Out in Fairlee, my friend Smokey annually exchanges a wide swath of his corn crop for a patch of helianthus—sunflowers. It’s a calculated economic exchange: there assuredly will be some loss of income from the value of the corn crop, but hopefully, that will be more than offset by the income derived by hunters. Wait: hunters like sunflowers? Yes, they do; at least indirectly. You see, sunflowers produce seeds which are prized by doves and hunters like to shoot doves so they (the hunters, not the doves) pay Smokey a fee to hunt that portion of his farm and everyone is happy. Well, not everyone: I guess the doves aren’t happy, but then that’s life: not everyone can be happy all the time. To know happiness is to know sadness…
But hunting season doesn’t begin until September so on this particular unseasonably cool morning in June, the sunflower field is quiet, seemingly asleep under a soft quilt of silver mist. The tall, gangly flowers are dozing, their heads drooping in the pre-dawn stillness. But as light begins to gather in the east, one senses an awakening: like congregants coming out of prayer, the sunflowers begin to stretch their necks and lift their heads, searching out the source of their being, that orb that animates their existence, same as us.
I said it was quiet, but that’s not really true. The stalks are gently rustling in a faint breeze which produces (in my mind at least) a soundtrack to this early morning scene: it’s the first few bars of Richard Strauss’ “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” the tone poem inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s novel of the same name. (You and I know it better as the haunting opening sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece film “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The film premiered in 1968 and to this day, the opening scene and accompanying score still give me goosebumps.) Fortunately, out among the sunflowers, my mind mercifully changes its tune and now I’m hearing “Here Comes the Sun,” the Beatles much brighter ditty from Abbey Road which makes me feel that everything will indeed be all right. Whew!
By now, the sun is almost over the tops of the trees on the eastern border of the field. It’s early in the growing season, so the sunflowers in Smokey’s patch still tilt their yellow heads in the sun’s direction. This sun-tracking phenomenon—heliotropism for the botanists among us—lasts for two-to-three months or until the flowers reach their mature height of six-to-ten feet at which point they have decided that east is their direction of preference—no surprise there.
It just so happens that in addition to botanists, mathematicians love sunflowers because the florets, the tiny flowers that make up the disc of the large sunflower, are arranged in a natural spiral that forms a Fibonacci sequence, a sequence of numbers (beginning with zero) in which each number—or in this case, each tiny floret—is the sum of the two numbers (florets) preceding it. This natural phenomenon can even lead a real mathematician to the ecstasy of the golden ratio, but that is way beyond my ken so I’ll just leave it at that. (You can Google www.mathisfun.com if you’re really interested.)
As my friend Key so often asks me, “Is this going somewhere?” Yes; well, sort of. This week, I’ll be going over to the Western Shore to work with a group of rising high school seniors who are all facing in a similar direction—a direction called “College.” We’re specifically working on composing the dreaded college essay—now more euphemistically called the “personal statement”—a composition intended to distinguish the personal qualities and interests of one highly qualified applicant from another. It’s a tricky business because these college applicants, like sunflowers, are at once inherently beautiful and intricately complex.
College admissions? Again? Oh dear! I think I hear the opening strains of “Thus Spake Zarathustra.”
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015. A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” was released in June 2018. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com