The Key.

by Evelyn Roe


It’s autumn, and The Tree of Keys is laden. I stand a while, gazing at the pendulous golden fruits twisting and untwisting slowly on their long stalks, locking and unlocking invisible doors. One key drops to the ground next to me. “Which door does this unlock?” I ask The Tree.

As an ethnobotanist, I’m enlivened by my relationships with plants. I also feel called to lead others to direct perception of these green beings. The best method I’ve come across for this is Goethean phenomenological science, which aims, in the words of Nigel Hoffmann, “to find the method which truly belongs to the nature of the living things we are studying”1. It leads us into a state of openness for seeing the plants, unlocking a door to intimacy with nature, and with ourselves.
In contrast, searching for a plant’s scientific name through the use of structured keys can lock tight the door of inquiry and keep the plant’s true identity hidden in the arcane language of classical botany. The analytical use of accurate observations is not what bothers me. In fact, the details are essential for an appreciation of the plant’s manifested form. Rather, I’m concerned about the absence of qualities from the descriptions of plants, leaving the text unpalatable or even poisonous, deterring inquiring adults and children from tasting a world full of thrilling and revelatory plant encounters. This concern has strengthened in me while studying Module One of the MSc course in Holistic Science, which has opened a door of inquiry about how I might teach others about meeting plants as subjects, not objects.
This essay is an account of how that door was opened: the first turn of the key is coming into inquiry as part of a group; the door stands ajar with Henri Bortoft’s introduction to phenomenology and his teachings on the dynamic way of seeing; my personal investigation of colour allows more light to enter; and, finally, I step across the threshold to encounter plants.
My essay is written in a style intended to evoke the qualities of my learning experience during the first month of study at Schumacher College. Memories, impressions, and feelings emerge and weave the story of my shifting sense of identity throughout this inquiry.

Coming Into Inquiry

A fine membrane stretches across the open doorway. I push through it gently, held for a moment in its tension. Taking my place in the classroom, I feel a settling of the air around me, and light begins to explore the space. As each person arrives, the membrane vibrates and the pressure changes. When the circle is complete, we close the door, and quieten. Light pays attention and begins to focus through the lens we are creating to see the world.


The marsh warbler coils up a unique skein of sound each time it makes its migratory journey south in the European winter. Its song is composed of notes and chords gathered from the calls of the many different birds whom it meets along the way so that, by the time it arrives outside my island home in Zambia, it can unwind the tale of its whole route down through the African continent.

Like the marsh warbler, I sing of people and places I’ve met on my journey to this place of intellectual and emotional nourishment:

I come from a primary-school classroom where the nature table is never big enough to hold all the lichens, nuts, and stones which I love to gather from the Lochaber hillside. “Too much Evelyn”, the teacher says; from a biology lab where the lecturer enchants me with the unfolding of DNA, and enfolds me in the leaves of his books on the exquisiteness of life; and from a lecture hall in Edinburgh where a botany professor unlocks doors to plants and doors in me.
I come from the Kalahari Desert where the ancient heartbeat of the Earth pulses through me as I lie on red soil pungent from the first rains and feel the star-laden night sky drawing me up into its spacious brilliance; and from a fragrant, wooded island in the middle of the Zambezi, which I have left behind like a lover whose scent I still inhale.
Now, I have brought myself to the infinite table of Schumacher College.

A Door, Ajar

While walking through the woods on the Dartington estate, I see a composition of dark and light shapes which have no meaning until, suddenly, the parts relate to one another and a snake appears. There is no snake until my mind creates the snake. And there is no snake. Jackdaw-shadows flitting across my bedroom wall are snake-eagles; screeches in the nearby woodland are monkeys; and the rain on the college roof is battering down on my reed hut. Thus, my mind sees Africa-ly every day, and I wonder when I will see Devon-ly. There are glimpses, felt shifts in perception, but for much of the time I feel displaced, trying to make sense of where I am.

The molecules of my body which I brought from Africa are rearranging, dispersing, leaving me. The scents that tumbled down from the flower-laden canopy to become Evelyn no longer dance in my bloodstream, and I fear that my essence is dissipating. Who will I be when there are no more African plant ingredients composing me?

