My friend, Mary Oak, introduced me to the concept of Goethean observation. J. W. vonGoethe, who I knew only as an author, had wide-ranging interests, which included science. As a writer, he was on the leading edge of the Romantic movement and as a scientist, he moved away from the objective scientific method popular at this time. His approach was similar to what we call today a holistic approach, studying plants in their own environment, rather than as dead samples in a herbarium, and appreciating the whole plant as well as the parts. Rudolf Steiner admired Goethe’s perspective and incorporated it into his teaching, which is how Mary, who teaches at Sound Circle Center, learned about it,
None of the human faculties should be excluded from scientific activity. The depths of intuition, physical exactitude, the heights of reason and sharpness of intellect together with a versatile and ardent imagination, and a loving delight in the world of the senses—they are all essential for a lively and productive apprehension of the moment. Goethe
Under Mary’s tutelage, I used Goethean observation to get to know a rhododendron at Volunteer Park. I must admit that prior to my observation I had a lot of disdain for rhododendrons, those ubiquitous plants that decorate the yard of every older Seattle home. But going through Goethe’s process changed my perspective.
Every new object, clearly seen, opens up a new organ of perception in us. Goethe
Goethe suggested getting to know a plant by moving through four phases, from the most objective to the most subjective. In the first phase, you make precise observations. For instance: the flowers are purple, have five petals, have ten pistils and one stamen. The flowers appear in groups of ten at the end of slender branches. I could go on and on, but the point is to simply state the facts without interpretation, so even though I might want to speculate on why there are ten pistils (two for each petal?) or describe the branches as weaving a basket of flowers, I restrain myself. The goal is a list of observable facts.
There is a secret element of regularity in the object which corresponds to a secret element of regularity in the subject. Goethe
In the second phase, your goal is to look for patterns and repetition within the plant, and to imagine how the plant develops through time. For instance, you might pick leaves in various phases and lay them all in a row to see how a leaf develops. I didn’t do this with a leaf but I did observe the flower in almost every phase, from the bud to the shed petals which littered the ground beneath the plant. The flowers about to open looked wet and crinkled. When they unfolded the golden spots on the most vertical of the petals attracted bees which were crawling into the flowers. And then the petals slipped off, leaving behind the pistils and the stamen. The base of the stamen began to swell. The plant I was observing even had some dried fruits from the previous season: hard stems, brown nut-like fruits and some papery seeds inside.
During these first two phases, drawing the plant helps you develop your observation powers and slow down to more thoroughly appreciate the details of the plant. I traced around the actual shape of a flower and pressed one into the pages of my journal. The color got even brighter and more fluorescent against the white of the blank page.
We do not know what is stirring in the atmosphere that surrounds us, nor how it is connected with our own spirit. So much is certain—that at times we can put out the feelers of our soul beyond its bodily limits, and a presentiment, an actual insight is accorded to us. Goethe
In the third phase, the mystical and subjective enter the equation. Step back and allow words to enter your mind that might express the spirit of the plant. For a writer, this is the time when the metaphors and adjectives I’ve been suppressing come to the forefront. The sunlight fell through the foliage of the rhododendron creating a dappled shade underneath. The trunk grew straight up, then the branches arched and curved outward, and the thinner, more supple branches that bore the leaves and flowers bent down even more, creating a sense of enclosure. The effect was that of a temple, with the flowers as offerings to the gods. The word “glory” came into my mind, and with it a sense of joyous exaltation (and this was from someone who has never liked rhododendrons).
The fourth phase remains mysterious to me. This is the realm of the poets. It involves becoming one with the plant, so much so, that you could speak as the plant, for the plant. It takes time to develop. I will work up to it by practicing the first three steps. Still, I felt my first exposure to Goethean observation was successful. A plant that I had previously overlooked is now one I view with appreciation. If you have the time and desire to get to know a plant better, I recommend this practice.
After my mother died, I inherited her cedar chest which was full of things from family members deemed important enough to save and pass on. I’m continually fascinated by the odds and ends of what has remained. So much of it is such a mystery, and is left to my imagination. As I go deeper, I pull out an odd assortment of random possessions, such as an ancient cardboard assortment of black snaps for making clothing, the much used Ouija Board and a small booklet called: Text Book of Osteopathy from the Standpoint of Mechano-Therapy, copyright 1910.
One of the most precious findings: a string of painted eggshells– still intact and whole. The eggs have delicately painted flowers on them and there is a ribbon that connects them. One egg has Easter 1906 painted on it, although Easter is misspelled. Another egg has the name of Robert on it.
