‘Charisma’ is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others.” The word is derived from the Greek word khárisma meaning a ‘favour freely given’ or the ‘gift of grace’ — and is linked to the goddesses, the Charites, more commonly referred to as the ‘three Graces’.
It’s a quality usually ascribed to celebrities — politicians and leaders, actors and performers — but, increasingly, it crops up in the context of wildlife conservation. Campaigners are constantly worrying about mobilising public sympathy and support for the less ‘charismatic’ animals. Tigers, pandas, blue whales, sea turtles, gorillas or golden eagles — these are the clickbait, attention-grabbing, purse-string-loosening, big-ticket animals, the ones with ‘charisma’. Harder to mobilise public opinion around the Mallee worm-lizard.
If there were a charisma league, humans would be at the top, animals and birds next, followed by plants. Within each layer would of course be further gradations: Mohammad Ali, David Bowie and Grace Jones somewhere at the pinnacle; animals we’ve sort of dealt with — tigers and gorillas muscling it out at the top; but who would get top billing for plants? Might it be Oak Jozef in Poland, this year’s European Tree of the Year, which sheltered a Jewish family on the run from the Nazis in World War II? Or a tree I had the privilege to meet recently, the Ashbrittle Yew, thought to be Britain’s oldest living thing: it was already mature while Stonehenge was being built. Or the sacred Ficus religiosa at Bodh Gaya, said to be a direct descendent of the tree under which the Buddha gained Enlightenment?
Each one of these is a charismatic ‘celebrity’, but for a tree or a plant to be special doesn’t always mean that it is of national or international importance. Every one of us probably has a plant — tree, shrub or flower — that holds a special place in our heart. Mine is a magnificent old peepul tree in Shahpur Jat village in Delhi. Home to scampering squirrels and raucous crows, and strafed by screeching flocks of rose-ringed parakeets, its dappled shade came as a welcome relief in the scorching Delhi summers. Its heart-shaped leaves brought to the built-up and endlessly falling-down lanes a whiff of the wild. It was unfeasibly huge for such an area, and when the priest of the mandir in which it grew decided that it had to be cut back, my heart broke a little. It seemed to be another cruel assertion of our apparently inalienable rights as human beings to elbow out the non-human ‘encroachers’ on our increasingly congested space.
The important thing, any conservationist will tell you, is the story. Trees surrounded by story — by history — are more likely to be protected. If anyone raised an axe to a oak in Sherwood Forest where Robin Hood and his merry men are said to have sheltered, folks would be up in arms. But stories are not enough: they can blind as well as illuminate.
When my friends and I protested at the massacring of the peepul, the priest protested back, just as vociferously: “This tree is sacred to us,” he said, pointing out the many thin red threads around its amputated stump. I couldn’t help but think of the violence with which people defend the sacredness of the Ganga, as they sling their plastic bags of dead flowers off a bridge and into the muddy, sludge below.
All of which brings me to Richard Mabey. I’ve been revelling the cornucopia of vegetal delights in his latest book, The Cabaret of Plants. Subtitled ‘Botany and the Imagination’, it is a salutary reminder that many plants commonly found in our gardens were, at one point, anything but common or garden. The history of our species is the history of plants — but, not necessarily the other way round.
Mabey’s enthusiasm for plants is infectious, their most humble skill, a source of wonderment and joy. Defying anyone to find plants mundane or boring, he resorts to quoting ethnobotanist Tim Plowman, “They can eat light, isn’t that enough?”, and goes on to wonder, “Will we be more or less impressed when we are technologically able to replicate photosynthesis, to restore air, or ‘eat light’ ourselves?”
Mabey started out looking at the natural world primarily in terms of its usefulness. He was almost single-handedly responsible for the popularity of foraging with his 1972 guide, manual and recipe book, Food for Free. But over the course of 40 years, his take has changed, as it has for so many of us involved in environmental questions. The main theme, in The Cabaret, he explains, is “the idea of plants as independent organisms, with a value not dependent of their usefulness to us.” He goes on: “I’m increasingly drawn to the idea of nature celebrated in Cabaret — a parallel world connected to us by common ancestry and present neighbourliness, but also autonomous, and not to be judged just by how it serves or helps us.”
The triumph of his latest book is to shed light — vast, photon-rich, photosynthesisable swathes on it — on the plantlife of our planet. From cotton and maize to baobabs and oaks, from carnivorous dewtraps to, yes, Wordsworthian daffodils; edible, poisonous, sweet-scented or odiferous, each plant is accorded its special place in the spotlight, its inherent ‘charisma’ on show. It reveals a depth of scientific and historical research, but perhaps far more, it is a work that describes what I can only think of as ‘grace’ — the divine gift laid out at our feet, in the grass.
First published in The Hindu Business Line literary supplement, Nov 3, 2017