Friday, August 25, 2017

Friday Ramble - Following the Sun

In summer, sunflower children follow the sun around the sky all day long, but when they grow up, the blooms face east toward the rising sun, and they no longer move in what is, to me anyway, summer's most engaging dance.

It's all a matter of circadian rhythms (or the circadian clock), an internal 24 hour cycle that regulates our gnarly metabolisms and keeps us tune with the natural world according to the hours of light and darkness in our environment. The word circadian comes from the Latin circa (about) plus diem (a day), and most living things have circadian clocks of some kind. Circadian clocks tell us when we should sleep, prompt bears, bats and squirrels to go into hibernation, advise trees to lose their leaves and withdraw into themselves for the winter, let birds and butterflies know it is time to migrate.  The science of circadian rhythms is called chronobiology, and it is lovely stuff indeed.

Young sunflowers follow the sun around the sky during the day and drink its warmth to fuel their journey to maturity. As the heads mature, they are able to take in more morning light, heating up early in the day and releasing a heady fragrance that attracts legions of pollinating insects like butterflies and bees and ensures many future generations of sunflowers.  Mature sunflowers have fulfilled their prime motivation (or dynamic purpose) and attained their highest and most complete expression.  They have done what they were put here on earth to do, and turning is no longer necessary.

Members of the helianthus family are amazing. What seems at first glance to be a single sunflower is actually a whole community of flowers, a collection of more than a thousand tiny florets arranged in a perfect spiraling sequence.  Each floret is inclined toward the next floret by approximately 137.5°, a measurement known in mathematics as the golden angle.  The arrangement creates a breathtaking series of interconnecting spirals in which the number of left oriented spirals and the number of right oriented spirals are successive Fibonacci numbers. It's arty, scientific and just plain beautiful.

A lifelong admirer of spirals, golden angles and Fibonacci sequences whenever and wherever they turn up, I'm always delighted to encounter another one.  Finding a sunflower or two in someone's garden is a happy thing, and discovering a whole field of them along a quiet country road is even better. It boggles my mind to think of such beautiful creatures blooming gloriously without anyone around to appreciate them.

In autumn, faded sunflowers are downright wondrous in their imposing stature, earthy coloration, spikiness and sculptural complexity.  Determined to engender legions of progeny and perpetuate their particular genetic brew, they birth thousands of seeds every autumn, mothering whole dynasties of towering stalks, fuzzy leaves and beaming golden faces that will appear when springtime rolls around next time.  It's something I try to remember in winter, that somewhere, legions of tiny sunflowers sleep and dream under towering heaps of snow.

In "Enriching the Earth", Wendell Berry describes the earth's cycling as "slowly falling into the fund of things", and I am fond of the notion.  Going to seed is a good thing, a fine thing, a natural and necessary thing, and every coin in nature's wild unruly banking is kin, whatever its size, shape or denomination.


Jenny Woolf said...

There is something almost sentient about sunflowers. Uniquely among other plants, in my experience. Perhaps it is because sometimes they are almost the same height as we are. Nice post!

christinalfrutiger said...

What beautiful photos of the quientessential flower of summer! Why don't you plant a few in your garden to enjoy? They're quite easy to grow and so many beautiful varieties now..I quite like the copper colored ones and the ones that don't get 6 feet tall so you don't have to get on a step ladder to enjoy them! :)