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The Perfumier and the Stinkhorn by Richard…
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The Perfumier and the Stinkhorn

by Richard Mabey

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"...when I'm occasionally called a 'Romantic naturalist' I wonder whether it's an accusation as much as a description..."

"...the issue of the primacy of our senses, the only channels through which we can relate to the physical world. The natural scientist depends on them for information, but mistrusts their subjectivity and fallibility, and is chiefly interested in how they lead to explanations of nature. The Romantic revels in them for their own sake. They provide sensual experiences as well as sensory data, and are agencies we share with the rest of nature.".

Originally presented by Mabey on radio, this collection of six short essays, one for each of the senses (the sixth being the sense of direction), explores what he calls his "rickety attempts to marry a Romantic view of the natural world with a mite of scientific precision". These seemingly opposing ways of viewing the natural world are what led me to eventually choose to study art instead of biology, so I was keen to read Mabey's thoughts. What he presents to the reader is a beguiling blend of personal reminiscence, scientific discovery, the personal philosophies regarding nature of Romantic poets and mushroom foragers, duets between cellists and nightingales, pheromone communication between plants and Henry Thoureau's taxonomy of apples.

Whether discussing the "double-edged sword" of technology that allows us incredible new views of the world around us while at the same time breaking our direct engagement with it (his thoughts on binoculars and the Claude glass immediately brought to mind the current obsession with sticking a smart phone screen between an observer and the observed), or musing on why scent is so strongly linked with emotion and memory in a species where the importance of the sense of smell as a tool for survival is so minimal, especially compared to the complexity and richness of it's use in the rest of nature, the thread running through all six essays is the importance of our ability as humans to alter our own perspectives. The final essay, "The Map and the Word", I found particularly intriguing in this respect. Science discovers new vistas, but it is the imagination that allows us to make use of this knowledge to consider our place in the natural community, our commonalities with the rest of nature, and to engage with it in new ways.

Beautifully written (the essay on smell is enough to make me swoon, but then smell IS sexy), certainly Romantic, but with an awareness and questioning of this Romanticism that allows for genuine scientific observation, these essays are brief but heady with information, and full of tantalising thoughts from other writers, past and present, that are bound to lead to further reading on nature and how we experience it.
1 vote letterpress | Jan 19, 2013 |
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In these elegant, short essays, revered nature writer Richard Mabey, attempts to marry a romantic's view of the natural world with that of the meticulous observations 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.… (more)

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