I’ve been doing some research about the classical elements (earth, water, air, fire) and their semi-equivalent in Chinese philosophy, the wu xing or “five changes” (wood, earth, water, fire, metal). Yes, this has something to do with a new writing project I’m considering—something with a more “Renaissance-y” feel to it: Hermetic magic, alchemy, the classical elements, etc.
My half-dozen readers may have already predicted that I’d like to expand the scope of this by including aspects of other world cultures. The classical elements are known as far east as India and even Japan, but the Chinese wu xing is notably different in some regards. The overlap between these two systems is obvious: both include earth, water, and fire. And it might be possible to consider metal as a subset of earth. But what about air and wood? Until quite recently, I wasn’t entirely convinced these two “elements” belonged together. Then I remembered my high school science classes.
Here’s what finally dawned on me (thanks to this YouTube video). Do you know what plants are made of? Mostly air, it turns out. Plants take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, combine it with hydrogen from water, and use these molecules to create carbohydrates. About 90% of a tree’s mass comes literally out of thin air!
Furthermore, what do plants do with the oxygen that’s left over after they’ve taken hydrogen from water? They expel it as a waste product into the air, where humans and other animals breathe it to live.
In short, plants are mainly made of “air,” and they cleanse the air to make it breathable.