|"Remembrance Day" by belkin59 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0|
When I think of poppies, I think of wearing the red crepe paper poppies distributed by the American Legion Auxiliary on Memorial Day to honor the sacrifice of our fellow Americans who served and died for our country. That is until I read a mind-blowing essay by Katrina Vandenberg in the current edition of Orion Magazine. It made me think more deeply about our unconscious connections to the rhythms of nature – including war – and other mysteries beyond my feeble understanding.
Opium poppies have been cultivated by humans, going back to our earliest civilizations in Neolithic times. The plant has been long-revered for relieving suffering at the most fraught passages in a person’s life: birth and death. But it’s not a one-sided story. The poppy is the door to many realms, good and bad, as the author notes: The door “swings open-closed, life-death, pleasure-pain, freedom-slavery, remember-forget, suffer-release and when not swinging, it lives on is threshold, ready.”
The threshold state for poppies is unique because unlike most plants, they don’t grow every year: They can lay dormant for up to 100 years, waiting for the ground to be disturbed. Thus, when the fields of Flanders were ripped open and shredded by artillery and trench digging during World War One, poppies sprang to life, transforming the barren land into fields of blood-red blossoms, growing around the bodies of the fallen soldiers. That’s the back story of how the poppy came to symbolize the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of soldiers mowed down during that brutal war.
Poppies are remarkable in other ways: Out of the tens of thousands of plants on the earth, only one, the opium poppy, can produce morphine in measurable quantities. Morphine, distilled from the poppy’s opium, is also unique: it is the only molecule in nature that has “evolved to fit key-in-lock into the receptors we have in our brains and spines” to provide pain relief and, in other circumstances, pleasure.
Following Michael Pollan's thesis in "The Botany of Desire," Vandenberg asserts our relationship with the poppy is reciprocal: "that plants domesticate us at the same time we domesticate them, and that they evolve to respond to basic human yearnings." The mystery of the poppy, to her, is that this plant, unique from all others, has learned "what we most desire to feel.”
This essay is not meant to be an ode to morphine which can be a hopelessly addicting and life-destroying drug, even more so now that science has invented synthetic morphine compounds, like oxycodone and fentanyl, which are hundreds of times more addicting. No, this essay is an ode to the reality that life is often a mystery beyond human understanding.
Poppies are a good example. The author's claim, backed by Michael Pollan, boggles the brain: that opium poppies have co-evolved with us, learning what we most desire to feel. Also unnerving is the poppy's ability to awaken from hibernation when disturbed by war to bloom in profusion as red as a fallen soldier's blood.
Other mysteries: Can it be only happenstance that we have just lost a 20-year war to a small, third-world country festooned with opium poppies – which just happens to be our national symbol honoring our fallen heroes? And how can it be that after we spent $9 billion during this war to stamp out opium production, poppy cultivation has not declined but skyrocketed?
The final mystery is the nature of war itself. We think of it as an abomination, an external enemy. But what if war is not outside of us but a part of who we are. That’s the viewpoint of James Hillman, the late, legendary Jungian psychologist.. He looks at war not through the lens of science or theology but from an understanding of mythology and archetypal psychology. What he asserts seems undeniable: “where else in human experience, except in the throes of ardor – that strange coupling of love with war – do we find ourselves transported’ to such a mythical place.1
To resist our instinctual urge to rush to war, the first step is not denial but admitting we have a problem, that war is part of our DNA. Society already understands how to control unbridled sexual passion and lust by establishing norms, customs, and rituals, to restrain and redirect these urges in socially acceptable directions. We could do the same with war, but we don’t.
Worse, we have done the opposite: loosening prohibitions, even becoming cheerleaders for war. Already, with our troops still taking their boots off from Afghanistan, pundits and politicians are talking up our next war.
That’s the terrible truth of war: the biggest mystery of all,
1 2 A Terrible Love of War by James Hillman, page 9