Everything is Leaf

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


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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.

It’s unsurprising that Goethe came to his idea about the everythingness of leaf while wandering the lush countryside of Naples. I wonder if he could have had his realization trudging through the barren early spring gardens of Weimar. “The Neapolitan firmly believes that he lives in Paradise and takes a very dismal view of northern countries,” Goethe wrote in his notebook. Sempre neve, case di legno, gran ignoranza, ma denari assai that is how he pictures our lives. For the edification of all northerners, this means: ‘Snow all the year round, wooden houses, great ignorance, but lots of money.’” That is to say, a leaf in Germany is a mostly invisible thing. It is an entr’acte, a promise. In the northern parts of the world, the leaves hide inside the sticks; the sticks, for most of the year, look dead. And only a poet or a flimflammer could come up with the notion that something hardly visible is everything.

The more closely Goethe researched plants, the further they retreated. Every open door led to a room of doors that were locked. This, at first glance, would seem to be a frustrating result for a scientist. But Goethe was accepting. This is the very nature of intuition, observation, and contemplation, he wrote in Indecision and Surrender (1818). Research leads us closer to mystery. Between experience and ideas is a fundamental chasm, and all our efforts to bridge this gap are in vain. Still, Goethe wrote, we keep on trying. “We strive eternally to overcome this hiatus with reason, intellect, imagination, faith, emotion, illusion, or — if we are capable of nothing better — with folly… we justifiably take flight into poetry, giving by way of change a new form to an old song.” Goethe knew poetry was just another way to bridge the unbridgeable gap. Science made the unfathomability of plants visible to Goethe; poetry made his experience of plants boundless.

Nature is everything, Goethe wrote, just as everything is leaf. “We live within her, yet are foreign to her. Conversing with us endlessly, she never divulges her secret… Nature is even the unnatural. Those who cannot see her everywhere do not see her clearly anywhere.” Nature isn’t just the stuff in the cracks of the concrete that holds the Empire State building up to the sky. Concrete is made from the stuff of nature, just as fire escapes in Harlem are reflections of Nature’s designs. So you see, Nature is everywhere, just like Goethe said. And yet Nature, being everywhere, is also invisible. We never see Nature in herself. There is always something hidden. We color the voids with poetry, especially in the early days of April, when the leaves keep themselves so hidden we think we might never see them again. • 23 April 2014

Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Stefany is currently a columnist for The Smart Set and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University. A book of Stefany's selected essays can be found here. She can be reached at stefanyanne@gmail.com.