Sunflowers-Their Gift

Black-capped Chickadee, Poecile atricapillus

The Chickadees are back.  They come back every Autumn when our hedgerow of sunflowers begin to go to seed.  Their sweet, lilting “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” is heard just beyond our kitchen windows and we all stop mid-whatever to catch a glimpse of their stealth seed-gathering as Chickadees seldom remain anywhere long.

I have thought it actually quite smart, being the mother that I am, to arrange the kitchen table in such a way that the children face the windows in the morning while eating their breakfast.  What would normally be somewhat of a hectic pre-school-send-off dining affair turns into quiet contemplation as they witness these tiny birds swoop and swoon for their food.  While I watch this particular bunch munch on their meal, I too am stopped.  I am staggered.  I am held by a lesson from which I continue to learn every Autumn when the sunflower seeds I diligently plant in the early summer–so to enjoy the heady vibrancy of their yellow faces while picking from the veggie patch at their feet–continue to feed in beauty not only my soul, but the neighborhood collective of Chickadees.

And the lesson is simply this: GIVING. Relentless, unconditional, No-matter-what, giving. And it comes by way of the sunflowers.  And it really is quite simple.  I plant these little seeds (and I always plant way more than I need at weekly intervals as the early summer bird-types love these seeds) for their beauty: for their yellow-splash of sunshine in my Northwest-green yard, and because they are now my children’s mutual annual favorite.  And they never fail me.  Their thick, fibrous stalks always shock me; how can this strength come from such smallness?  And, of course-as it always is with the natural world-there is a whole other homily! And then there is the budding heads; these tightly wrapped packages of summer-essence, waiting to open and sway over the tended gardens below.  I just love it!  Every time, which in the summer is all the time, I walk beside my sun flowers I slow my pace, I gaze, I wonder, I receive the gift that their simple existence provides.

But their giving doesn’t stop there.  Once our shadows begin to lengthen towards the north and the sun just doesn’t quite crest the southern hill behind our home, these lusty heads of summer begin to transform to a smorgasbord of seed.  They become somewhat bedraggled looking and I have had more than one visitor ask when I will cut them down to “clean up my garden for the Autumn.”  Their lost lustre (petal-less, drooping and dismal) is but a facade for this is the season of their true crowning glory; this is when they give!

While I know many who harvest their sunflowers at these signs, I choose to let them continue their stand.  These silent sentinels quietly call out to the local Chickadees (its always the Chickadees; and we have birds of prey and many other woodland birds in our neighborhood) that their seasonal feast has been prepared.  And they get plucked!  Oh, my!  How they are plucked, prodded and put away!  And yet they stand there…in our darkening days, dampened by our autumnal rains, offering their essence, giving back to the great community of life to which we all belong.

———

And while my children clank their spoons against their cereal bowls and begin the mad-dash towards shoes, packed lunches and back packs, I stand–back against counter, facing these truth-telling windows–plumbed with the question of how am I giving of myself? I mean, truly, really, in-the-most-authentic-ways offering who I am to the world? I am myself a seed…and one with particular characteristics and genetical properties, a product the result of my mother (and father) “plant”.  I have an intended purpose for which I was created, right?  *long, sip of hazelnut-flavored coffee*  I am created to be more than just a burst of seasonal summer color.  I am called to be more than just the beautiful backdrop to the hard and glorious efforts of the produce growing at my feet.  My seed, my quintessence, is to continue to feed other populations by virtue of my life and my energy.

Those who hang out with me long enough know that this is the dropping-in point to highly passionate talks around gift-sets and vocational callings.  And *sip-of-coffee* truly, this is the heart of the matter: we were given life so that our lives might enable LIFE for others.  We are called and challenged to live our lives on behalf of something other and greater than ourselves.  There are populations that need us to make ourselves available to them, whether through advocacy, voting-lines, or straight-up presence.  Our beauty and external prowesses will fade, most certainly.  And ironically enough, it is in the quiet, brown, dry, almost wilted, seasons of life when our offering is at its best.

—————

Following is great advice for what to do with your sunflowers if you don’t intend to leave them for the birds!

Drying Sunflowers – On the Stem

You can easily let nature take its course when it comes to drying sunflowers, and allow the drying process to occur naturally on the stem. If you are drying sunflowers this way you should keep an eye out for when the backside of the sunflower’s head turns yellow and the petals have fallen off. Once this has happened you need to act fast if you do not wish to lose all of your sunflower seeds to the ground! Use a brown paper bag to cover the head and this will also protect it from birds, squirrels and other critters that are interested in the sunflower seeds too. The paper bag helps the sunflower head still “breathe” and prevents moisture from accumulating in the bag and turning the seeds moldy. (If it rains, you may need to replace the bag with another in case the bag gets soggy or tears.) Dry your sunflowers like this until their heads turn brown on the backside – then it is time for harvesting. Simply collect the head by cutting the sunflower off one foot down on the stem, making sure you don’t lose the paper bag off the top in the process!

