Our theme for the month of February is “plants.”

Some say that it is actually the lime, the mineral dandruff of ruined buildings, that fertilizes the poppies and makes them grow over the bloody ground of France. In this case, the relationship between the bodies that fell in Flanders Fields and the flowers that “blow between the crosses, row on row” is far more symbolic than scientific.

I’ve heard in a mystery story that poppies grow over corpses. The unpoetic, botanical truth is that poppies respond to decomposition no more than any other plant. Poppies grow in France—where trenches slashed the dermis of earth and aerosolized poison stalked spectral—because the poppies were there first. 

Poppy seeds can lie dormant for decades, waiting for the right conditions of temperature and soil to sprout. The feet and shovels that churned the earth in World War I surfaced the seeds.

That’s the science of it. 

Still, if you press a poppy out flat, the petals form a circle with softly irregular edges; the feathery effect is quite similar to blood spreading from the impact of a drop on cloth. A poppy field looks like a spray of bullets, each blossom a wound. 

And perhaps that’s what John McCrae saw when he penned his famous memorial poem “In Flanders Fields.” But he could have used the science for his metaphor as much as the aesthetic. The poem does imply, in the third stanza, that what is dormant may yet rise:

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Those last lines do not read as a lament but as a warning, or a curse—a bloodthirsty tomb inscription. McCrae’s poem is not a plea for peace, it’s a provocation. We expect those who suffer as a result of war to decry it. But violence is a hell of a drug. 

Did you know the earth has witnessed two opium wars as well as two world wars? 

Scholars postulate that opium, a derivative of poppies and the root of morphine, codeine, and heroin, predates written language. Ancient Sumerians in the region of modern-day Iraq were cultivating opium poppies as early as 5000 BCE. At this time, drought drove North African nomads toward the Nile River in Egypt, and a culture that fired pottery and cultivated millet developed in the Yellow River Valley of China.

Was the pain of existence already so great for the ancients who were still so close to the childhood of civilization?

Over time, opium was transported along the Silk Road to India and China. But it wasn’t until the 1700s and 1800s that England, desperate to trade for tea, silk, and porcelain, saturated a colonized China with opium from their other colony, India. Opium is addictive and therefore lucrative, and when China attempted to curb its people’s widespread dependency by banning it from its borders, two wars and several treaties between China, Britain, and the United States ensued. 

The media of the eighteenth, nineteenth, twentieth, and even twenty-first centuries have portrayed opium as a mysterious export and vice of the East. But history demonstrates it to be a tool of Western colonizers. 

There is potent hypocrisy, then, in an iconically British character like Sherlock Holmes, whose adventures pit modern British rationality against the dream-like influence of narcotics that Britain exported to the world. In one story, Watson finds Sherlock in an opium den, but Sherlock insists that he only purchased opium as a cover and did not use it. In A Study in Scarlet, Watson states,

“I have noticed such a dreamy, vacant expression in his eyes that I might have suspected him of being addicted to the use of some narcotic, had not the temperance and cleanliness of his whole life forbidden such a notion.”

It is impossible not to appreciate the description of perhaps literature’s most famous cocaine user as “temperate” and “clean.” 

McCrea’s poem and Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories share an anxiety to perpetuate division. They apply care and concern to delineating the line between “us” and “other.” And all over that line, poppies grow. 

While science shows that the relationship between poppies and battlefields is more of a loose association than anything else, history and nearly any television procedural demonstrate that drugs, violence, and politics are bound up together in a root system that explodes with almost seasonal regularity to the surface.

Violence is a hell of a drug. 

But the addictive power of bloodshed lies not in a primitive survival urge but the subtle, intoxicating power of believing you are better, stronger, more worthy than your neighbor and have the right to prove it by force. Like the opium receptors in our brains, designed to receive natural endorphins, our susceptibility to the power of this influence is both innate and cultivated, seeded in our hearts by poetry and politics, dormant at best, and quick to rise when our spirits, like soil, are churned.


  1. Alex Johnson

    I don’t know how you continually manage to write posts that are so lyrical and so rooted in truth yet packed with meaning beyond facts, but here we are with this banger of an essay.

    • Emily Stroble

      You’re so kind, Alex! Thank you. Honestly, it’s writing for the post calvin that has made me so much more alert to everything around me. The idea for this post came from skimming the dust cover of a used book I didn’t actually purchase. The dust cover had one brilliant line about the West’s distain for botanically assisted altered mental status, common in the religious practices of many cultures since subjugated, marginalized, and oppressed by western powers. It made me think about victorian literature, as everything does. But seriously, the discipline of writing makes you open up your eyeballs to your life and every thing you encounter because you’re gonna have to send the post calvin something, anything. 🙂

  2. Debra K Rienstra

    Really cool how this essay tosses up a bunch of pieces and then lets them fall into a singular design by the end. Also: I love how the US television series Elementary runs right at Sherlock’s traditional discretely disguised addictions and makes him a recovering heroin addict.


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