“That makes the mood brighter.” For Wolf-Dieter Storl, plants are more than utilitarian objects. The self-sufficient and ethnobotanist knows the healing powers of nature – and lives quite well with it.
The man looks like a mix of Gandalf and Bob Marley. The gray-brown dreadlocks are tied together in a braid, the white beard extends over the chest, on the T-shirt are wolves in a snowy landscape to recognize. Wolf-Dieter Storl bends down, digs his hands in the ground, tugs at a root, frees them with the fingernails of earth and gives his visitor a bit of it.
“Here, this is masterwort. Eat, then you will not get sick for a year.” Friendship ribbons dangle from Storl’s wrists, his forearms are scratched by gardening. The plant, whose white umbels smell of carrots and celery, looks pretty, but just bite the roots like that?
“Masterwort was once considered a panacea,” explains Wolf-Dieter Storl, while he sniffs his fingers. In the Middle Ages, pills, powders or ointments were made from the roots to help against all sorts of things: catarrh, epilepsy, stomach upset, gangrene, dropsy or toothache. The root was also allegedly used to drive away witches. So, close your eyes and eat, maybe the stuff actually helps against something.
A bitter and at the same time sharp taste unfolds on the tongue. Masterwort is a bit like ginger. After chewing the fibrous piece, the palate feels slightly numbed, the pulse accelerates, in the esophagus and stomach it gets hot, as if drinking schnapps. It may be that everything that one hears, sees and tastes at the Einöd farm of Wolf-Dieter Storl at Isny in the Allgäu, was recorded under the intoxicating influence of a magic root. But it can also be very good that the world of Wolf-Dieter Storl is indeed as colorful and mind-expanding as it seems.
Colorful farm at almost 1000 meters altitude
The 71-year-old herbalist lives with his wife, daughter and two dogs on a colorful farm at almost 1000 meters altitude. From the alpine pastures all around you can hear the tinkling of the cowbells, further down in the woods rumblings are milling around with heavy equipment. Wolf-Dieter Storl goes with a basket through his jungle-like garden, picks a tomato here, cuts off a zucchini in the size of a baseball bat.
He stops next to blue-flowering borage and recommends using the spicy herb, more commonly known as salad extract, sometimes as a remedy for melancholy: “It has a mood-enhancing effect.” He talks about his plants as if they were good old friends. “Here, these are cards,” he says, stroking prickly, purple flowers, “they just came to me, I did not plant them.” For him, plants are not objects of fact, he sees them as beings with cultural, linguistic, healing and mythological identity.
Wolf-Dieter Storl is not only a garden freak with almost infinite expertise, he is also a cultural anthropologist and ethnobiologist. These are scientists who study plants for their use by humans. Before settling in the Allgäu, Storl explored the medical or ritual use of certain plants worldwide.
He lived in a traditional spiritualist settlement in Ohio, in an anthroposophic vegetarian commune near Geneva, among long-established farmers in the Emmental, as medicine men of the Northern Cheyenne, in Sadhus in India and Nepal. Today, many of the medicinal plants that he came to know in these studies are in his garden, such as a vinegar tree, which served the Cheyenne as an important source of vitamin C and whose bark played an important role in the medicine of the Indians. His collected expertise, his philosophical views and entertaining anecdotes he packs in books, lectures and workshops. If you listen to it for a while, you will not only learn botanical details, such as daylilies are also edible, you also start to see the plant world with different eyes.
“It was like being wrapped in plastic before”
Previously, the dried, prickly card heads were used for carding (combing) wool, an important preparation before spinning into yarn. As a medicinal plant, the card is not very well known. Effect: In the Middle Ages preparations were used from the root of the card against warts. Allegedly the ingredients of the plant have an antibacterial and immune boosting effect. Areas of application: headache, finger wounds, digestive problems.
First of all, it is clear that Wolf-Dieter Storl has a knack for plants. Where “hands” is not quite the right expression, his rather impressive paws with broad fingers, calluses and worn nails, which come due to the hard work in nature at first glance. Storl is self-sufficient, almost everything the family needs are fruits, salads, herbs and vegetables, he plants them in his own garden, in addition he delivers organic vegetables to selected restaurants in the area.
Wolf-Dieter Storl comes from Saxony, immigrated with his family to the United States at the age of eleven, he grew up in a cot in the middle of Ohio and spent most of his youth in nature. He became an eco-freak, however, much later. “In the fifties there was zero ecological awareness,” he says. “At that time, there was an immense waste of resources, and garbage was simply burned in the oil barrel.”
Actually, he wanted to study botany in high school, but soon changed to labors, then to ethnology. In 1974 he obtained his doctorate in anthropology (magna cum laude) in Bern. This was followed by teaching assignments in Vienna, Oregon, Geneva and Bern. When he moved to an anthroposophical rural commune in Switzerland, originally as an ethnological spy with the intention of writing a study on this strange community, he decided to end his academic career – and stayed for two and a half years.
At that time, he started walking barefoot, no longer cutting his hair and beard to be “better grounded”. “It was like being wrapped in plastic before,” he says. Since then, he tries to live in such a way that he always “follows the inner voice” and has a good contact with nature. That seems to have succeeded.
Compromise on the car
Those who visit him on his farm feel that they are meeting a person who is at rest because he draws strength from nature. Half of his time, Storl spends outdoors and works physically, the other half is inside and mentally engaged. In the winter, which takes place at the mountain farm from November to early May, he meditates and writes a book every year – on medicinal plants, nature rituals or self-sufficiency.
When not in the garden or in the shed for sawing wood, he gives lectures or guides those interested in herb walks. He is close to his ideal of being completely self-sufficient, but of course he makes some compromises.
He has a car, because the farm can only be reached via a five-kilometer gravel road through the forest, he pays taxes, the house is connected to the power and telephone line. His grown-up son, who lives in Isny, has built a radio station for him to connect to the Internet on a hill.
“Power places” and “inspired plants”
Over the net he exchanges with critics and fans. Among the fans are esotericisms, who believe in nature spirits, among the critic scientists, who aren’t convinced of “places of power” and “inspired plants”. “Just because plants have no brains does not mean that they can’t be intelligent beings,” says Wolf-Dieter Storl. “It seems they are responding to our thoughts and feelings,” he claims. “I’ve long believed that to be superstition.”
From a strict scientific point of view, this is quite questionable. As an ethnobiologist, Storl has a different, alternative view of nature: sending trees and flowers out of biochemical information? And isn’t it also a kind of communication? “The world has more dimensions than the measurable and provable,” he says.
From a purely rational point of view, it is nonsense to operate a bio-self-catering farm at a height of 1,000 meters. Nevertheless, one notes during the visit in late summer: The experiment bears plenty of fruit. Beetroot, salsify, potatoes, sweetcorn, cabbage, carrots, in between flowers, perennials and grasses, which other people would rip out as weeds. The many flowers attract insects: bees, butterflies, bumblebees and beetles are buzzing through the garden, they pollinate the plants and eat pests. A win win situation for everybody.
By the way, what is Bio-Gardener Storl doing, who consistently avoids poison, against snails? “I collect them and carry them to the forest.” For real? Because snails have a soul too?
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