The wonders of wildflowers
Essay | Enjoying the mystery behind the beautiful ‘fireworks display on the ground’
by John R. Erickson
Posted 6/15/19, 12:58 pm
“The object of the artistic and spiritual life is to dig for the sunrise of wonder.” —G.K. Chesterton
Here in the Texas Panhandle, 2019 brought an exceptionally wet spring, and by the first of June, we had already received the 21 inches of rainfall that we recognize as our annual average. My wife, Kris, and I predicted that it would be a showcase year for wildflowers on our ranch—and we were right. For weeks, we felt we were watching a fireworks display on the ground.
I don’t have the type of mind that makes a disciplined study of wildflowers. I don’t own reference books and or try to identify the name of every flower that pops up on our place. I know the names of some of them and should know them all but don’t. My appreciation of wildflowers is more aesthetic than taxonomic, and even then it comes in spurts. I’m ashamed to say that much of the time, I’m deaf and blind to the wonders that surround me.
But this spring, it was hard to be deaf and blind, or maybe age has made me more observant. One thing I’ve noticed about wildflowers is that each variety appears in its own time. They don’t come all at once. After the rains in May, the first flowers to appear were, oddly enough, the lovely purple blooms of the poisonous loco weed. Next came a carpet of tiny white flowers, then yellow flowers, then little violet snapdragons, yucca blooms, Indian blankets, royal-blue thistles, black-eyed Susans, sunflowers, and yellow cactus flowers.
By the first of June, they were all in place, but each had come into bloom in its own time—on all parts of the ranch. The same day lazy daisies appeared in the far west pasture, they showed up in the east pasture, 4 miles away, and on a neighbor’s ranch, 20 miles away. The same rule applied to the other varieties, which raised a very interesting point: Wildflowers possess some kind of mechanism for keeping time.
My amateur observation suggests that their time sense detects the season (spring, not winter), the month (May, not March), the week, and maybe even the same day. A systematic study might show that they are coming into bloom in the same minute of the same hour of the same day.
I own devices that keep track of time: mechanical clocks, digital clocks, a smartphone, and a computer. I have a clock on the dashboard of my pickup, and Kris has one on her microwave oven. We can trace their ability to keep time to certain man-made mechanical components: silicon chips, wires, circuits, and windup springs, a clock face or a digital display.
Where might we find the time-keeping mechanism in a wildflower?
I assume that it resides in the seed. Where else could it be? The seed contains every particle of matter and every bit of information required to make the plant that produces the flower. But if we chop up the seed into pieces and examine each fragment under a microscope, we find no wires or gears, nothing that resembles a computer chip or a clock spring.
We have 6,000 acres of wildflowers that appeared without any human labor or planning, and each one of them possesses the sophisticated instrumentation and software that can track the movement of a force Einstein spent his entire life trying to understand (time)—and I can find no trace of it with two eyes and a microscope.
How can these lowly weeds know the season, the month, the day, and perhaps the very second when they’re supposed to appear in their full glory on earth’s stage, with perfect symmetry, glorious colors, and sweet perfume?
I also notice the most obvious feature of wildflowers, that each one is a masterpiece of design and color, and it occurs to me that I’m able to see its symmetry and harmony of color by virtue of mathematical relationships that describe the behavior of light. Those formulas are embedded in the plant’s genetic code—and apparently in mine too.
The flower and I are sharing something that involves the mathematics of light and also biochemistry. The plant is pulling chemicals out of dirt and water and creating something beautiful. My cells are pulling chemicals out of hamburgers and water and responding to the beauty. Neither the plant nor I have been tutored on this. We’ve never discussed it. It happens spontaneously.
The discussion gets more intriguing when we add scale. If we had only one flower in the world, we would regard it as an eye-popping, jaw-dropping, show-stopping miracle. But in an exceptional wildflower season, such as this, our ranch produces millions of wildflowers, or maybe billions—nobody will ever count them—a 9-square-mile galactic explosion of colors, patterns, and delicious smells that goes on for weeks or months.
The sheer magnitude of it shorts out my aesthetic circuits and overwhelms my ability to absorb it. It seems almost careless and haphazard. The wonder of artistic design becomes a cliché and we who observe it respond by mumbling clichés such as, “Boy, the wildflowers are pretty this year.”
I am a writer by trade. Now and then, when I stare at a single flower, I wonder if my best story or song will ever match its simple, unambiguous expression of beauty. Will any novel on the New York Times bestseller list, any Academy Award–winning movie, or any song on the Top 40 chart?
We don’t need an art critic to tell us that a wildflower is beautiful or to explain why. Somehow it is and somehow we know. It’s a mysterious form of communication that transmits a sense of wonder.
“When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers,
The moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained;
What is man, that thou art mindful of him?” —Psalm 8