Category Archives: Nature

Sunflowers, Squirrel-Planted

If I had no other demands on my time, I could spend an hour or so every day weeding the mulched beds in our back yard around the roses and nandina. Removing the countless maple seedlings alone would keep me occupied. A few years ago, I began noticing some small green shoots that I hadn’t seen before. At first I uprooted them. When one escaped my eye and quickly threw forth lush, fuzzy green leaves, I let it grow. Before long, an interesting bud had formed.

Cradled snugly in the center of a group of emphatically veined leaves, it looked like a small, spiky star.

The bud grew larger, a beautiful thing in itself. Covered by bristly, sharply pointed mini-leaves, it resembled a small artichoke.

Soon, the spiky leaves opened to reveal a sphere covered by yellow petals, their ends gently tucked together at the center. And then I realized: this was a sunflower.

Of course. We’ve made our yard into a haven for birds and squirrels, with multiple feeders, water sources and plenty of scattered seed. We often watch as a squirrel takes a single sunflower seed and buries it, using pointy little fingers to pat down the earth, carefully and thoroughly. According to my husband, this behavior is definitive evidence that I’m providing too much seed. Maybe. But maybe the squirrels simply take pleasure in gardening. They’ve planted pumpkins and acorn squash for us in the past, as well as a flourishing pin oak tree.

Over the past several years, the squirrel-planted sunflowers have become more plentiful, and larger. Each day brings new developments. The bright yellow petals unfold in sections, so that the flower calls to mind a child playing peek-a-boo. The stalks grow taller, thicker and stronger, the leaves bigger.

Apparently I had never examined a live sunflower. I worked from photos when I painted a field of sunflowers not long after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in the late winter of 2022. I hadn’t noticed the distinctive spiral design at the flower’s center. How had I managed to live this long and yet miss such intricate floral majesty? The awesomeness of life’s little miracles continues to amaze me. (And, in a related note–that old Spirograph set I enjoyed as a kid–is it still on the basement shelves among the games? )

I wanted to learn more about these botanical beauties gifted to us by generous squirrel farmers. A sunflower, I know now, is a well-organized community of hundreds of smaller flowers, or florets. What I’ve always thought of as petals are, in fact, individual flowers, or ray florets. Their sunny flamboyance serves to attract pollinators to the many tiny disc florets that compose the center. The disc florets begin opening around the outer periphery, so that the inner spiral is surrounded by a shaggy, deep golden fringe. Each of these florets is a perfect, five-lobed tubular bloom, rather like a lily, sized for a fairy. They will, in time, grow into seeds.

It’s rare to find a sunflower not hosting a pollinator, or two. They’re favorites of these elegant swallow-tail butterflies. In the photo above, I see two friends deep in conversation, as the flower bows its head slightly to greet and accommodate the butterfly.

Carpenter and bumble bees are never far away. They often nestle in and immerse themselves in the luxurious pollen offered by the rounds of disc florets.

Sunflowers are heliotropic: they orient their faces toward the sun. The flowers turn subtly from east to west with the motion of the sun across the sky, and back to the east in the evening to await the coming dawn. Greater sun exposure yields better growth. The sun-following motion occurs in younger flowers. Older ones, heavy-laden with incipient seed, remain east-facing in order to attract more pollinators. In the photo above, the three flowers remind me of medieval and Renaissance paintings depicting the Three Ages of Man. There’s an early bloom, the small child, bursting with pent-up potential. There’s a fully developed blossom, the young adult in her golden, cheerful prime. And then there’s the older flower, an expression of seasoned maturity and a life well-lived. Its large brown seed head teems with successfully pollinated disc florets. Its yellow ray florets may be bedraggled, but that just means they’ve served their purpose.

I’m glad the sunflowers caught my attention and gave me pause. Nature’s everyday masterpieces rarely fail to brighten my day. But that’s not all. When I take the time to look, and to listen, they speak to me of something far greater. Of the marvel of ongoing creation, powered by an all-encompassing presence. A benevolent presence, both immanent and transcendent, defying words and pushing the limits of thought. If I’m quiet, I might sense the whisper of the breath of God that inhabits and flows through everything. Through the sunflower, from squirrel-planted seed, to shoot, to stalk, to flower, and back to seed. Through me. And through you.

