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Chris Blocker

Literary snobbery and other thoughts by Chris Blocker

Weeds

Weeds: In Defense of Nature's Most Unloved Plants - Richard Mabey

Richard Mabey knows his weeds. Seriously. You know those nutty birdwatchers with their field guides and binoculars—that's Mabey with weeds. Yes, you say, but those birdwatchers go out on field hunts searching for rare birds—so does Mabey with a group of botanical nerds, searching for alien weeds in the refuse of British dumps. When a potential alien weed is found, a whistle is blown, everyone gathers around, photographs are taken, and debate ensues. The weed is then carefully removed, bagged, and a member is chosen to cultivate the weed at home. Mabey knows his weeds.

 

Because Mabey clearly knows what he is talking about, I gave him the benefit of the doubt. Assuming everything he said in this book is true, weeds are pretty amazing. Not only are they incredibly resilient, but they're smart. You thought Little Shop of Horrors was bad, wait until you see what our weeds are working on. Weeds is an excellent foray into the world of weeds. Here you see the weed through the lens of the historian, philosopher, scientist, socioeconomist, poet, and agriculturist.

 

Weeds are fascinating, but this book lags at times. When a person is truly passionate about a subject, they can easily overdo it. Mabey tells some wonderful stories about weeds, but he also tells ones that are difficult to make it through. Not to mention that introduction. It was over the top. I'm not sure who Mabey was writing for, but it didn't work. The language was incredibly forced. For Mabey's “entrée into the world of plants,” “on the tumuli of the old tips” where “a galaxy of more modest weeds tricked out the compacted layers of plastic and glass that passed for soil,” the “plants felt like comrades in arms, vegetable guerrillas that had overcome the dereliction of the industrial age.” Had the whole book read like those first five pages, I would've thrown it across the room and happily given it one star. Fortunately, Mabey figured out who his readers were and tossed this pomp verbosity into the compost bin.

 

Personally, I think Michael Pollan is a more engaging writer on the subject, and I recommend his Second Nature to anyone with even the most remote interest in nature. Mabey isn't as engrossing as Pollan, but I think he knows his stuff. He may even know more than Pollan does. And so, I recommend his Weeds to anyone with a deeper appreciation for the subject. It may be what saves you when the triffids finally have their day.