A Good Woman is Hard to Find

This is a volunteer. I plant thousands of black oil sunflower seeds each week. Apparently one had a mind of its own, dropped through the cracks, and cast its future into the slipstream of fate. Washed downstream by some deluge, it took root right here, mere inches from the edge of all things.

I spotted it early on, and gave it a wide berth with the lawn mower. Eager to see it reach maturity, I added water as needed, just as I do with its siblings (purchased together in a 100-pound batch of premium organic stock last winter) who only survive eight or nine days prior to being chopped down for consumption.

Striding by it many times a day, as many as a hundred on a harvest day while running back and forth from grow space to walk-in cooler, I found encouragement in its perseverance and grit.

(Newly hatched siblings, three days after sowing. They’ll be ready to harvest four or five days after being placed in the light. Heat is everything with sunflowers. Growth, fast and furious in summer, becomes more subdued as the temps drop.)

Watching this single flower unfurl was like watching a miracle reveal itself in real time.

It became a source of joy and gave me a sense of rootedness after returning from Montana, which proved to be a difficult transition. I had transplanted myself in that other place, soaking up its richness, and thrived. Home, as described a couple weeks ago, felt alien. I was dislodged, lacking context for any sense of place, essential for wellbeing.

The flower faces directly east, just like the thousands of North Dakota sunflowers we drove beside on our journey home. A striking sight, each had their backs to the setting sun, just as we did, on our rapid careen homeward back East. Without a single observable straggler, it was as if a great congregation was cheering us on in our improbable quest to make the long haul in a single go. To arrive home and find this friend fixed in the same position was a true delight. The trait is hardwired into their genetic code, something only recently discerned by researchers, as apparently morning sun provides early warmth that attracts more bees (critical for reproductive success).

And so, I observed the flower’s changes on a daily (sometimes hourly) basis, making careful note. In many ways, agriculture is merely the act of paying attention.

Excess pollen rained down on the giant leaf.

I took the following picture from our patio, where stones were placed atop land that formerly grew salad mix for the farmer’s market. Time moves ever onward.

The large head, which now gives Big Head Ed’s melon a run for its money, is bowed in prayer while nearing the end of its stationary journey and purpose.

The number of critters I watched crawling inside, atop, and around, were innumerable.

Occasionally I’ll grasp a locust by the wings and toss it to the chickens, but my friend Jiminy here is alighted atop a sanctuary city of sorts, allowing safe passage and nourishment. Could he see the large flower towering overhead, or did the creature land there by chance?

Each petal, or floret, is now proceeding to transform into individual seeds. How this can transpire over the course of a couple weeks is a mystery. Did you know a single sunflower can produce up to 2,000 seeds?

I was at my Dad’s place this past weekend, and he must have a dozen sunflowers of the mammoth variety, each of which reaches sunward to a height of ten feet of more. And you know what? I prefer my single flower to such a showy array. Being directly at eye level allows me to appreciate and study the nuances without the aid of a stepladder.

Having a single specimen like this makes it more precious. Too much of anything, be it possessions, money, or acreage, has a way of breeding complacency or a taking-for-granted.

As I’ve noted on numerous occasions, my lovely wife is the reason we’ve stayed put in the city. I surely would have uprooted us years ago for something more impressive and vast. Somewhat given to flights of fancy, perhaps owing to bursts of testosterone, she keeps me rooted. For this, I am grateful. If I had my way I almost certainly would have heaped on a great deal of unnecessary stress to our lives, and maybe even ultimate failure. The old pejorative, “Ball and chain,” doesn’t apply to our situation. I think of her as a sort of anchor, keeping us from being tossed to and fro by the waves of whimsy and passion.

And this side of me will probably never fully dissipate. The day after we returned home, in fact, I found myself googling, “Bozeman microgreens.” I know the grass ain’t any greener, and yet…

This lifestyle and collective vocation of ours is a compromise if there ever was one, which makes us stronger and more content in the long run. Tiny Farm Duluth, as humble as it is, keeps me in proximity to the agriculture I romanticize, so I’ll remain thankful for this single sunflower, and not sit in envy of the holder of acreage who tends them by the thousand, and must obsess over commodity prices with baited breath, and a feeling that their whole world hinges on geopolitical forces outside any one person’s (or nation’s) control.

I tasted a bit of that life, while finding my way as a farmer. Summer’s conclusion brought with it an all-consuming exhaustion that just begs for that final killing frost. I’m thankful to no longer feel this tiredness cutting straight through the bones. Not only were we blessed by a vacation at summer’s zenith, I’m afforded time to work on my next book nearly every day of the week. I’m certain this side of me would wither on the vine if I were to bite off more than I could chew in terms of land to tend. So, constraints are a good thing, as are wives.

A single week away impacts three weeks of production, which is nuts! Thankfully, all my favorite restaurants and stores are all stocked up and back to normal.

Postscript: The title for this piece is an allusion to a Flannery O’Connor short story by a similar name, but insert, “Man,” instead. I detest the story. Everybody dies, and I don’t see any redemptive qualities. Does anybody out there? Do tell.


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