Your art is to be the praise of something that you love. It may only be the praise of a shell or a stone.
This is my little offering for the March Blog Party, the topic of which is herbal creativity. I must apologise if this post is a little rambling and incoherent, it started of in quite a different place to the one in which it ended and I fear the part of it that made sense may have got lost somewhere en route!
It occurred to me as I turned my mind to the topic of herbal creativity that nothing has quite the same creative potential as nature herself. One man who understood this well was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, whose work is testament to the depth of understanding that can be achieved when we enter into a communion with nature rather than imposing rigid theory upon her. He sought to understand the unity inherent in nature through a technique of contemplative observation which harnessed the cognitive perception of the mind rather than denying its existence. Where as empirical science sought to understand nature through objective observation of phenomena, then impose theory upon it, Goethe understood that pure sensory experience is not possible and that understanding only arises through a meeting of sense perception and mental faculties. What we perceive therefore, arises at the meeting point of mind and matter, “the complete phenomenon is visible only when there is a coalescence of sensory outsight with intuitive insight.”
For Goethe, science “involves not only a rigorous training of our faculties of observation and thinking, but also of other human faculties which can attune us to the spiritual dimension that underlies and interpenetrates the physical: faculties such as feeling, imagination and intuition.”
I wrote a post last year on working with Goethean observation in deepening my relationship with Comfrey which you can read here. This year I found myself captivated by the emerging buds of my favourite Elder and I decided to attempt the process once more.
When working with this technique it is wonderful if you can observe your chosen plant at least once a day as this allows for a deep observation of the subtle changes which are occurring. This wasn’t a possibility for me at this time so I had to content myself with twice weekly visits, all of which still afforded me a magical view into the dynamic processes involved in the life of this beautiful tree.
When I had a little more time I opted to draw the buds as this requires a much more profound engagement and necessitates a far deeper level of observation. Mostly I made do with photographing the changes I observed though and scrawling a few key lines in my notebook. The object here is not to produce a piece of fine art but to engage with what we see in a way that allows for a relaxing of our normal consciousness that sees the plant as ‘out there’ and ourselves as ‘in here’ and enables a kind of flow to arise which recognises both the seer and the seen as being at one.
“I would rather teach drawing that my pupils may learn to love nature, than teach the looking at nature that they may learn to draw.”
Goethe realised that scientific, or indeed any truth is active and not passive, just as the observer themself is dynamic and ever changing. By entering into the flow of the plant he was able to see that each part is a metamorphosis of another. In botany we are accustomed to looking at and identifying different plant parts, such as leaves, sepals, petals and stems. When we pick a plant, press it and make a herbarium specimen -the traditional way of recording plants in botany- we only get a snap shot in time rather than facilitating an understanding of the continual metamorphosis of the plant, how each part belongs to a developing whole which is never static but forever adapting to the environment around it. He explained, “The variation of plant forms, whose unique course I had long been following, now awakened in me more and more the idea that the plant forms around us are not predetermined, but are happily mobile and flexible, enabling them to adapt to the many conditions throughout the world, which influence them, and to be formed and re-formed with them.” In fact Goethe’s ideas were to become key in the developing theories of evolution.
What a wonderful thing it is to see new life emerging. By practising Goethe’s technique of gentle observation I was able to witness how each part of the Elder gradually transforms into another. How the stem lengthens into buds along its nodes. How from the buds emerge six little leaves parting slowly to reveal the sepals, like hands clasped in prayer, protecting and holding their treasure within.
Slowly, as these hands begin to open we see another transformation has taken place. Somewhere, hidden from sight, the tiny beginnings of the elderflowers have formed. These in turn will open out and become the large, flat, white flower heads that mark the beginning of summer in June. As the year continues to turn they will become the ripe black elderberries that will help keep us healthy all winter long.
At what point in time can we say the elderberry is born? When the first buds appear? When we see those first little clusters that will become the flowers? Or not till later, when they become recognisable as such? We tend to see bud, flower and fruit as separate instances in time and neglect the thread that runs through all, from life to death and back again.
Taking any point in time as static can tend to inhibit understanding rather than promote it, and that is why practising Goethean observation can be so transformative. We stop looking for a phenomena that is inherently existing, as we Buddhists say, “from its own side’, and start to understand that life and its myriad expressions are part of a continuum that is constantly creative, never still, always metamorphosing.
“How difficult it is not to put the sign in place of the thing; how difficult to keep the being always livingly before one and not to slay it with the word.” Goethe.
Through our own creative process we can start to become one with the miraculous creative process of all nature.
Please pop back tomorrow when I’ll be posting the links to everyone else’s creatively inspired ideas.
Henri Bortoft – The Wholeness of Nature – Goethe’s Way of Science
Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird – The Secret Life of Plants