David Abram writes beautifully of how the French phenomenologist, Merleau-Ponty, understood perception:
Perception, in Merleau-Ponty’s work, is precisely this reciprocity, the ongoing interchange between my body and the entities that surround it.2
As I read that description, I feel connections beginning to grow across the divide that separates my living body, as formed in Africa, from its new landscape in Devon. I feel ready to participate in life here, to experience my life as it is lived. This will bring, as Abram describes, “the very possibility of contact, not just with others but with oneself”3.
Phenomenology is a way of thinking about, or seeing, the world as it is experienced. It is a practical way of being in the world, of perceiving that we are embodied in it, not viewing the world as if we are external to it. Henri Bortoft observes that,
One of the most remarkable and unexpected outcomes of phenomenology has been the rehabilitation of the body…The lived body is the sensing body and as such it is the organ through which we can encounter the sentience of nature.4

Bortoft explores this in his lessons on “the dynamic way of seeing”: he reverses the usual direction of thinking and leads us “upstream” to the experiences as they are being experienced, rather than “downstream” to the place where we live among the representations of our cognition.
Eric Matthews, in his guide to the work of Merleau-Ponty, expresses this succinctly: “Living in the world comes first, knowing about it comes later”5.
The “upstream” way of perceiving experiences as they arise requires a state of mind that is open and welcoming to new possibilities; a mind that is receptive, neither passive nor active – or, better still, active and passive simultaneously, “actively passive” and “passively active”, as Bortoft says. It is difficult to catch hold of, but I’m finding that this paradoxical concept is bringing spaciousness and light into my life.
As I bring the prism up to my eyes and look through it at the sunlit college building, segments of rainbows jump from the sky on to the window sills and chimney pots. I lower the prism and light joins me on the lawn. It lets me play with it on squares of black and white card, which I arrange and re-arrange; overlapping, underlapping, creating wide and narrow white and black bands which I view through the prism.


Goethe’s investigations into colour provide an example of his phenomenological approach to science. He began by using a prism to look actively at what light was up to, and paid attention to all the qualities he observed. In brief, he found that colour arises where there is a boundary between light and dark; that certain colours belong together; and that the relationship between light and dark determines exactly where the colours are seen and in which order. This first part of an encounter with a phenomenon is “exact sense perception”.

Goethe progressed to the next stage of his method, which is “exact sensorial fantasy”, by investigating colour further in his imagination, holding all the observed qualities in his mind. Brian Goodwin describes the essence of this stage:
The observational details gathered in the previous step are used to re-experience the whole and its parts through imaginative reconstruction, bringing it into being in the imagination. 6

Arthur Zajonc explains how Goethe’s method deepens perception:

The act of accurate qualitative observation creates the capability in the observer for an intuitive understanding of the physical laws underlying the phenomena under observation.7

Goethe searched for a way to observe the relationship between light and dark directly in its simplest form, without the use of apparatus. He found an instance of this in the multiplicity of the colours of the sun and the sky, and discovered that warm colours (red and yellow) arise from light passing through darkness, and cool colours (blue and violet) arise from darkness passing through light. Through Goethe’s encounter with this primal phenomenon, which he called Urphänomen, the distinctive nature of colour was expressed. This third stage is known as “seeing in beholding”, and it allows the whole to be recognised through its parts. A further experience may arise from here, one in which there is a feeling of personal unity with the phenomenon, “becoming one with the essence”.

As Herbert Hensel writes:

…the inner identity of the Urphänomen manifests the inner identity of the ego. We stand here before the highest goal of Goethean science: the progression from the single phenomenon to the thoroughgoing interrelationship between appearances and the unification of the human being as knower with the entirety of existence.8

The following story tells of how I experienced the phenomenon of colour, using Goethe’s approach.

Light lies down on the lawn with me and relates my story.

Deep blue sits in the darkness, resting. After a while, it feels lonely and decides to peep above the horizon. Slowly it creeps upwards and sees yellow stretching fatly and spreading its blanket over the day. Yellow reaches out a hand, inviting blue to join it, and pulls blue up into the sky. Tentatively, blue diffuses and merges with yellow. They both become filled with joy, because together they make green.

Now I feel that yellow is inviting me, the blue, to join it. I will slide out under the cover of darkness into the spacious light of dawn, and slowly I’ll take yellow’s hand and trust that this will bring fulfilment, for together we can make green. Without me, there can be no green.

I can rest again, finding a
secret place where I can be alone…

…and then I can re-emerge, with more trust each time. Perhaps soon I will have no hesitancy, when it’s as natural as day-and-night for me, deep blue, to join yellow in creating green anew, again and again.

