Nature & Spirituality

A Friendship with Sunflowers

    The sunflowers have come again this year.  I’ve almost come to expect them.  I’ve almost gotten used to the idea that, by August, I will be surrounded by towering yellow heads and greedy, elephant ear leaves—almost, but not quite. 

    During the first summer we spent in our green house—the one to which we had moved in the hopes of growing far beyond what had gone before—my mother bought a single plant with a bright, beautiful face because she had always loved sunflowers, but had never been successful at growing them.  The sunflower sat happily in the ground, smiling at us, for all of about a week—until it was unceremoniously decapitated by a squirrel.  We briefly and gently cursed the squirrel, and then got on with our lives.

    The following spring, my mother tried again—this time carefully planting seeds, determined to coerce them to fruition.  Many were eaten before they could reach their potential, but two of them did finally win out, and we had a lovely pair of guardians standing watch next to our garage.

    Given previous results, my mother did not have a whole lot of hope the next year, but she scattered seeds anyway, giving little thought to the reward of harvest.  Most of them will get eaten, she assured me.  I shrugged.  The garden is not my domain.  I love it and I appreciate it, but I do not have a dialog with it the way my mother does. 

    So we went about our business and were surprised when not one, not two, but tens and twenties of sunflower plants began spotting our tiny third-of-an-acre plot.  But this was no assurance that they would eventually blossom, so we held our breath.  They teased us for weeks as they grew up and up until we had to bend back our necks to see the tips of their soaring heads.  And still they did not bloom . . . until one day in July, when the first of them opened its eyes to our sunny yard.  Its waking was soon followed by another and another—flower after flower stretching out its petals to worship the sun. 

    Those sunflowers became our ambassadors to the neighborhood—enchanting human and animal alike.  The bees came to bathe in their pollen, the yellow clinging to them like golden legwarmers.  And our small cat strode through the jungles they had created, reminding her that though she looked like a regular, old felis catus, her antecedents had been nothing less than panthers.  The squirrels recognized the plants as a playground, a place for climbing and swinging, with a tasty meal in the bargain.  Now, their chopping of heads was comical rather than tragic as they sat on their haunches, holding the severed heads between their front paws, like children zealously eating watermelon.  And we watched the goldfinches, drawn by their yellow flora counterparts, messily pecking away at the ripened seeds with such grave determination that we couldn’t help laughing.

    As the summer’s warmth began to fade, the sunflowers bowed their heads in a gracious adieu.  I was so thankful for them, so delighted by their unexpected bounty, but I resisted the notion that they might now be a regular part of our summer lives.  Life, to that point, had taught me a thing or two about impermanence—that no matter the planning nor the praying invoked to procure a particular outcome—nothing is ever certain.  So I looked upon their presence that summer as a freely given gift, not as a reasonable effect of a simple cause.  And somehow, this attitude made our experiences with the sunflowers that much sweeter.  And it made me feel that I would not mind so terribly if they failed to return.

    But they did return.  The next spring my mother put out the dried sunflower heads she had saved from the year before, telling the squirrels (or her staff, as I like to call them) that they could eat some of the seeds, but to be sure to disperse the rest as they saw fit.  She has done the same thing each succeeding year, and, each year, our green and yellow, giant friends return.  And still, though I have, to some degree, gotten used to them, I do not wholly expect them, because I remember those first years when they were so reluctant to call our home their own.  And that feeling of impermanence has allowed me each year to again revel in the surprise of their arrival and the joys of their company.