A close-up of oak leaves and acorns
Kadir Celep / Unslpash

Concerning My Exceptional Research Project

A meditation on the storied trees of Goethe’s Germany


I am writing to formally apply for the Exceptional Research Grant sponsored by your esteemed organization. I’d like to begin by expressing my sincere gratitude for offering such generous support for “writers and scholars completing exceptional research projects in the Humanities,” and I can confirm that, if my project is selected, the $500 will most certainly assist me in achieving my “professional goals.” Thank you, as well, for holding the recent informational meeting on our campus, at which your representative was both friendly and helpful in answering our questions. I admit to some lingering hesitation, however, related to a question someone asked about what sorts of research projects your organization has funded in the past. Your representative explained (again, in a very friendly manner) that although the range has been quite large, a distinction should be made in our applications between “serious, scholarly research that can take years to complete” and the “amateurish” kind that involves “simply stepping into your backyard.” There was a lot of nodding in response to this among attendees, and I, too, was nodding, until I recalled that in 2001 Orion magazine published an essay of mine entitled “Backyard.” It has since occurred to me that a large chunk of my published nonfiction has, in fact, been set in my yard: front, side, and back. To be fair, your representative could have hardly known this about my creative work, and I appreciate the need in this political climate, when funding for the humanities is under such intense scrutiny, to prioritize only the most exceptional and professional research projects. Nonetheless, as I consider how to articulate in this application letter why you should consider my current research project to be both exceptional and professional, and thus worthy of funding, I feel some trepidation over the recent realization that, despite the best intentions, my project has become, in part, yet another piece about my yard.

Still, I will do my best to provide you with the requested “detailed and thorough account of the research process” associated with the project for which I am seeking your support. The project is a personal essay, tentatively entitled “All Is Leaf,” but it did not begin that way. It began as a serious environmental essay about a centuries-old burr oak in our front yard, endangered oak savanna ecosystems in Iowa, and bioregional ecocide, but it took a sudden detour when a good friend from graduate school invited me to attend his fiftieth birthday party in his hometown of Hamburg, Germany. As I considered the possibility of attending, I became nostalgic for my student days in Iowa City and, going to the section of my bookshelf dedicated to that nostalgia, picked up The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, which my German friend had given me for my twenty-fourth birthday. As some of you undoubtedly know, it is about a young man who falls in love with an unattainable woman and as a result becomes depressed and eventually kills himself; but I’d never finished it. This made me feel as if I had somehow failed my friend, whom I’d never once visited in Germany, but should have.

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So I decide right there that I am going to Germany, and will finish Werther, but I start it all off by visiting Goethe’s Wikipedia profile, which for the purposes of this application I do not claim as “exceptional research.” Nonetheless, it leads me to the discovery that Goethe, who was born in 1749 and died in 1832, was not only the most popular novelist and poet of his time, especially among teenagers, but also a nature writer (like me) and an amateur scientist who made some important contributions to the study of optics, geology, evolutionary science, and botany. Given the oak savanna essay I am working on, this intrigues me, and I’m wondering why I haven’t heard Goethe mentioned more often among my fellow environmental writers. This leads me to think that a portraiture essay might be both interesting and timely, though to be honest, what I’m actually thinking is that this Germany trip is going to be incredibly expensive — and, since we are a one-income family of five, inexcusably selfish — but that I might justify it by publishing said portraiture essay and writing the whole trip off as a tax deduction.

Read more from this issue here and more from other past issues here. 

I’ll spare you the rest of the practical and emotional details of preparing to leave your wife and kids alone for three weeks and skip ahead to Germany. After a week spent with my friend and his kids in Hamburg, during which I attend his birthday party and share many laughs and memories, I set off alone for a few days of what I intend to be serious, professional research in Goethe’s hometown of Weimar. I should confess that until this trip to Germany, I had never been to Europe or anywhere else abroad. So when I boarded the plane in Omaha, I was full of anticipation, but also a lot of petty and immature fears that I probably should have gotten out of the way by studying abroad in college (as I’m sure several on your committee did). But I’d already had a job to hold down during those years, and couldn’t afford it and still can’t afford it now, at age forty-eight, stepping off the train in Weimar and suddenly reunited with a more pleasant immaturity that I think is, or should be, a prerequisite of all exceptional research projects: the sense of being a student again.

This may also include, as it does for me, the student’s panicked sense of being underprepared. Prior to visiting Weimar I have, in fact, read only the Werther book and a couple of articles about Goethe. The rest of my prep time was spent researching walking shoes because my middle-aged arches have gone to shit. So although I enter Goethe’s hometown with comfortable shoes, I have no true appreciation for the significance of the place — home also to Schiller and Bach and the Bauhaus movement and the Weimar Republic, Germany’s first democratically elected government.

