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  • The Dark Green in the Early Anthropocene:Goethe's Plants in Versuch die Metamorphose der Pflanzen zu erklären and Triumph der Empfindsamkeit
  • Heather I Sullivan and James Shinkle

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.1 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. Our goals include assessing Goethe's frequent focus on plant life, both in his science and literature, and presenting his plant [End Page 141] scale that moves from leaf to plant, to forest, and finally to the plant- and air-oceans as an ecological model exemplifying the "dark green" implications of plant-human interactions and disasters in the Anthropocene.

In this three-part essay, the first section addresses the significant environmental quandary of connecting the small and local to vast global scales; our approach begins with Goethe's plant (leaf-based) scale, and links it to what we term the "dark green" world of the altered human-plant relations in the Anthropocene. The dark green refers to the living green vegetation that feeds us (and/or the animals we eat) and produces much of the oxygen we breathe, but that has been "darkened"—i.e., altered—by human cultivation, global pollution, and the large-scale urban, industrial, and mining development that has radically changed the Earth's surfaces since the Industrial Revolution. In the second section of the essay, the seriousness of this venture takes on an ironic note with a look at Goethe's satirical play, the Triumph der Empfindsamkeit (Triumph of Sentimentality) from 1777. In this "dramatische Grille" (dramatic whimsy), it turns out that one's relationship to plants determines one's fate on many levels, from the personal marital story to larger, mythological stories of global weather. The essay's third and final section then takes this existential role of plants seriously, and closely investigates Goethe's botantical text, Versuch Die Metamorphose der Pflanzen zu erklären (The Metamorphosis of Plants) in relation to contemporary plant science, putting it in conversation with both current ecological questions and other scholars from the early Anthropocene in the nineteenth century. With these three...


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