My desire to sniff out ‘the particular’ drew me towards reading “The Perfumier and the Stinkhorn” by Richard Mabey (2011) [London: Profile Books]. It had long been on my ‘books to read’ list after I had discovered one of his previous books, ‘Dreams of the Good Life’ about Flora Thompson – the author behind ‘Lark Rise to Candleford’, who served briefly as village postmistress in my home town, Yateley.
As the jacket puts it succinctly, he ‘attempts to marry a Romantic’s view of the natural world with the meticulousness 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.’ Wow!
Poetry and science are, in effect, comfortable bed-fellows in a book which is equally respectful to traditional country ways, as it is to the rules of the laboratory.
Six elegantly short chapters, illustrated by linocuts, take us through a tour of what the senses might inspire us with on a long walk in the countryside. Early on, Mabey makes the point that while technological advances in devices like cameras on our phones are supposed to enhance our understanding of nature, they can often end up obscuring it by separating us from it in the moment so we don’t full experience it or reflect on it, or forget to see it within a larger frame, so we miss other relationships which it may be a part of, or a wider live experience in that moment which may have involved all of our senses (see #InstaHorror later).
I particularly identified with common experiences documented, like how he described his Dad (and himself) collecting anything that might ‘come in useful one day’ – just like my Grandad’s garage – and learning the lesson from when it did.
He returns to example of what now manifest themselves as what we might call #Instahorror making the point that we so often now seem to be looking for the perfect shot for our mantelpiece or social media account that it’s never actually from the perspective that you would see it in-situ in nature itself – and that many people are losing all sense of perspective for their own safety.
There are some perfect descriptions of ‘particular’ items on his journeys – like samphire – and activities like foraging, and about how the quality of ‘gatheredness’ can make wild food actually taste different.
He dwells on taste, and in particular, smell, and their role in fixing our memory in place, moment, feeling, time – indeed, essence. And he goes on to document the quality of ‘petrichor’ (the smell after rain) which I’ve seen documented a fair deal elsewhere of late after a moist end to a particularly dry, hot summer.
I was particularly excited when he chose to write about a plant – gorse – very familiar to the common land heaths around the area I grew up in Hampshire, and I remembered a hearing Mabey present a short documentary about its characteristics on BBC Radio 4 in recent years too. Closely associated with ‘courting’ because of the location of the plant on areas of heathland around London such as Richmond Common, and the fact they flower most of the year (hence the famous saying, “When gorse is out of bloom, kissing is out of season“), its distinctive smell of coconut (which it as good as sprays intermittently, as a wonder of nature), and it’s “just right pricklyness” which made it perfect for gypsies over time to hang out washing on to dry (without having to worry about the thorns ripping the material).
The final chapter on maps was a dream for me – about our sixth sense (if we have such a thing) – that of ‘direction’, and dwelling on a sense of ‘place’. As someone who loves revelling in old Ordnance Survey maps (but doesn’t quite know why), and thinks they inherited their grandfather lorry driver’s sense of direction (pre-Sat Nav), I loved reading this chapter. The whole book bears testimony to that same relationship I have with the area in Hampshire I live in, which my Mum also grew up in, and her Mum and Dad before her – and generations before them too. The soggy borderlands which Hampshire and Berkshire straddle along the Blackwater River; the flats of heath between Yateley and Elvetham, and the greener pastures towards Dogmersfield, Winchfield and Odiham.
A book of delights which makes the point that scientific insight and technological enhancement only powerfully assist our senses when they are guided by our imagination, and crucially, transformed by a special gift we bring to this mix as human beings – that of language. As such, on this last measure, this book certainly delivers. This is one of those books that I am the most glad ever that a friend (in this case, Elisabeth-Madalena) has bought for me as a gift. Not a single strand of disappointment – a huge ‘thank you’, both for this gift, and nature’s gifts too!
Richard Mabey on NPR on ‘Weeds’ – listen here.
Richard Mabey on Radio NZ on ‘The Cabaret of Plants’ – listen here.
Richard Mabey at the Hay Festival, 1997 – listen here.