As a child, I remember being fascinated by these magical treasures and asking my mother for their story. She didn’t know the mystery, so we would just put them back into her grandfather’s trunk that lived in our dirt cellar.
These fragments of family myth and mystery, have inspired me once again to pick up my camera and other art supplies, in a way that I haven’t done in many years. Art is my personal way of exploring the creative mystery of living.
October 20, 2009
I’m slowly recognizing the opportunities created by my new web site, Living in Season, and so my ideas about it are shifting.
Originally I thought I would publish an issue on the site every three months and continue to send out my monthly newsletters. But as someone who advocates living in season, I’m not happy with how quickly the information becomes outdated if I leave it up for three months. And I love the extra features the web site offers: photographs, featured quotes, and comments. So I am (with great trepidation) contemplating updating the web site monthly (yes, monthly) and using the newsletter as a place to announce and showcase the new articles. I’m nervous about this naturally—it’s a lot of extra work with no visible means of support. Let me know what you think and if you have any good suggestions.
One of my hopes for the new web site was more collaboration. So I’m delighted to have two articles contributed by readers: a fascinating look at the way Tibetan Buddhism considers ghosts and demons by Karma Norjin Lhamo and a lively article on the new moon in Libra by astrologer, April Elliott Kent. Plus several of the stunning featured photos came from readers: Judy Maselli contributed photographs taken in Oaxaca, Mexico and Sara Polke-Johns, who lives in Wales, sent an atmospheric photo of mist rising from a river valley behind an old graveyard. I love the way the Internet connects us.
My little brother’s birthday was October 29. He was the third child; my sister and I had already been allocated the colors of pink (for me, the first girl) and blue for her. So Tim got the color orange. Perhaps it was also because of the proximity of his birthday to Halloween.
In conjunction with his birthday and Halloween, we developed a peculiar family tradition. Throughout October, we would create designs for pumpkin faces on paper cutouts of pumpkins and paste them on the orange wall above Tim’s bed.
It was a contest which ended on the day my father carved the Halloween pumpkin. Then we all voted on the cutest and the scariest pumpkins. I don’t remember if there was a prize, except for the satisfaction of knowing your design was featured in the flickering face of the pumpkin set out on the front porch.
There is a prize for this contest. I will give either a French Republican Calendar for 2010 or a print version of the 2010 Calendar Companion to the person whose pumpkin art I like the most. Just send a photograph of your favorite carved pumpkin (or turnip lantern or potato) to waverly AT livinginseason DOT com and I will post it here for everyone to enjoy.
Let me know how you want to be credited. You can send along your full name and location (city, state) or just initials or just location or a URL to your web site or to your Etsy store. I will contact the winner and get the details I need to send out the prize.
The great pumpkin-carving squirrel photos were submitted by Kathy Robles who lives in New Jersey. So far, this squirrel is winning the contest.
See below for the first submission (except for the squirrel): a bat pumpkin by Forrest Stowe.
After two weeks of reflection, I don’t think the huge headache I developed after the Herbal Conference at Breitenbush was due solely to caffeine withdrawal (maybe I’m in denial here). It might have been part of a healing process sparked by some of the workshops I attended. I’ve come up with this theory because I started dreaming again, within days of returning from the conference, and I haven’t had a really remarkable dream for years.
These dreams have been both vivid and significant. In one, my father (who died over 25 years ago) was being healed. He was lying on a beach and healer was painting his face with reddish pigment. A huge green wave came and washed over his body as I watched. In another dream, I was with my family and we were trying to escape a tidal wave by jumping into and floating around in the large lake in back of our house. The water was warm and green in color.
Both of these dreams emphasized water. Breitenbush is famous for its healing hot springs. And at the conference, I attended a workshop on Spiritual Bathing led by Rosita Arvigo who was trained by a Mayan shaman in Belize. She spoke about some of the conditions that require healing in that culture, conditions we might consider emotionally based, like fright or envy or grief. Then she created a florecida (a floral water) by placing herbs and flowers in a bowl of water and squeezing them with her fingers, while reciting this prayer she learned from Don Elijio Panti, a Mayan shaman with whom she studied:
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, I give thanks to the spirit of this plant and I have faith with all my heart that you will help me to make a healing, purifying bath for [person].