I soon discover it is home, as well, to a bizarre local obsession with ginkgo trees. While meandering the narrow cobblestone streets, it seems that in every other shop window there are ginkgo-related items for sale: ginkgo paintings and sculptures, ginkgo moisturizing cream, ginkgo leaf-print jewelry, ginkgo jam, and so on. We have a big ginkgo in our front yard, right next to the oak, and for me that tree has always been an interesting, sometimes annoying, botanical side show, with its scalloped, shell-like leaves, lepidopteron branches, phallic buds (my boys call it “the penis tree”), and stinking, jellied seed pods. More a creature of prehistoric seas than of the native prairies and oak savannas I love.

In Weimar, though, it is clearly something else. Seeking illumination, I enter a little store on the cobblestone marketplace called Ginkgo Land and peruse a tiny book (the only one translated into English) entitled The Ginkgo Myth. The author, Heinrich Georg Becker, explains that the ginkgo had been elevated into German national consciousness by none other than Goethe, who had had a scientific interest in the tree and helped introduce the Chinese native to the gardens and parks of Weimar along the beautiful Ilm River. Goethe also wrote a poem, “Ginkgo biloba,” in 1815, which is translated this way in the book:

This tree’s leaf which here the East
In my garden propagates,
On its secret sense we feast,
Such as sages elevates.

Is it but one being single
Which as same itself divides?
Are there two which choose to mingle,
So that one each other hides?

As the answer to such question
I have found a sense that’s true:
Is it not my song’s suggestion
That I am one and also two?

Goethe was sixty-six when he wrote this celebrated but (in my opinion) unexceptional poem, which he dedicated to Marian von Willemer, a thirty-one-year-old banker’s wife with whom he shared, in Becker’s words, a “secret mutual fondness, never to be fulfilled.”

The next morning I tour Goethe’s residence, the exterior of which is painted a bright yellow, which I notice only because Becker suggested it might have been intended to mimic “the shining autumn colors of Ginkgo foliage.” The house is now a sprawling national museum and the place where I assume I will collect much of the necessary information to complete the portraiture essay for my fellow nature writers and the IRS. While there, I discover that among Goethe’s many and diverse scientific obsessions, plant morphology was near the top. I don’t know much about this field, but learn from one of the displays that it is the comparative study of physical plant structures and growth, with an emphasis on shared characteristics. There are quotes from Goethe’s 1790 book on the subject, The Metamorphosis of Plants, in which he expresses a desire to discover “the truth about the how of the organism,” or, as one scholar puts it, “a unity of form in diverse structures.” For Goethe, this underlying unity among plants — the Urphenomen — could be found in the leaf. “It came to me in a flash,” Goethe wrote, “that in the organ of the plant which we are accustomed to call the leaf lies the true Proteus who can hide or reveal himself in all vegetal forms. From first to last, the plant is nothing but leaf, which is so inseparable from the future germ that one cannot think of one without the other.”

Initially, I’m not entirely sure what this means, only that the idea was immensely influential on other scientists and philosophers, including American transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau’s philosophical take on The Metamorphosis of Plants, for instance, might be discerned in this quote from Walden:

You find thus in the very sands an anticipation of the vegetable leaf. No wonder that the earth expresses itself outwardly in leaves, it so labors with the idea inwardly. The atoms have already learned this law, and are pregnant by it. The overhanging leaf sees here its prototype. . . .The feather and wings of birds are still drier and thinner leaves. . . . Even ice begins with delicate crystal leaves . . . [and] the whole tree itself is but one leaf. . . . Thus it seemed that this one hillside illustrated the principle of all the operations of Nature. The Maker of this earth but patented a leaf. What Champollion will decipher this hieroglyphic for us, that we may turn over a new leaf at last?

As I write this quote in my research notebook, it strikes me that the link between Goethe and the god of American nature writing might increase the interest of some environmental magazine editors in publishing my portraiture essay. Given the times we live in, their interest might also be piqued by the fact that Charles Darwin was a Goethe fan, long aware of the German’s earlier discovery that both humans and monkeys share an intermaxillary bone in the skull, suggesting a biological link many scientists and theologians denied. The actual skull Goethe used in his research is on display in the museum, as well as the instruments (some of them handmade) and detailed drawings used in his other scientific studies, all of them underscoring Goethe’s belief that research should be verifiable by applying the unaided senses and by drawing from materials near at hand. This included, for him, the backyard, where, in his gardens — which are to this day blooming with irises, peonies, and daylilies — he conducted many of his experiments in plant morphology. According to Goethe, any amateur, if he is a careful and disciplined observer as well as a creative thinker, can make original contributions to knowledge. It occurs to me now that this is the way of many essayists, who model a research process that can be replicated not only by those within privileged academic and economic classes, with their access to research libraries and travel funds and relative wealth of time, but also by anyone who has the power to bring new attentiveness to what may have previously seemed unexceptional. Anyone, in short, who is curious.