We humans could do worse than follow the example of the sunflower. If we seek the light, we’ll have life, and have it more abundantly.

Summertime? What’s Missing?

One of the things I like most about living in Northern Virginia is experiencing the change of seasons. I enjoy looking out for the many small signs that herald the end of one season and the beginning of another. This year, as usual, I was paying attention as spring yielded to summer. And certainly, it feels like summer, with the heat and humidity expected during a DC-area July. Most afternoons, a storm threatens, typically with lots of bluster and thundery build-up. Sometimes a pounding, torrential rain follows, or maybe it’s just a few sprinkles. Considerable drama, either way. That’s summer, with moods that are shifting and short-lived, rather like those of a fiery teenager with no homework and time on her hands.

Summer is here, without a doubt. But for me, something is off. I’d like to blame it on my broken thumb. Maybe my sense of timing is out of whack because of the injury? During those two months with a cast, followed by a splint, most tasks required twice as much time to complete; that’s true. But it can’t explain my occasional tendency to suddenly forget what season we’re in. It’s more like I’m waiting for some special signifying cue that tells me: Now this is Summer.

A part of me, I think, is waiting for my own fiery teenager, or elementary schooler, or Kindergartner, or preschooler, to finish her classes for the year and be here, at home, on summer break. It’s similar to the way I felt in mid-December. How could the “Holiday Season” have been upon us without our girl home for the holidays? And how can it really be summer without her here?

I’m not complaining. I’m grateful that our daughter has found a career that she enjoys; it’s why my husband and I encouraged her to work hard throughout her many years of schooling. And we count ourselves fortunate that she lives nearby in Maryland. Right now, she’s on a work trip, in Tacoma, Washington. She flew there immediately after returning from Scotland and England with friends. She’s making her own choices, living her life, and we celebrate that.

My husband and I have not been especially clingy parents. We made a conscious effort not to shelter our daughter, or to keep her to ourselves. Growing up as an only child, my small family warmly welcomed others, and we tried to do the same. We encouraged D to forge strong friendships, yet to be unafraid to claim her independence at times. She was among the few students to attend her college orientation on her own. H and I were skeptical of the University’s entreaty, earnest and emphatic, for parental attendance at orientation. Seemed too much like a marketing ploy. D said later that she felt a bit awkward when she sat beside someone else’s mother on the shuttle bus from the parking lot, but other than that, our absence didn’t bother her. When we dropped her off at UVA that first August, (and yes, we helped move her in) we left teary-eyed. We didn’t expect to see her for quite a while, and that thought made us sad, but we tried to keep it to ourselves. We visited her on grounds only rarely, and we didn’t push her to come home on weekends. I have friends who headed to Charlottesville for most home football games and the accompanying all-day festivities. Not us. H, especially, was concerned about interfering with D’s engineering studies. When his sister, her husband and their little boys drove down from Rochester to spend an Easter weekend with us, we didn’t tell our daughter. She’d already said she had too much work to do, and wouldn’t be home for Easter. We took her at her word. She was upset with us. And then the pandemic prevented our visiting during most of her final two years at UVA (with the exception of her graduation, which we happily attended).

All this may make us sound like cold, unfeeling parents. We are not. If we were, I wouldn’t be walking around in the July heat, wondering when summer will begin.

Our daughter in her Jar-Jar pool, July 2003, in her nightgown.

I’m not bemoaning the loneliness of an empty nest. But neither am I unmindful of and unmoved by our daughter’s absence. Images of summers past, when she was with us, are never far away in my mind’s eye. I have sudden flashes of leisurely breakfasts with her on the screened porch. I see her jumping into the blow-up wading pool first thing on a summer morning, in her nightgown. I see D and her friends dashing through the sprinkler spray in the front yard. I see her happily cuddling our young dog. Those were summer days that felt like summer. I miss them. But I have them with me, too. And always, I will count them among life’s treasures.

D and a good friend at the pool club, August 2007.
D and Kiko, June 2009, on our then-unfinished back porch.