She also called on the Blessed Virgin Mary and Ix Chel, the Mayan goddess of the moon, water and healing. She told us we could use any deity we wanted, though it was important to call on a deity as the power to heal came through this connection with the divine. We could use any flowers or herbs we liked in creating a bath for ourselves, but we should choose a significant number, for instance, 9 sprigs of each plant, and non-toxic plants or flowers, especially those that evoke certain qualities.
She worked the plants with her fingers until they had discharged their qualities into the water—it should be a greenish color, and, since she used some mallow family flowers, it was also slimy.Normally she would let this sit out in the sun for several hours but since we were doing a one-hour workshop, she walked around the room and asperged us, that is, sprinkled us with this special floral water, using a branch of cedar. I definitely felt the clearing energy of the water as she sprinkled it around my head, and I noticed the atmosphere of the room change as well, as she went around, asperging everyone.
But I don’t think I realized how profoundly this affected me until I began dreaming in the days that followed. After reading through Spiritual Bathing, the book of water rituals compiled by Rosita Arvigo and Nadine Epstein, I noticed that green water was mentioned in descriptions of certain rituals, including the preparation of agua de florida, used in Ayauasca ceremonies. Rosita also mentions the green color of the florecidas prepared by Julia Riveras during a workshop on the Amazon.
If you are looking for an overview of spiritual bathing traditions from all over the world, Spiritual Bathing is a good place to start. The book is beautiful, full of wonderful photographs but the coverage is a bit shallow. We get only the most general discussion, a page or two for each culture from Rome to India, Russia to Turkey, Japan to Peru. And the suggested rituals, though intriguing (I will try several of them), don’t seem traditional but rather adapted for modern American readers. I think this probably the nature of any glossy coffee-table book. One of the aspects of the book I enjoyed most were personal accounts of spiritual bath experiences from the two authors.
But if you want a really engaging, personal account of baths all over the world, I recommend Alexia Brue’s travel memoir: Cathedrals of the Flesh: My Search for the Perfect Bath, which details her trips around the world, searching for the perfect bath. However, she is more interested in the culture of the bath than the spiritual aspects of it.
It’s been a dream for a long time. The dream of a magazine. I first started writing about it in my newsletters in 2006. And I announced its imminent launch in January of 2009. Yet the time and clarity and resources I needed to produce it were not available until this summer.
For the past few months, I’ve been working hard with my brilliant web designer, Joanna Powell Colbert, figuring out the design and features. And grappling continually with the question: What is it? Is it a magazine? A web site? A cluster of blogs? A school?
For right now, I’m calling it a magazine. The current plan is to “publish” four times a year, once for each season, with all new articles. But because it is based on blog software, it can be updated continually, and I suspect I will be tempted to do that.
So it is with great pride and trepidation that I present the inaugural issue of Living in Season. You might notice that most of the articles are written by me. That’s not the ultimate goal. But for right now, think early Martha Stewart Living when all of the articles appeared to be “written” by Martha (at least, there weren’t any bylines). By doing that she established a tone and style for the magazine that continues to make it recognizable today, while gradually opening up to creative input from others.
Ultimately I want this to be a place where you feel welcome to contribute your thoughts and experiences with slow time, sacred time and seasonal time. Right now, you can do that in several ways. The easiest way to participate is to submit a comment on any of the articles posted (I will be moderating these, at least at first, so it may take a day before you see your comments on the site). You can also submit photographs, artwork and articles (see the Guidelines page). And you can also reach out to the community of Living in Season readers and let them know about your work in the world, by placing an ad (see Advertising).
Eventually I hope to expand these offerings. Videos! Podcasts! More columns! For right now I feel like this first issue is a leaf tossed in a rushing stream. (I wish it felt more like a seed planted, but it just doesn’t.) I don’t know where it will end up but I am very happy to be drifting down this river, called the Internet, and I hope that all of you will join me. Grab your inner tubes!
Margaret Bergen sent this photograph of a Duchesse De Brabant tea rose from her garden in northern Florida; it was taken by her husband, Fred Bergen. She writes: “The fragrance is both reliable and intense. This is a rose you can count on being able to smell at any time of day or night, under any conditions. The scent is the essence of Tea, a strong, dry, slightly acrid sweetness that is very memorable.”
There are many flower scents I enjoy in summer: roses, linden flowers, honeysuckle, jasmine. But if I had to say what is the scent that is most emblematic of summer to me, I think it would be the scent of rain on hot asphalt. Hmmmmm!
What is the emblematic scent of summer for you?