RICHARD MABEY . After education at Oxford, RM worked as a lecturer in Social Studies in Further Education, then as a Senior Editor at Penguin Books. He became a full-time writer in 1974. He is the author of some thirty books, including The Cabaret of Plants: Botany and the Imagination (2015), and Whistling in the Dark: In Pursuit of the Nightingale (1993), winner of the East Anglia Book Award, 2010, in a revised version entitled The Barley Bird, Beechcombings: the narratives of Trees (2007), the ground-breaking and best-selling “cultural flora” Flora Britannica (1996), winner of a National Book Award, and Gilbert White, which won the Whitbread Biography Award in 1986,. His recent memoir Nature Cure (2005), which describes how reconnecting with the wild helped him break free from debilitating depression, was short-listed for three major literary awards, the Whitbread, Ondaatje, and J.R. Ackerley prizes. His latest book is Turning the Boat for Home (2019). He writes for the Guardian, New Statesman and Granta, and contributes frequently to BBC radio.
In the 1980s he sat on the UK government’s advisory body, the Nature Conservancy Council. He has been awarded two Leverhulme Fellowships, and honorary doctorates by the universities of St Andrews, Essex and East Anglia. He was awarded a Civil List Pension in 2008 for services to literature, and made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2011. In 2014 he was a Visiting Fellow at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. He is a past Director of the arts and conservation charity Common Ground, President of Waveney and Blythe Arts, Vice-President of the Open Spaces Society, and Patron of the John Clare Society. He lives in Norfolk, in the Waveney Valley with his partner Polly Lavender and has a boat on the Norfolk broads.
In his many books and essays the line between science and sentiment is indefinable, to the advantage of both. In Flora Britannica – his most famous and perhaps his most important work – he illustrates a passage on the beech tree with a Paul Nash painting; he traces its industrial use; he quotes ancient graffiti carved into trunks. He knows that a strictly scientific description of plants neglects their proper place in our world. We exist because of them; and often they exist because of us. “From the outside, it must look as if we are botanical aboriginals, still in thrall to the spirits of vegetation,” he writes. A complete list of Mabey’s work would more than fill this column. He started almost 40 years ago with an ode to foraging, Food for Free, and he has just published , Weeds a defence of vagabond plants, the culmination of a respect that runs through all his writing for nature that fights on the edge. In Flora Britannica he describes how invasive species give the River Don in Sheffield “an almost Amazonian luxuriance”. The Guardian asked a poet, Andrew Motion, to review Weeds. It was an understandable decision: Mabey stands with just a few other writers – Roger Deakin, Richard Jefferies and John Clare among them – as someone who not just sees beauty in nature but understands and enhances it.