Joerg Muller begins his studies in the world of plants like this: “Materials: A group of curious people and a plant”. Seems like a good place to start. We were amongst that group of curious people at one of Mr Muller's Wild Herb courses, at Leitrim's Organic Centre, on a sunny, windy Saturday morning. But before we ventured out, Mr Muller did a bit of debunking.
Contemporary science, he says, in all its modern brilliance, often ends up performing an exclusive, rather than an inclusive, function. The belief in having the “correct” answer which is the “only” answer leads us to stop thinking. We hand the thinking over to “experts”, and he recounted the old Monty Python sketch of the pregnant woman about to give birth who is told to shut up by her doctor “because you aren't qualified”.
Mr Muller, instead, advocates Goethean science: let us try to understand nature through a participatory relationship, rather than simply through passive observation. Goethe wanted intense observation, and the use of the imagination in conjunction with the senses: he wanted us to paint the plants we see around us into our mind. Spend a few hours on Mr Muller's course, and this happens immediately: what was once a weed is now an edible plant; what was once a tree is now the lungs of the planet. It's not chemistry, he explains: it's alchemy. We want to know how this thing came to life.
So we head out, and the first thing we look at is a White Birch tree. “The tree appears to never grow old“, says Joerg. In German, it is called “Well of Youth”. The tree is always flexible, and its signature is that it never forms a crown. Coleridge, I read later, called it “The Lady of the Woods”.
Ninety seconds in, and we are looking intensely. Next it is Meadowsweet, from which aspirin was first derived, and Joerg pints out its “rhythm of three” leaf pattern. The Wormwood – that's right, they used it to make absinthe – the Valerian, and then the brilliant Nettle: what does the nettle not do? It makes great soup, it cleans the blood, its seedpod is known as “The Ginseng of the East”, because it gives the tired body so much energy (remember that the next time you are hiking, and beginning to tire).
On and on we go in a dance around the fields of the Centre: lovely cow parsley; tasty chickweed; lush comfrey; Hogweed, whose taste resembles spinach when it is blanched, and which Joerg likes to steam, and serve with butter, or with soft cheeses.
The Hawthorn, Herb Robert, Bramble, and Horse Tail, which may be the oldest plant on our little planet. It's a whirligig of intoxicating information about the very things that are in front of our eyes and under our feet and, with just a short stop for an excellent lunch, we pursue our prey all around the centre and into the woodlands. The day ends with Joerg brewing up a Wild Herb Avran, which melds ice, yogurt, salt and a medley of wild herbs, including wild sorrel, watercress, ground ivy and chickweed, into the most viciously restorative drink for the body. Our minds have already been viciously restored.