Here Again: This Holiest of Weeks

It’s a chilly but beautiful Palm Sunday today here in Northern Virginia, a perfect day for observing the swirl of activity that surrounds our side yard bird feeders. In the bright sunshine, the male cardinals glow brilliantly red, and the subtle shading in the feathers of their female counterparts is particularly apparent. Their beaks are as orange as ripe clementines. A pair of goldfinches, recent arrivals, adds to the palette. The male wears a patchwork of flamboyant, purest yellow and the drab olive green of his mate. The light accentuates the rusty red cap of a tiny, ground-feeding chipping sparrow. The swoop of scarlet on the head of a robust red-bellied woodpecker gleams with near-iridescence. An aptly named golden-crowned kinglet put in a rare, brief appearance, hanging upside down from the new buds on a Japanese maple. Each small, feathered creature is a masterpiece of aesthetics and engineering. To watch their fleeting comings and goings on this dazzling day is to catch a breath full of spring’s celebratory essence. To be reminded that in our flawed and frightening world, filled with wars, guns and discord, it is still possible to savor a sip of joy. And of hope.

Such a reminder is especially appropriate on this first day of Holy Week. Christians across the globe look forward to the triumph of Easter. But first there is this roller-coaster ride of a week, one that begins on Palm Sunday’s jubilant note and plunges to the painful depths of despair on Good Friday. To jump from the high point of Palm Sunday to that of Easter is to miss the point. To do so is to ignore much of what it means to be human, and to be miss out on the marvelous magnitude of grace that is the Easter promise.

Over the past eleven years of Wild Trumpet Vine, I’ve written numerous times about the days of Holy Week. See here for last year’s Palm Sunday post.

Welcome, Spring!

Once again, spring arrives here in the greater DC area with the coldest weather of the year. We saw some chilly days in January and February, and a few snowflakes here and there, but never enough to turn the ground even mostly white. Winter, as we’ve come to know it, was essentially a no-show. These first days of the official spring season are apparently trying to make up for that. After February’s mildness, the roaring winds of March feel particularly aggressive. But spring’s dependable players–the hearty daffodils, the pear and cherry trees–they know their roles, and they’re here just the same.

Ongoing home improvement projects have preoccupied me recently and kept my thoughts too unfocused for writing. But like spring’s regulars, I’m still here. And still fortunate to be able to appreciate the ever-changing beauty that lies behind my doors.

May the rebirth that surrounds us this new season bring us all assurance, hope and cheer!

An Elegy for Fall in her Prime

We’ve been treated to several weeks of beautiful Fall Bonus Time this year in Northern Virginia. The temperatures have been mild, the sunshine plentiful, and nature’s colors absolutely brilliant. Today’s persistent rain, the remnants of Hurricane Nicole, is gradually, steadily, washing away the season’s brightest jewels. Therefore, I offer a look back on this glorious Autumn as we will remember her, in her dazzling, long-lived prime.

Leaves of burnished copper and gold gleamed in the morning sun in our neighborhood woods,

and in my mother’s front yard. On her porch steps, the summer’s red impatiens rubbed shoulders with later blooming yellow chrysanthemums.

The small sassafrass tree in our front yard put on an exuberant, outsized show.

The season’s glowing colors were often set, to dramatic effect, against a flawless blue sky.

But they were equally spectacular with the addition of a few strategically placed white clouds.

And then there were the exquisite, luminous mornings when an early fog was in a constant state of flux, rising here, settling there. These were days that vividly evoked Keats’ ode To Autumn, that “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.” While the poet’s words hung in the misty air, the painted images of John Constable’s ever-shifting, cloud-filled skies danced in my head.

A bounty of fall berries will be with us, still, for a while. Like the red, bubble-like jewels of honeysuckle,

and the Nandina clusters that mingle with red double knock-out roses along our fence row.

These hearty daisies, always late-blooming, took their good sweet time this year. Although their foliage has been towering high for months, they waited until late October to bloom. They play host to a variety of pollinators, like the insect above, which appears to be a beetle dressed in Halloween attire. It does, indeed, wear a sort of costume, as it’s really a moth, the ailanthus webworm. In flight, a pair of dark gray wings emerges from below the outer ones of orange, white and black. With every closer look, nature’s fantastic eccentricities become more evident.

Carpenter bees often embrace the daisy centers for long minutes at a time, as though in a love-sick stupor.

As leaves fall, dark, bare branches emerge, and the earth gains a carpet of warm bronze, copper and gold.

