Friday, August 27, 2021

Friday Ramble - Following the Sun

Young sunflowers start their day facing east and turn west as the day warms up, following the sun around the sky until sunset at which time they are facing east again. When mature, the flowerheads are no longer able to pirouette in what is (to me anyway) summer's most engaging dance, and they face east. When I drove by a field of sunflowers a few days ago and found they had turned their backs to the road and were all looking east, I tried not to take it personally, but part of me was wistful and a tad melancholy. The kids were all grown up and ready to leave home.

Adolescents drink the sun's warmth to fuel their journey to adulthood, turning their heads to follow its path across the sky. As they grow, 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.  Mature blooms 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.

It has to do with circadian rhythms (also called the circadian clock), the internal 24 hour cycle that regulates our gnarly metabolisms and keeps us in tune with the natural world, according to the hours of light and darkness in our environment. The word circadian hails from the Latin circa (about) plus diem (a day), and most living things conduct themselves according to Circadian rhythms. Nature's clock tells us when we should sleep, prompts bears, bats and squirrels to go into hibernation, counsels trees to lose their leaves and withdraw into themselves for the winter, advises birds and butterflies that it is time to migrate. It instructs sunflowers to follow the sun, and sunflowers do just that. The science of circadian rhythms is called chronobiology, and it is lovely stuff indeed. 

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 blooms arranged in a perfect spiraling sequence. Each bloom is inclined toward the next bloom 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.

Long an admirer of spirals, golden angles and Fibonacci sequences, I'm always delighted to come across another one in my rambles.  Encountering sunflowers in someone's garden is a happy thing, and discovering a whole field of them along a quiet country road is astonishing. It boggles my mind to think that such splendid creatures are blooming gloriously without anyone around to admire them.

In autumn, faded sunflowers are wondrous in their height, 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 summer rolls around next time. Sunflower seeds provide food for wild creatures as summer food supplies dwindle, and many a starving songbird has been saved by the nourishing oil sunflower seeds in winter feeders.

In the depths of winter, it is comforting to remember that legions of tiny, unborn sunflowers are asleep 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.


Pienosole said...


Barbara Rogers said...

Most definitely!

Dee said...

Thank you! I love the changing of the seasons, but the beautiful dance from summer to fall is the most enchanting of all.