This story is a powerful metaphor for me, someone who cares intimately about the green. It is a call for me to step out in the open, to participate, and to be creative.

Plant Encounters

The tree that called out to me in my first month at college was the old horse-chestnut, which was cut back, two years ago, to half its former height, due to concern that its diseased branches might fall on passers-by. Everyone who sees the misshapen tree has an opinion or a feeling about whether or not it should be cut down and removed to make way for new growth.

My own view is that the horse-chestnut tree is still fully alive, connected to many living things, above and below the ground: it may communicate with other plants through mycorrhizal fungi in the soil; rooks and pigeons swoop in and out of its crown; squirrels forage for its shiny, rich seeds that split their armoured fruit; and people gaze tenderly at its open heart.


With large, open hands like my father’s, the horse-chestnut tree welcomes me to its quiet place. We lean against one another, and let the air around us settle.
“I wondered when you’d come and see me,” offers the horse-chestnut tree.
“I’ve been a bit busy, you know. Been a bit unwell, too,” I reply.
“Haven’t been feeling so great myself,” the tree sighs.
I inhale its slow out-breath. It smells cool, and dry.

I don’t like to bring up the subject of its missing limbs, but the tree sees me seeing the broken crown and the stumps of once-beautiful boughs. It also sees me seeing the wreaths of young shoots growing around every wound and, thus, I see in myself some new growth, stimulated by recent loss. There is more space around my heart now, like the open centre of the horse-chestnut tree. Someone may fly in there and take up residence.


By using the Goethean approach, I came to perceive the livingness of the tree. First, I had a strong impression of its welcoming attitude. Then, I proceeded to examine all its physical structures that were within my reach, making drawings and detailed notes. Next, I held those details in my mind and imagined the tree forming its different parts in order to become itself: new palmate leaves unfolding from sticky, reddish buds; long, slender twigs reaching out into the sunlight; heart-shaped abscission scars forming on branches as they let go of old leaves; the trunk gaining girth on warm, wet, summer days; new shoots crowding around the wounded branches, bringing food and healing compounds to the broken limbs; the rounding-out of its red-brown seeds that continue the tree’s exploration of the world. Lastly, I allowed my mind become spacious to let the gestures of those parts reveal the generous quality of the whole horse-chestnut tree.

This method goes beyond analysis of “facts” about the tree’s outward appearance, but it does not invent a fictitious plant, nor does it demand a supernatural experience with the tree. Rather, it is a scientific method which cultivates the use of intuition. Perhaps, as Bortoft reflects, this kind of perception is “something like an ‘intermediate case’ between the rational-empirical mind and ‘mystical experience’”9.

Meeting the Plants

Now I step through the doorway into my inquiry, “How can I teach others about meeting plants as subjects, not objects?” The inspiration to answer that question comes from several writers and scientists whose work informs my personal philosophy, my “ecosophy”, to use Arne Naess’s10 term. For example, from Abram:

To define another being as an inert or passive object is to deny its ability to actively engage us and to provoke our senses; we thus block our perceptual reciprocity with that being.11

From Buhner:

From the beginning we have been surrounded by the presence of plants; it is not only upon the soil, other plants, or the insects that the aromatics of the plant world fall. They fell upon our species as well; all during our long growth we breathed them in.12

This heart-filled writing contrasts with the indigestible language of formal botany. The following extract is from a popular wild-flower key by Francis Rose; it’s a description of the leaves of the horse-chestnut tree, Aesculus hippocastanum in the Hippocastanaceae family:

Lvs palmate, divided into 5-7 lfts, 8-20 cm long, obovate, tapered to base, pointed at tip, toothed, hairless and dark green above, downy below when young, long-stalked. 13

Goethe would have found this type of description distasteful, according to Goethean researcher, Ron Brady:

He had been put off by a botany consisting of mere categorization of parts, shapes, species, and families without any insight into an underlying unity among them.14

To open the door of plant-wonder for others, I’m designing a holistic course called “Meeting the Plants”. This course includes activities to reveal the unity of plants through appreciation of diversity, rather than looking for common features among members of a particular group, which is the usual direction of thinking in a botanical key.

One of the main elements of the course is a Goethean study of plant morphology, looking at the diversity of form within a single plant species to begin with, and then moving on to genera and family. For example, participants could study members of the Malvaceae, a large family which includes mallows, hibiscus species (including okra), and hollyhock.

