The Perfumier and the Stinkhorn, By Richard Mabey
A feast for each of the senses
Sunday 24 April 2011
Richard Mabey is probably Britain's most beloved nature writer, and certainly one of our most prolific, with well over 40 publications stretching back to his groundbreaking Food For Free in 1972.
This latest small collection of short essays will be familiar to some listeners of Radio 3, as edited versions were broadcast under the slightly more prosaic title, The Scientist and the Romantic. That title gets to the heart of what Mabey is dealing with here, but it's not a patch on The Perfumier and the Stinkhorn, a phrase which better evokes Mabey's love not only of the countryside and its hidden delights, but of the rich language of nature.
In essence, this book can be seen as a distillation of Mabey's entire way of working, as he wrestles with resolving the two facets of his career as a naturalist – the objective, rational, scientific observation of wildlife and the subjective feelings and rich description that tie into his relationship with the natural world.
There are six essays here, each linked to one of the human senses – though Mabey stretches things a little with his last offering, "The Map and the World", postulating the sense of direction as a possible sixth sense. Some of the essays are better connected to their theme than others, but the quality of the writing is exemplary throughout, and what emerges by the end is an author very much at peace with the two seemingly opposite extremes of naturalist writing.
Mabey sets out his stall in the first essay, "The Greenhouse and the Field", in which he writes: "So when I'm occasionally called a 'Romantic naturalist' I wonder whether it's an accusation as much as a description: the meticulous observations of the natural scientist corrupted by my overheated imagination; objectivity compromised by my Romantic insistence on making feelings part of the equation."
By the end of the collection, Mabey has coherently argued, and shown through his own beautiful prose, that there is no real dichotomy between the scientific and the romantic; that the two are complementary and dovetail each other perfectly.
Each of the essays contains some real science by way of either observation or research, but Mabey is very skilled at blending that stuff with impressions and thoughts, as well as throwing in some rather touching snippets of memoir into the bargain.
There are two standout essays, those that deal with taste and smell. In "The Crab Apple and the Grafting Knife", Mabey revisits his early days of foraging, which lead to Food For Free, in a combination of observation, description and reminiscence which brings the subject to life wonderfully. And in the essay which gives the book its name, he delves into the mysterious and somehow primal sense of smell, slipping some serious biology and chemistry into a wonderful piece about the evocative nature of scents.
A beautiful, balanced and gently revelatory essay collection, this is nature writing at its best.
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