The Cabaret of Plants: Forty Thousand Years of Plant Life and the Human Imagination

The Cabaret of Plants: Forty Thousand Years of Plant Life and the Human Imagination

Language: English

Pages: 384

ISBN: 0393239977

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


"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

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This is a myth of gratitude for maize, tinged with tropes of the hunter-gatherer’s life. So too are the group of stories collected by Claude Lévi-Strauss in the Brazilian region of Mato Grosso, thousands of miles to the south. There the beginnings of cultivation are detailed exactly, and there is a sense that agricultural toil is a punishment for a mistake made in an arboreal paradise, echoing the myths of Genesis – ‘in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread’. ‘These myths,’ writes

or spotted as rogue seedlings in existing orchards. John Parkinson made a euphonious list in his Paradisus of 1629, including: The Gruntlin is somewhat a long apple, smaller at the crowne than at the stalke, and is a reasonable good apple. The gray Costard is a good great apple, somewhat whitish on the outside, and abideth the winter. The Belle boon of two sorts winter and summer, both of them good apples, and a fair fruit to look on, being yellow and of a mean bignesse. The Cowsnout is no

evolution as ‘as something between the Book of Genesis and the Just So Stories’, and the Beauty of Kent is a late arrival on the stem of Malus, its unknown forebears having travelled thousands of miles before it begat the fruit which fell in front of Newton in Lincolnshire, and which had no recognised name for another century and a half. The Pomona records its first mention in a nurseryman’s catalogue from about 1820, and illustrates it with a simple black-and-white cross section. But the

half-shell’). But Venus as a scientific name was proposed by Linnaeus in 1758 for a group of bivalves, including the Quahog shore clams of North America (now generically known as Mercenaria) and the Royal Comb Venus shell (Venus dione now Pitar dione), which when opened have an uncanny resemblance to the splayed leaves of a tipitiwitchet. They’re moist, semicircular, full of soft, palpable flesh, and with a powerful grip when closing. A man trap more than a muscipula. This is all conjecture, but

green above and vivid crimson below, resting upon water. Quite in character with the wonderful leaf, was the luxuriant flower, consisting of many hundred petals, passing in alternate tints, from pure white to rose and pink. The smooth water was covered with them, and I rowed from one to the other, and observed always something new to admire. Schomburgk, an ambitious Romantic, wanted to honour the new Queen and suggested the water lily was regal enough to be named Nymphaea victoria. The young

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