Saturday, September 05, 2009

`The Sunflower or the Sun'

A mid-afternoon of happy convergences:

After escorting students to the laundry room at the bottom of the hill we toured the garden I helped to plant in June. The plots are fenced with marigolds and densely planted rows of sunflowers. The former are acridly fragrant and heavy with flowers; the latter, tall, woody and bent with blossoms, some the size of dinner plates. My gardening partner, the Ukrainian violinist, has covered the largest sunflowers with pillowcases to protect the seeds against birds. In his final collection, The Darkness and the Light (2001), Anthony Hecht includes a poem celebrating Bach, “An Orphic Calling”:

“And from deep turbulent rapids, roiled and spun,
They rise in watery cycles to those proud
And purifying heights where they’d begun
On Jungfrau cliffs of edelweiss and cloud,

“Piled cumuli, that fons et origo
("Too lofty and original to rage")
Of the mind's limpid unimpeded flow
Where freedom and necessity converge....

“An Orphic calling it is, one that invites
Responsories, a summons to lute-led
Nature, as morning's cinnabar east ignites
And the instinctive sunflower turns its head.”

Bach is German for stream or brook. As buds, sunflowers are heliotropic – they follow the angle of the sun. The school garden has the overripe lushness that signals harvest, the imminence of fall and the annual return of death and dormancy. Even the dandelions are abundant, unpicked over the summer and rivaling the sunflowers in color if not size.

We walked through a gate into the school’s apple orchard. The trunks and branches of the undersized tree are upholstered with lichens and moss. The apples are small and gnarled, and wasps feast on the fallen fruit. We sat at a picnic table in the shade and smelled rotting apples. Overhead, 10 airplanes flew in formation – two groups of four, each arranged in a rhombus and followed by a lone aircraft. That’s when we noticed the rainbow circling the sun – a sundog, when sunlight passes through cirrus clouds. G.K. Chesterton wrote in the final chapter of his Autobiography:

“…I asked through what incarnations or pre-natal purgatories I must have passed to gain the reward of looking at a dandelion…What I said about the dandelion is exactly what I would say about the sunflower or the sun, or the glory which (as the poet said) is brighter than the sun. The only way to enjoy a weed is to feel unworthy even of a weed….”

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