Before teaching the course, however, I recognise that:

The scientist is required to go through what is effectively a process of evolution in order to cultivate the mode of consciousness needed for working in the Goethean way. It is in fact by working in the Goethean manner that we develop the organ of perception needed to do science in the Goethean way.15

One scientist who has gone through this process of evolution is Margaret Colquhoun of the Pishwanton Wood Centre in Scotland. Her workbook, “New Eyes for Plants”, with illustrations by artist Axel Ewald, grew from a series of courses created to “bring together science and art in the doing”. In the preface, she writes, “Each of the courses…has been a journey of awakening through experience, both in perception of the world of Nature around us and of our own inner creativity. 16

I would like to benefit from her experience by incorporating some activities from the workbook into my own course, for example, “Living into a Leaf Sequence”. In this exercise, we remove all the leaves from a mature plant and lay them side by side in the sequence in which they grew on the plant. Then, we let our eyes move from one to the next, becoming aware of a movement within the plant as it grew. This stimulates the imaginative part of our thinking and connects us to the “flowing stream” of the plant’s growth.

Although I’m uncertain of the exact content and structure of my proposed course, I’m building it on a sure foundation: that to develop a deeper perception of plants, all our senses should be employed. “Meeting the Plants” would guide participants to engage not only our sight, but also smell, hearing, taste and touch, to discover the qualities of each plant. As Abram brings to our attention,

To touch the coarse skin of a tree is thus, at the same time, to experience one’s own tactility, to feel oneself touched by the tree.17

This is my wish: those who Meet the Plants perceive Nature and, thus, feel themselves perceived.


I return to The Tree of Keys, my question answered: the key unlocks the door to my true nature and, thus, the world.


1. Hoffmann, N. (2007). Goethe’s Science of Living Form: The Artistic Stages. New York: Adonis Press, p. 12.

2. Abram, D. (1996). The Spell of the Sensuous. New York: Vintage Books, p. 52.

3. Ibid. p. 45.

4. Bortoft, H. (2012). Taking Appearance Seriously. Edinburgh: Floris Books, p. 49.

5. Matthews, E. (2006). Merleau-Ponty: A Guide for the Perplexed. London: Continuum, p. 22.

6. Goodwin, B. (2007). Nature’s Due. Edinburgh: Floris Books, p. 152.

7. Zajonc, A.G. (1975). Goethe’s theory of colour and scientific intuition. American Journal of Physics, 44 (4), p. 327.

8. Hensel, H. (1998). Goethe, Science and Sensory Experience. In: Seamon, D. and Zajonc, A. (eds.) Goethe’s Way of Science. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, pp. 80-81.

9. Bortoft, H. (2011) The Transformative Potential of Paradox. Holistic Science Journal, 1 (1).

10. Professor Arne Naess was the Norwegian founder of the deep ecology movement. He introduced the term “ecosophy” into environmental literature.

11. Abram, D. (1996). The Spell of the Sensuous. New York: Vintage Books, p. 56.

12. Buhner, S.H. (2002). The Lost Language of Plants. Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing Company, p. 225.

13. Rose, F. and O’Reilly, C. (2006). The Wild Flower Key (Revised Edition). London: Frederick Warne, p. 315.

14. Brady, R.H. (1998). The Idea in Nature. In: Seamon, D. and Zajonc, A. (eds.) Goethe’s Way of Science. New York: State University of New York Press, p. 92.

15. Bortoft, H. (1996). The Wholeness of Nature. Edinburgh: Floris Books, p. 244.

16. Colquhoun, M. and Ewald, A. (1996). New Eyes for Plants. Stroud: Hawthorn Press.

17. Abram, D. (1996). The Spell of the Sensuous. New York: Vintage Books, p. 59.


One response to “The Key.

  1. I could relate to several aspects of this lovely essay. I like the points about phenomenology and about science itself as a mixed blessing–encouraging a certain kind of observation and providing certain kinds of information but also getting in the way (sometimes) of inspired and imaginative participation, especially with plants. In my blog I’m interested in part with the history of life, even going back to bacteria of two billion years ago, and here again science supplies some data and theory but not much real sense of connection to or growth from those beginnings. Also, in your discussion of the horse-chestnut tree, you use the word “livingness,” a word I find very useful though seemingly stilted. We just don’t have another noun for the basic condition of being alive as opposed to inanimate. (“Aliveness” connotes enthusiasm, a whole other thing.) “Livingness” seems to have been used a bit in centuries past but is rare today. Time to bring it back.

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