As I was looking at these photos, I realized that one familiar element is absent: my autumn-colored dog, who left us in July. The view above, along the home stretch on a morning walk, always reminds me of my dear, odd Kiko, a near-constant companion for the past nearly fifteen years. Most days, I don’t actively miss him. I certainly don’t miss him in the weakened, anxious state of his final weeks. But then, in my mind’s eye, I get a flash of my young, spirited dog. I see him bounding up the driveway, or on high alert in the pine straw, watching a squirrel, pointed ears straight up. I’m reminded of his first fall, when he was our brand-new puppy, and my parents had come up from Atlanta to visit. I see my father, his arms around our daughter. She’s holding Kiko. He’s so little. His fur is dark velvety red, his belly still hairless and mottled. Daddy and D look completely, perfectly happy. Kiko looks, well, a little crazy. And he was.

My father and daughter with Kiko. November 1, 2007.

Grief is tenacious and sly. It creeps up and catches us unprepared. But, as I find myself smiling through sudden tears, I understand that it’s mixed with joy. In every image from the past, our loved ones are alive again in the present. In every cherished memory, they’re with us.

On this dreary day, I can still glimpse fall’s flying colors through the rain. Likewise, I can envision our puppy in my daughter’s arms, and I can hear my father’s laughter. Fall is bittersweet, just like memory.

The Lambs of March, Devoured by the Lions

In my last post I wrote of the lions and lambs of March sharing the field of play, taking turns. There’s been none of that good sportsmanship for the past few days. The lions seemed to have slaughtered and devoured the lambs.

The recent frigid weather rightfully belongs to January. Temperatures fall to the teens in the early morning hours and creep up to only just above freezing in the afternoons. Sharp winds gust with what feels like a vindictive malice, making it even colder. If you have to be outside, it’s best to move briskly. I think this, wistfully and often, as I stand, holding the leash attached to my sluggish senior dog. He may pace restlessly in the house, but once out of doors, Kiko tends to remain resolutely immobile, transfixed, his nose firmly planted in the grass, lost in a host of smells. A recent injury has slowed my fourteen and a half-year old dog even further. Our “walks” cover far less distance these days, but they’re more frequent, and we’re outside nearly as long.

The two tall central daffodils seem to be deep in conversation.

Gazing out from sheltered comfort, the landscape often has the appearance of early spring perfection. Daffodils nod their sturdy golden heads amidst green sword-like foliage.

The cherry trees were coaxed toward peak bloom last week by a couple of almost summery days. Their blossoms form luminous clouds of pale pink in the bright sunshine.

But a clear blue sky shifts in an instant to a burnished and ominous steel gray.

Clouds race in, seeming to herald an approaching apocalypse.

Bitter gales and icy rainstorms whip through suddenly and repeatedly, doing their best to drive all delicate petals into the ground. On Saturday, my daughter and I attended a local high school production of Annie. After the show, we watched from the glass-enclosed cafeteria as a light drizzle began falling on a courtyard planted with small, lovely cherry trees. The falling petals looked like snowflakes. As the intensity of the rain increased, we looked out onto a blizzard-like scene. And then, as though for a definitive finale, there was a prolonged and pounding hailstorm.

Just another March lion, strutting his stuff. Take that, you pathetic lambs!

Our world, like this month, has far too many lions.

The Lambs and Lions of March

Spring arrived officially on Sunday. Yet here in Northern Virginia, the gentle lambs and roaring lions of March continue to alternate play, as they have all month long. A day of languid warmth and breezes bearing the sweet essence of the Caribbean is followed by one of bracing chill and icy gales. Dim, mist-shrouded dawns give way in an instant to brilliant sunshine and cloudless skies. A late afternoon that would be unremarkable in June is followed by a morning straight out of January, complete with sudden, swirling snow. But of course, this is March, every bit of it: dramatic, capricious, impulsive, dazzling March.

Recent nights have been clear and beautiful. Around midnight, when I’m typically awakened by Kiko pawing at my bed and looking confused, the late-rising moon is relatively low in the sky, enormous, heavy and golden. Just before dawn, it’s high, cold and distant, casting its final shadows on our lawn. And there is Venus, in her usual morning spot, seen glowing brightly from our front windows. Our daughter, ever the stargazer (she minored in astronomy), texted last night that Orion was emphatically visible from her apartment porch. It’s comforting to know that the same moon and stars are shining on her over there in Maryland.

