Turning over a new leaf

1st September 2000 at 01:00
Barbara Hyslop celebrates the onset of the new adult education season with a fresh way of looking at plant life.

"LET us take a moment," suggests "the Biscuit" in the cult Channel 4 show Ally MacBeal. Lynda Hepburn, Goethean scientist and joint leader, with artist Mary Snow, of the plant study course on which I recently enrolled, says the same, and more. "Let's take a moment . . . close our eyes . . . and remember the aquilegia."

Around the table we all close our eyes. Well, I close one: the other checks to see if we're not all just one biscuit short of a packet? Everyone else, however, seems to take this seriously - so I try.

Yesterday we looked at the aquilegia. We looked at it, but we didn't have time to describe it. Today, we do. We start with the rhizome - or the "bottom bit", as Lynda says. Botanical terms are forbidden, as are descriptions which predict processes. So we can't call "the pale green, bunchy thing" a bud, nor say that the bud is "about to bloom", because in Goethean observation we don't know this yet.

The poet, who was also a physicist and philosopher urged an empirical approach to botany. "Eventually," Mary Snow says, "we are going to paint the essential characteristic of this particular plant; that 'gesture' which differentiates it from any other. It will become apparent through detailed, objective observation," she assures us.

Try imagining that you have just arrived on this planet. Describe what you actually see, not what you expect to see."

We look at one another with new eyes, some of us uncertain that describing the aquilegia would be our first priority in such a circumstances, but game to give it a try. One by one, each contributing a sentence, we begin to describe the aquilegia.

"At the bottom of the yard-long, green tube is a wet, brown part . . . A brittle, brown projection (last year's stem) sticks out of the brown part, alongside the green tube . . . The green tube is not all green on one side (where it has faced the sun), it is purple."

And so we go on - around the table again.

At first it seems nonsensical to ban words such as stem, bud and leaf, but the purpose of doing so rapidly becomes evident. Without the words which tally with our preconceptions, we pay more attention to detail and report more accurately.

For example, right now, on the periphery of my vision, on my desk, are two plants. One is red, a coleus, the other pale green.

If I ask my son to set down a cup of tea between them - but I forbid myself to use the words plant r leaf - I have to put much more effort into their description.

"Where do you want this tea?" he asks. Risking a damburst of teenage exasperation, I start. "Do you see that collection of almost triangular, broad, flat things with serrated edges."


"Each triangle is grey-green in the centre with red lines radiating out from a point midway along the base of the triangle?"


"Some of the triangles are broad and flat and some are curly, but they are all attached to the ends of short, fat, hairy tubes?"

He's got it now. "You mean that plant thing?"


"So you want the cup put down between the fat, red, hairy thing and the limp, green, weedy thing?"

"Just so."

He's never been so descriptive. "Mum, wouldn't you be better to pour the tea into the limp, green weedy thing?"

On day one of this course we looked at groundsel. Boring? No. "Pick off all the leaves from bottom to top and lay them out in order," instructed Lynda. As we did so she explained Goethe's principle of leaf metamorphosis. At the base of a plant the leaves "stem" (much of the leaf is actually stem); then they "spread" (back towards the base of what was once the stem); then they "differentiate", becoming much more distinctively indented, serrated or divided according to the identity of the plant; and finally, under the bud, they lose their distinctive edges and become simple "points".

Goethe's mind was obviously on higher endeavours than picking off daisy leaves while counting "She loves me, she loves me not". As we laid out our "leaf histories" we gave little whiffles of satisfied recognition. Goethe was right about leaf development. Not that I begrudge him this, mind you, but I'm just a little miffed.

Some 35 years ago I did botany O-Level. I drew the self-same groundsel - painstakingly delineating "baby" leaves at the bottom, and big, sonsy leaves at the top, crowned by a puny bloom. I was so pleased with this drawing that I still have it - and, unfortunately, I can tell you now that its upper parts don't point.

I hope to continue the practice of observation - surreptitiously. Not that I'm criminally intent on pulling off leaves: I would just go bright red in my round top bit if anyone overheard me talking to myself about green tubes. It's a revelation what you can see with your eyes shut - and amazing what you miss with them open.

Goethean plant study is an Edinburgh Rudolf Steiner teacher training course module open to the public. Further details on 0131 337 3410.

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