Refractions: Pagan & academic ideas interacting
Using multiple lenses to shed additional light
Desire and change
Desire carries the implicit possibility of change. Relationship requires that possibility to become a reality.
This year was the first time I had the opportunity to leap a (small, thankfully) fire as part of a Beltane ritual. I was surprised by how much it made me feel in my flesh and bones the way that Beltane is about the potential for transformation.
We're all familiar with the idea that Beltane is about desire, of course, but there's a wonderful book called The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World in which author Michael Pollan investigates and meditates on the relationships between humanity and four different plants, each one catering to a different human desire.
You may have heard of Pollan's work relating to food and eating, but in this earlier volume, he is exploring not just food but our wider relationships to the plant kingdom. By asking how we have changed these plants, and how they in turn have changed us, he engages with the world around us in a way that opens new questions of relationship and agency. Pollan is not writing from a Pagan point of view, but the way he is willing to attribute agency in some philosophical sense to the world around us is extremely compatible with my own panentheist approach. This kind of thinking about our living in the world as a complex network of relationships is fundamental to my understanding of Wicca as a nature religion.
The specific relationships he investigates are phrased in terms of a human desire and a plant or crop that we have grown, and lived with, to meet that desire. The four he chooses are sweetness, for which we grow the apple; beauty, for which we grow the tulip; intoxication, satisfied by marijuana; and control, which he sees in genetically modified potatoes. One of the great virtues of Pollan's writing is that he takes the reader beyond what is expected; although the genetically-modified potato has clearly been changed by human beings, his theme throughout is how much our relationships with these plants have transformed them, all of them. Even simple apples are now tremendously distinct from their wild sources.
And make no mistake, the plants have changed us in return. They affect our behavior; the apple modified our behavior by producing sugars that humans want so much that we were willing to spread it much further and faster than it would have been able to reproduce without our assistance. Plants are also able to change our experience of the world, as exemplified by marijuana. But the humble apple had its own value in this area as well: much of that sweetness was converted into alcohol as well. The questions of why and how plants affect us are deep and far-reaching, with each development on one side of the relationship leading to unintended consequences on both sides in a way that continues to play out today.
Examining the unexpected complexity of our relationships with some of the humble plants we think we know so well teaches me that relationships are very much associated with the Element of Fire. For me, it's easy to associate relationships with Water - all those feelings! - and to think of them only in an emotional context. Seeing how our relationships with plants are mediated by an intricate series of changes, large and small, intended and unconscious, reminds me that relationships are vibrant with Fire, whose essential nature is the process of transformation. The same desire that drives relationships is the fuel for constant change that characterizes them.
If change is a characteristic part of a relationship fueled by desire, that leads me to look for it in other unexpected places as well. How do we take this understanding of the physical, natural world and apply it to our metaphysical and spiritual relationships? There are many kinds of desire at play there; my relationship with Brigid is fueled in part by my desire for healing, for myself, for others, for the world. How does that desire change me? How am I changed by being in relationship with Brigid as a healing power? I think that I have been changed in some ways, but the examples in this work lead me to ask those questions in new ways, to look for changes that I didn't intend and didn't expect, and ones that might not be to my immediate benefit. These might be part of the very definition of what it means to be in relationship.
And the other question is how the spirits and powers are changed by being in relationship with us. I do not believe that the powers I work with are infinite and therefore immutable. I work with my landbase which is by definition changing constantly. Yes, some of those changes go in cycles, but that does not mean that the Wheel of the Year brings us back to precisely where we started. I change; the natural world that makes up my landbase changes; therefore the spirit of the landbase changes over time as well.
This Beltane the awareness of Fire and a better understanding of the way change is an essential part of our relationships with the natural world calls me to reflect on the role change plays in my relationships with the spirits and powers I work with. If, as I am beginning to suspect, relationships do not just open the possibility of change but demand transformation as part of the process of living in connection with others, what does that mean for the web of interconnection, physical and metaphysical, in which I live and move and have my being? I don't have answers; but perhaps asking the questions is pointing me towards some of the work of the season that will spark the transformations these relationships entail.
Blessed Beltane, and may the fires burn brightly in your hearts and in your relationships this season and always!
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