to the view that nature isn’t a machine to be dissected, but a community of which we, the observers, are inextricably part. And that our feelings about that community are a perfectly proper subject for reflection, because they shape our relationship with it. Scientists eschew such a subjective response, wanting to witness the natural world exactly, whatever feelings subsequently follow.

Our feelings are an extension of our senses – sight, taste, smell, touch and sound – and here, in a sextet of inspiring meditations, Mabey explores each sensory response in what it means to interact with nature. From birdsong to poetry, from Petri-dish to microscope, this is a joyful union of meandering thoughts and intimate memories.

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TURNED OUT NICE AGAIN

An exploration of our preoccupation with the weather, as heard on BBC Radio 3: Changing Climates.

In his trademark style, Richard Mabey weaves together science, art and memoirs (including his own) to show the weather’s impact on our culture and national psyche. He rambles through the myths of Golden Summers and our persistent state of denial about the winter; the Impressionists’ love affair with London smog, seasonal affective disorder (SAD – do we all get it?) and the mysteries of storm migraines; herrings falling like hail in Norfolk and Saharan dust reddening south-coast cars; moonbows, dog-suns, fog-mirages and Constable’s clouds; the fact that English has more words for rain than Inuit has for snow; the curious eccentricity of country clothing and the mathematical behaviour of umbrella sales.

We should never apologise for our obsession with the weather. It is one of the most profound influences on the way we live, and something we all experience in common. No wonder it’s the natural subject for a greeting between total strangers: ‘Turned out nice again.’

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THE CABARET OF PLANTS

A Mabey magnum opus: ‘Mabey’s finest, an eclectic world-roaming collection of stories … lacing colour, intimacy and emotional texture around the scaffold of hard facts.’ (Spectator)

In The Cabaret of Plants, Mabey explores the plant species which have challenged our imaginations, awoken our wonder, and upturned our ideas about history, science, beauty and belief.

Picked from every walk of life, they encompass crops, weeds, medicines, religious gathering-places and a water lily named after a queen. Beginning with pagan cults and creation myths, the cultural significance of plants has burst upwards, sprouting into forms as diverse as the panacea (the cure-all plant ginseng, a single root of which can cost up to $10,000), Newton’s apple, the African ‘vegetable elephant’ or boabab – and the mystical, night-flowering Amazonian cactus, the moonflower.

Ranging widely across science, art and cultural history, poetry and personal experience, Mabey puts plants centre stage, and reveals a true botanical cabaret, a world of tricksters, shape-shifters and inspired problem-solvers, as well as an enthralled audience of romantics, eccentric amateur scientists and transgressive artists. The Cabaret of Plants celebrates the idea that plants are not simply ‘the furniture of the planet’, but vital, inventive, individual beings worthy of respect – and that to understand this may be the best way of preserving life together on Earth.

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