I’m tempted to say “curious like a child,” but that doesn’t really capture it, at least not while touring Goethe’s home, where I encounter instead a surprising adolescent energy that is all too familiar to me, a father of three boys, two of whom are teenagers. The place is full of rock and fossil collections and reproductions of art and shelves of touristy knickknacks he picked up during vacations. In a couple of upstairs rooms he hosted all-night parties with the rock stars of his time, including Felix Mendelssohn, and a variety of popular royals. He enjoyed drawing mythological superheroes and hiking outdoors. He loved flirting and hated math. He even had a porn stash, now displayed in a dimly lit side room, which includes a collection of coins engraved with erotic images, a sketch of a naked foursome going at it inside the petals of an iris, and a vibrantly colored majolica plate portraying Io riding Jupiter, entitled “Deep Dish.”

This is all beside the point of my serious research, I think, so I move on to an area dedicated to “Memories,” where an informational sign tells me that Goethe “aims to stage [Weimar] as a center of literature and establishes a culture of remembrance that takes shape in monuments and museums.” This talk of memory, monuments, and museums gets me remembering my visit the previous week to the ruins of St. Nicholas’s Church in Hamburg, destroyed by Allied fire bombings in 1943, and the small porcelain portrait there of Goethe, among a glassed-in display of scorched rubble in the museum basement; and then, also, the far back corner of the Weimar Visitor Center where, the day before, I noticed a display of photographs of the Buchenwald concentration camp as I waited in line to purchase a Goethe coffee cup.

To be honest, I hadn’t planned to visit Buchenwald because, though Holocaust memoirs had been a major focus of my undergraduate studies in religion, I hadn’t realized how close the camp was to Weimar until my Hamburg friend told me so — yet more evidence of the depth of my ignorance and lack of preparation. Even then, I felt that any visit to a concentration camp should be approached with respectful intention and careful research, so that you don’t enter such a place carrying an emptiness that might be too easily filled with nerve-inspired atrocities such as snapping selfies in front of the ovens. Such a visit had to be earned, I thought, and I hadn’t earned it. Plus, it seemed way off topic. But then, inside Goethe’s home, I recall Primo Levi, also a poet and scientist, and his memoir, Survival in Auschwitz, which is probably the book most responsible for metamorphosing me into a nonfiction writer and which I first read as a freshman in one of those required humanities courses that are, as mentioned earlier, under such intense scrutiny nowadays. What I think that book taught me, without knowing it, was that witness can be born out of the meeting place between the imperfect, unexceptional individual and the universal, and that it can be inspired and researched and organized, as Levi claimed, out of a personal sense of urgency alone.

And so that is how, dear committee members, based on the memory of a book and a vague sense of personal urgency experienced in an eighteenth-century German poet’s home, you might find yourself arriving the next day, the same day you had intended to spend conducting exceptional research at the Goethe and Schiller Archive, instead at the grounds of Buchenwald concentration camp, having done virtually no preparatory research, intellectually naked, except for whatever information you can accumulate at the information center, which in your case is a map and an audio tour device you are still fumbling with as you approach the iron front gate and the German words that translate into “To each his own.”

I noticed a display of photographs of the Buchenwald concentration camp as I waited in line to purchase a Goethe coffee cup.

You stop first at the ruins of the zoo, just on the other side of the fence from the crematorium, created (according to the audio tour) by the camp commander for the entertainment of his children and the children of the SS officers who lived there and for the Weimar families, dwelling in the city of music, literature, and commemoration, who regularly visited there, as well, because Buchenwald was promoted as a family camp. You have a family of your own, of course, and in your town there is also a zoo, with brown bears like the ones cared for here by a young Roma prisoner who likely did not survive, but who left his initials in the concrete of the cave, which you must find, because your children love bears and have left their own initials in concrete elsewhere in the world.

They are now, against your will, there with you, your children, the ones you thought you left behind, and for the rest of the day you cannot chase them away. They are there when you enter the Inmates’ Canteen with the photograph of another young Roma man holding up his sick friend during inspection, because your kids are all about their friends right now. They are there when you see the photo of thin boys behind wire in the Little Camp and the photos of SS officers, also boys, in a camp full of boys who torture and are tortured. They are there when you read the forms ordering these teenage SS boys to submit a racial and religious profile of their fiancées for party approval, and also when you visit the memorial to homosexual victims, because you don’t know whom your boys will love in their time and what commandants they will face.

