Friday, August 02, 2019

Friday Ramble - Following the Sun

In summer, young sunflowers follow the sun around the sky all day long. When they grow up, the blooms face the rising sun, and they no longer move in what is, to me anyway, summer's most engaging dance. When I drove by a field of sunflowers a few days ago and found they had turned their backs and were all facing east, I tried not to take it personally, but part of me was wistful.  The kids were all grown up and ready to leave home.

It's all a matter of circadian rhythms (or the circadian clock), the 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 protocols 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.

Fledgling sunflowers drink the sun's warmth to fuel their journey to maturity and turn their heads to follow it. As they mature, they take in more light, heating up early in the day and releasing a heady fragrance that attracts legions of pollinating insects like butterflies and bees and ensures future generations of sunflowers.  Grownups have fulfilled their prime motivation (dynamic purpose) and attained their highest and most complete expression. They have done what they were put here on earth to do, and they no longer need to follow the sun.

Members of the helianthus family are amazing. What seems at first glance to be a single sunflower is actually a whole community of flowers, 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 an elegant 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, stunning in fact.

A lifelong admirer of spirals, golden angles and Fibonacci sequences whenever and wherever they turn up, I'm always delighted to come across another one in my rambles.  Finding a few sunflowers in someone's garden is always a happy thing, and discovering a whole field along a quiet country road is dazzling. It boggles my mind to think that such glorious creatures are blooming without anyone around to admire them.

In autumn, faded sunflowers are 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. In the depths of winter I try to remember that somewhere, legions of tiny, unborn sunflowers are sleeping and dreaming under Himalayan 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. Every coin in nature's wild unruly banking is kin, whatever its size, shape or denomination.

2 comments:

Barbara R. said...

Yes, I agree wholey and completely! Love nature's gifts to us (we who are also an amazing part of her miracles!)

M. E. Martinsen said...

Wow! This was a beautiful essay. I will add "dynamic purpose" to my thoughts of the biological imperative. Thank you.