March marches on. We’ll soon say goodbye to this month of many seasons and lightning-fast about-faces. A few more winter days may well tag along with April. No doubt some flashes of deep summer will be summoned, as well. But with luck, the first full month of spring will bring true spring, in all its pleasant, more even-tempered glory.

Welcome spring. We need you.

Ukraine Sunflowers in the Snow

I’ve been struck by how much the Ukrainian flag resembles a field of golden sunflowers under a brilliant blue sky. Was it so inspired, I wondered? No, apparently not. The blue over gold bands were first used in the flag of the Slavik twelfth-century Kingdom of Galicia-Volhynia, located in what is now portions of Ukraine and Belarus. Sunflowers were a later addition to the landscape.

The sunflower, of course, is the national flower of Ukraine, and the country is one of the world’s leading producers of sunflower oil. Native to North America, the seeds were brought to the old world by early explorers. Ukraine’s general lack of humidity and its dark, rich soil make it an ideal place for sunflowers to flourish. Big fields of the flowers began to be planted there in the late 1700s in response to the Orthodox Church’s prohibition of the use of butter or lard for cooking during the Lenten season. There was no such ban on sunflower oil, and the golden fields became widespread.

Any image of a field of glowing sunflowers now evokes for me a vision of the Ukrainian flag. I felt moved to paint my own version of sunflowers beneath a blue sky. By the time I completed it, a late winter snow had fallen in our area, a product of the “bomb cyclone” that moved up the East Coast over the weekend. It seemed fitting to display the painting in the snow, propped against the ragged remnants of the old maple stump in front of our house. The Ukrainian flag, like a bright field of sunflowers, has become an emblem of hope in the midst of terrible adversity. As I watch the crisis intensify and become more tragically dire day by day, I feel helpless. I hear that line of the Lord’s prayer over and over in my head: Deliver us from evil.

May the sunflower-field flag of Ukraine continue to fly as a beacon of hope, and may the people of Ukraine be delivered from evil.

Ash Wednesday, Again

I wasn’t going to write about Ash Wednesday this year. I thought I’d exhausted the topic, never a crowd-pleaser, in years past. Didn’t I write about it just yesterday? See here for last year’s post. These days it seems like it’s always Ash Wednesday.

The pandemic has put us in a holding pattern of perpetual Lent. Just when we think the deliverance of Easter is about to arrive, it vanishes like a mirage. Perhaps, finally, the light at the end of the covid tunnel may no longer be that of the oncoming train. Could it be that this long, limbo season would at last be brought to a joyful conclusion? It seemed like a real possibility.

And then Putin began his invasion of Ukraine. Our Ukrainian brothers and sisters, anticipating the rebirth of spring, as we all do, are faced with the desecration of war instead. They must confront terrible choices: whether to fight or flee, whether to stay or to pick up hurriedly and go, leaving homes, businesses, farms and beloved animals behind. The enormity of the emerging loss must be confounding and overwhelming.

The path ahead is perilous and forbidding. For the Ukrainians most emphatically, and to a lesser but still substantial degree, for those of us who watch, anxiously, from afar. No easy solution is at hand, no matter how much world-wide support is forthcoming. There will be no feel-good, happily-ever-after ending to this crisis, which will have long-lasting global implications. Lives are being lost, and the losses will multiply as the conflict escalates. It’s hard to imagine any scenario in which Putin might back down.

These are dark days. But Ash Wednesday urges us to look, steadily and without flinching, into the darkness so that we can rediscover the grace of God that searches us out to lead us back into the light. It reminds us that hope remains, even during the darkest days. Even in death. Ash Wednesday tells us not to underestimate the power and persistence of love, light, and life.

Today I saw an interview with a Ukrainian woman sheltering in a communal space in Kyiv with her children, the youngest of whom was an infant, asleep in her arms. She said that the presence of her tiny daughter was a blessing to her and all the others there with her. The baby, she said, was living proof that innocence, that something good, something kind, still exists in the world. Ash Wednesday tells us that evil, despite its bravado and air of military might, is no match for true goodness.

This morning I came upon a patch of bright white snowdrops among the dead brown leaves in a friend’s garden. I hadn’t seen these humble little flowers in years past.

Their sweet, quiet beauty reminded me of the sleeping Ukrainian baby.

Snowdrops, like God’s grace, like God’s love, are persistent. They’ll be blooming before long in the forests of Ukraine.