Culture Writer Frankie Rhodes reviews Plants & Us, criticising the book for its out-dated and sometimes sexist references as well as for being disorganised and almost redundant
The foreword to Plants & Us begins by defining the book in terms of what it is not. The authors write, ‘this book is neither a botany textbook nor a plant identification guide,’ and the blurb offers a similarly vague statement that it is ‘not just another gardening or plant book.’ After finishing the text, I am left wishing that the authors had settled on a particular genre, as what we have instead is an overwhelming and frequently jarring patchwork of stories, facts, and classifications that tenuously relate to the plant world.
As a textbook, it is almost redundant, with no captions for the often blurry and poorly arranged images, few references to the dates of texts mentioned, and little organisation. There is an index and further reading bibliography, however this seems more of an afterthought than an integral aspect of the text. The contents page attempts to arrange the staggering 400 plus pages into categories, but the terms used are subjective. For instance, the ‘Plants as Heroes’ and ‘Plants as Villains’ categories undermine the scientific rigour of the text, and in the case of the ‘Plants and Money’ section, most of the stories cover political history with only a fleeting reference to the plant involved.
My favourite section was ‘Plants and the Arts,’ which explored botanical imagery in Shakespeare, Wordsworth and classical myth. However, the next section ‘Art, Architecture and Decoration’ included many examples of similar material that could have been incorporated into the arts section. There appears to be no element of selection, which could have significantly streamlined the text. I received a book for Christmas, for example, entitled A Gathering of Flowers from Shakespeare, which placed beautiful lithographs of English plants alongside citations from the poet’s works. This slim novel was much more engaging and informative than the weighty Plants & Us.
After struggling to navigate the contents page, I was disappointed to find that the language within the actual text was equally frustrating. Each unit of information covers around one to two pages, which makes it digestible, however the style is basic and predictable. Many pieces begin with a generalised statement, some of them unnecessary or simply absurd – such as the claim on page 212 that ‘most of us have probably never drunk a cocktail,’ and the patronising statement on page 80 that ‘sadly, for most of history, someone, somewhere, has been at war.’
Indeed, this writing style trivialises many of the authors’ attempts to present modern, progressive viewpoints. The important discussion about tea plants and colonialism on page 70 is patronised through the frequency of phrases like ‘sadly,’ ‘unfortunately’ and ‘regrettably,’ and on other occasions the authors sound blatantly ignorant. Despite showcasing many different cultures and cuisines in their book, they contradict this with western-centric phrases like ‘when people are not struggling with chopsticks, most of them are using knives, forks and spoons.’ (p. 173)
At other times, the authors express their ideological standpoint in a manner that is unexpected and unwelcome. As there are three writers, it is hard to establish consistency, which could have been resolved with each person taking on a certain sub-section. Instead, each entry is anonymous, and authors awkwardly refer to themselves in the third person, shattering the illusive world of the book. At the end of a section about the historical role of plants and contraception, the writer conjectures several problems with the pill such as reducing male fertility (note that they provide no evidence for this claim!). They finish by stating that ‘it would be a great pity if a problem solved after millennia leads to even more in the future.’ The pill is used for a range of purposes, including alleviating the chronic pain caused by endometriosis – and so this sweeping statement felt ignorant and, quite frankly, misogynistic.
Despite these alarming interjections, there were elements of Plants & Us that I genuinely enjoyed. It was interesting to be taken through a range of facts and stories all in one book: from the London Stock Exchange that used to be a coffee house, to the religious association of garlic with the devil. Some entries in the ‘Plants & Parade’ section even felt quite immersive, such as the tale of the lost gardens of Heligan, abandoned by an aristocratic Cornish family after the outbreak of World War One.
Occasional instances of creative writing were slightly unsettling, but I did enjoy Liz Cowley’s poem ‘Blackberries and the Mind of a Child’ on page 232. This piece had a playful, whimsical feel, unlike the embarrassingly sexist anonymous poem about Valentine’s Day on page 143. This explored the thoughts of a man and woman sitting down to a romantic dinner; while she muses, ‘I suppose he might propose later,’ he thinks, ‘I suppose I’ll have to leave a tip.’ I’ll leave you to imagine the rest.
With out-dated references like the aforementioned piece, it’s hard to believe that Plants & Us was published in 2021. There were attempts to offer fresh knowledge, such as the astute statement that ‘the Covid-19 virus is as much an environmental crisis as a medical one’ but generally this kind of intelligent analysis was lacking. The afterword attempts to justify the text as bringing plants to ‘centre stage,’ although this seems to have been achieved in a muddled, disconcerting way. Botany is clearly a hot topic for publishers at the moment, and with a lot of fine tuning, Plants & Us could find its niche. As it currently stands, though, I won’t be picking it up again.
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