In The Metamorphosis of Plants, Goethe turned to botany — because sometimes, poetry isn't enough.

By Stefany Anne Golberg

Gloom rains down during early April days in the north. The sky is heavy and stuffed with shadows. A goldfinch at the bird feeder looks ridiculous; his molting winter feathers are a wreck. Everything about his half-golden face says hope, the uncombed horror of hope. This is the time we look for anything that reminds us of life. These are the days of stick-seeking and leaf-hunting, of changing our eyes into microscopes. On the windowsill, a slug; under a pile of leaves, an infinitesimal green something. Eliot was so right about April and its cruelty.

Found among the notes of the poet Johann Wolfgang Goethe is a stupendous claim: Everything is leaf. This is a statement that seems too beautiful to be science. Goethe came to this idea on a trip to Italy in the late 1700s. The more Goethe looked at plants, and lived and breathed with plants, the more profoundly he felt poetry’s limits. He turned to botany and began publishing scientific works. He created his own study of seeing, which he called “morphology.” In this, Goethe’s love of plants followed the same path that all lasting love must take. Goethe wanted to know plants from their most essential beginnings, wanted to touch their seeds, follow their cycles. He couldn’t be satisfied just wandering around parks, glancing at the flowers and pronouncing metaphors upon them — Goethe had to understand what a plant truly is. Everything is leaf, he discovered at last, every part of a plant is leaf. The cotyledon, the foliage, the cataphylls, the petals — a plant is fundamentally leaf. Goethe published this intimate memoir of his relationship with leaves and named it The Metamorphosis of Plants.

Continue Reading...

•   Colbert hails Hydra
•   Chocolate around the world
•   Adventure into Adventure Time
•   Cats as arsonists
•   Celebrating "Take Your Child to Work Day"
WHEN HITLER WAS CURATOR The "Degenerate Art" exhibition at the Neue Galerie is full of easy truths. But let the disquiet emerge.
SITTING IT OUT Why can’t America get the sidewalk café right?
THE SWIMSUIT ISSUE When Barbie appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, all the usual Barbie hate ensued. For me, it feels so 30 years ago.
A REPORT FROM THE BAYOU Thoughts on the Fall and the Flood in Cajun Country.
SEEKING MRS. STAHL'S I took knishes, kasha, Mrs. Stahl's, and my grandmother for granted – then they were gone.
AN AFFAIR, REMEMBERED In which I do the most moral thing I may have ever done.
THIS IS COFFEELAND I had never even seen a coffee tree. But during harvest season in Ethiopia – where coffee is everything – I was determined to learn to drink like a local.
THE SOUND OF DESPAIR On the music of Kurt Cobain, 20 years after his death.
Most Viewed
- What was so new about Futurism? By Morgan Meis
- On the music of Kurt Cobain, 20 years after his death. By Stefany Anne Golberg
- Where have all the fairies gone? They were run over by automobiles. By Wayne Curtis

Available Smart Set RSS Feed
Looking for a Smart Set article?