Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2019
  • Online publication date: June 2019

The Dark Green in the Early Anthropocene: Goethe's Plants in Versuch die Metamorphose der Pflanzen zu erklären and Triumph der Empfindsamkeit

from Special Section on Goethe's Narrative Events edited by Fritz Breithaupt


SINCE THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION, the Anthropocene's global ecological calamities, such as climate change, widespread toxins, and mass species extinction, are occurring on such a vast scale that scholars in environmental studies face significant challenges when seeking to represent and respond to them in a meaningful and fathomable manner. Many academic and activist efforts begin with a relatable base level of “local” or “regional” knowledge that easily fits with the lived experiences of individuals, and then extrapolate from this base to connect the familiar issues to larger national, continental, or global issues. One of our goals with this study of Goethe's botanical writings is to provide an alternative model of various ecological scales that follows the same trajectory of small and “local” to large, “global” views, yet with a significant difference.

Inspired by Goethe, and incorporating insights from both the environmental humanities and contemporary plant sciences, we begin, rather unusually, with plant-scale delineations: that is, we begin, like Goethe, with the “leaf” itself as the small unit of biological, morphological, and ecological form that is part of a plant and so must always be integrated into the larger scale of an individual plant, and then to a forest-level or other multiplant system, and finally, in Goethe's term from his lectures on physics, to the largest level of the enormous “Pflanzen-Ozean.” He envisioned the vast landscape of green life as a “plant-ocean” in which insects are immersed in the same way that fish are immersed in the water of the sea, analogous and related to the “Luftmeer” or “air-ocean” that human beings and other terrestrial animals reside within. The plant- and air-oceans thus delineate large-scale ecological spaces in which we, along with other living beings, exist on the Earth's surface. It also shifts the focus from the “global” of “globalization” away from the human and towards the nonhuman instead; that is, towards the air-ocean and the extensive coverage of the planetary greenery upon which terrestrial life depends. In this joint interdisciplinary essay, we combine our two areas of expertise: contemporary plant science on the one hand, and Goethe studies and ecocriticism on the other.