They are there with you an hour later when you come upon a massive tree stump with a bunch of rocks set on top of it, like the other memorials. When you learn that the prisoners called it “Goethe’s Oak,” you experience a moment of reorientation — Goethe, trees, research! — and you think you have finally convinced them to leave, your children, because you do not hear their voices reading the story of how this stump is all that remains of a legendary oak tree spared by the Nazis because of its superior size when they clear-cut this section of the legendary Ettersburg forest to build the camp. It was one of the few trees on the grounds, and certainly the most prominent, and though it too was a site of torture, the prisoners called it Goethe’s Oak because they believed the great writer himself sat beneath it to compose this poem, which bears the inscription “At the slope of Ettersberg, on 12 Feb 76” and which was dedicated to yet another woman Goethe loved but who, as in The Sorrows of Young Werther, as in the ginkgo poem, did not love him back:

Thou that from the heavens art,
Every pain and sorrow stillest,
And the doubly wretched heart
Doubly with refreshment fillest,
I am weary with contending!
Why this rapture and unrest?
Peace descending
Come, ah, come into my breast!

You find out that the tree itself was among the final victims of the camp, having been bombed during the liberation, after which it burned for three days.

You think that is the end of the tree thing in Buchenwald until you visit the art exhibit adjacent to the Disinfection Chamber and see the sketches of that same tree by those in the camp, so prominent that you think you see its twisted limbs, distinctive to oaks, reflected in the sketches of the emaciated limbs of young men, some teenagers like yours, alive and dead — a unity of form in diverse structures. And that’s when they return, your own, as you consider how much this oak tree, whose cousin grows in your front yard, inhabited the minds and memories of these prisoners, and how it was given that power by a love poem that many of them knew by heart, but that you had until then never read, one that expressed sentiments that, in any other context, such as the willowed banks of the Ilm River or a text message from your teenage son to his almost-girlfriend, you would find unexceptional. That’s when you understand that, whatever it is you intended to research and write, it will no longer be about Goethe, or even the Holocaust, but about how, when everything else is taken or burned away, it is this unexceptional, amateurish, immature love — the how of the organism — that keeps your humanity alive.

A week later, you leave Germany, bringing these thoughts, this research, back home to Iowa, to your spouse and your sons, including the teenagers for whom the hope of romantic love is the air they breathe. You bring it back to the oak tree in your yard, where this all began. Back to the very spot where, on a bright September day, you held your firstborn son, barely a year old then, and watched Air Force One fly over those branches on its way to a nearby military bunker in Omaha. In that moment, you understood, for the first time, really, as perhaps they did beneath that other oak tree, that for some people in this world there will always be a safe place when things go bad, and that those people will never include you or the people you love, including the child you are holding. The oak tree seemed very alone then, because you felt alone, but now you can’t look at it without also seeing its May-December companion, the ginkgo. It occurs to you then that such a juxtaposition — ginkgo and oak, their branches intertwined, leaf touching leaf — is not something you have truly appreciated before, though you and your family pass by them every day, including your three boys, who might consider those trees and the yard that contains them to be ordinary, because someone may have told them that they are ordinary, that their Midwestern place and everything wild that survives in it, including themselves, including what they think and feel, in love or in pain — I am weary with contending — is ordinary.



Sketch by a prisoner at Buchenwald

WITH ALL OF THIS ROLLING AROUND in the air between us, you can now perhaps appreciate, dear committee members, why I am struggling with how best to conclude this application for your Exceptional Research Grant. How do I summarize what it is I need to explain after all that time spent traveling and reading and writing and thinking and feeling and growing, all of it research, while also acknowledging that I have come to a point in my career, in my life, when I am less concerned with being exceptional than I am with being helpful? For the record, since returning from Germany, my research process has generated six notebooks, hundreds of photographs, and over three hundred typed pages of drafts. Still, there is so much more to do, on the page and in the world. There are days when I think it will amount to something, and then there are days when I think I will set it all aside — not just this research project, but my entire writing life — that I may, as Thoreau says, turn over a new leaf at last.

But then there are those other days, and one may be approaching soon, like next week, when the application for this grant comes due, when I will finally abandon any effort to explain or justify, including this letter, and just scoop it all up, dump it into a box, and mail it to the address of your esteemed organization. Upon opening, the contents will spill across the oak conference table, along with an unexceptional but sincere note, the words of which are, like the leaf, like the great Urphenomen itself, the only words any writer anywhere has ever written or ever shall write:

Affectionately yours,
John Price


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John T. Price is the author of the several books including Man Killed by Pheasant and Other Kinships and All is Leaf, and the editor of the nature anthology The Tallgrass Prairie Reader. His nonfiction writing about nature, family, and spirit has appeared in many journals, magazines, newspapers, and anthologies including OrionThe Christian Science Monitor, Creative NonfictionThe Iowa Review, and Best Spiritual Writing 2000. He is a Professor of English at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where he directs the nonfiction writing program. He lives with his wife, Stephanie, and three sons in the Loess Hills of western Iowa.