Drying Sunflowers – Early Harvesting

If you do not want to struggle against birds, squirrels and other critters competing to get a taste of your sunflower seeds before you do, there is another way to dry your sunflowers. When you see the signs of the yellowing of the backside of the sunflower head you simply harvest them right at that point. Cut the heads down leaving about one foot of stem below the head. You can then dry your sunflowers where ever you want to, as long as it is warm and dry with good ventilation to prevent molding. A small shed might be perfect, or even in your house. You may still want to cover the seed heads with paper bags, especially if drying in an outdoor shed! But primarily, as long the sunflowers are kept warm, dry and sheltered, you’ll be able to successfully harvest the seeds. Simply run your hand over the sunflower head and the seeds will pop right out.

(from the online resource, Sunflower Guide)

Sacrificial Giving

This week commences the annual festivities of Thanksgiving among those of us in the North Western Hemisphere.  Amidst the generous portions of food and family, is the explicit attunement to an “attitude of gratitude.” This is the season where, along with Christmas music already being played on the airwaves, a distinct line is drawn in the sand and we say with fervor, “Indeed, I am thankful!”  And the reflections begin, do they not?  In our own times of prayerful meditation, with our children and even with our friends and partners, in due diligence, we ask one another for what are we thankful?  We emphasize the many blessings and gifts we have been given and for which we are grateful.  And this is all well and good—certainly, this inclination should be a daily practice—but I can’t help but consider the giving that has to occur for me to be thankful in response.

It is a simple discipline to look around that which constitutes our lives—at the food on our plates, the warm walls that shelter our sleep—and acknowledge that someone built our house (I am grateful), a farmer grew my food (I am thankful), etc.  Very soon after we begin this recognition of receipt, our awareness shifts and grows to include even more gifts and blessings that come from the various relationships in our lives.  Further reflection allows even this broadening circle of thanksgiving to expand to include the natural world; we contemplate the air we breath is a gift of the trees and the water we drink is provided by rainfall and glacial streams. We arrive here on this magnificent gift of a planet and everything is given to us.  The ground we stand on, the sustenance in our bellies, the clothes on our back—these are all gifts that are the result of sacrifices on the part of our greater home, the Universe. Mathematical cosmologist, Brian Swimme, talks about that from out of the numinous spark that began all of life—the fireball, stars, extinct species, Sun, Earth, animals, plants, and other humans—have been given the gifts that were needed and are needed for our lives.

We see that everything around us, and most notably above us, is giving of itself so that we may live our lives.  Let us look at our sun.  There is an incredible, mind-blowing process that is occurring every second of our lives: the unfolding of light.  Without getting into the details of this scientific transference, it is enough to say that every second our sun is transforming 4 million tons of itself into light.  That ongoing transformation of itself is irreversible; there is nothing that we can do to give back the light; no advancements in solar energy will ever allow us to return any of this gifted energy to the sun.  The light has been given to us; it beams to our earth and is dispersed in all directions. Everything that’s happened in the life of this planet is directly dependent upon the sun’s light. Every second it is given to us is for the sustenance of our lives and the lives of the billions of species on this planet.  If this ongoing gift of light ceased, life as we know it would stop as well.  Our earth’s temperature would plummet to 400 degrees below zero; our biosphere would die.   This generous, sacrificial giving doesn’t require anything of us in return.  Should we be thankful?  I think so.

The early Celtic Christians nurtured a unique relationship with Creation as they had a deep understanding that nature was revelatory.  They were alert and discerning of theophanies or showings of God in the world, and cosmos, around them.  The sun, moon and stars—these ‘celestial luminaries’ (Eriugena, Periphyseon 711A)—shone out of the darkness and expressed something of the inexpressible nature of God. What is it that they are saying?  What is the sun revealing about the Creator with its on-going process of light-giving?

All of human activity is generated by the generosity of the sun.  Our very lives directly depend upon this ongoing gift of the sun; this is a real sacrificial, ongoing event.  The sun is giving of itself so that we might have life.  It is both giving us the way with its energy, and showing us the way with its light. This is a universal truth that has presented itself the world over, in all cultures, by way of deep archetypes and is manifested by the Christ.  All has been given—Life itself is being given—on our account.  And what is asked of us in return?  I wonder if we are asked for more than just a seasonal attitude of gratitude.  I wonder if with this universal model of unconditional giving, we too are being asked to give sacrificially, to participate in this great exchange of reciprocal giving; that we too are being invited to be the life-giving light to others?