February 21, 2016
When Paleolithic painters decorated the walls of the caves at Chauvet, in France, they chose stunning motifs of horses and other animals. For them, as for most of us, plants were just there in the background, vegetating away. Sure, a daisy can be cute, a redwood impressive. But compared to a cheetah or an elephant, most plants are, well, boring.
With his new book, Cabaret of Plants: Forty Thousand Years Of Plant Life and the Human Imagination, British author Richard Mabey pushes back against this prejudice to make us see that plants are as thrilling as animals and have been key to our relationship with the world.
Speaking from his home in Norfolk, England, he recalls growing up near Harry Potter’s Whomping Willow; why trees were so often the inspiration for myths and magic; and how a woman in Italy has demonstrated that some plants can remember—and learn from—their experiences.
Nature’s superstars are animals like chimps or cheetahs. You think plants are just as amazing. Convince us.
What can plants do that cheetahs can’t? They can regenerate when 90 percent of their bodies have been eaten away. They can have sex at long distances and communicate with approximately 20 more senses than an animal has. Those are very pragmatic arguments. But I think they’re valuable just because they’re there. We tend to judge plants not as autonomous organisms but in terms of what they can do for us. But they’re astonishing in their own right and deserve to be given the same ethical status as animals.