The question is not what you look at, but what you see. — Henry David Thoreau
It is August, 2006. Dianne and I are taking our two middle-school-age children to summer camp. Dianne is making good time in her green sedan, deftly navigating a series of uncrowded eastern North Dakota highways. We haven’t known each other long, a few weeks at most, so this Sunday afternoon drive provides plenty of opportunity to move beyond the surface-level chatter that so often marks the early encounters of a developing friendship.
Despite the flow of easy conversation, I am distracted by the fields of ripening sunflowers that we pass along the way. Myriad bright yellow flowers dance with the breeze, exuding happiness, signaling summer, and signifying joy to me. The sight of row upon row of these butter-yellow beauties turning their heavy heads upward toward the sun captivates my imagination. I can’t take my eyes off of them.
To Dianne the sunflowers symbolize something entirely different–the reality that winter will soon return to the prairie with icy blast and frosty roar. I have not yet experienced a North Dakota winter, so Dianne’s association with these lovely golden flowers is a foreign one to me. Winter seems far away; August means humid, sweltering dog days and languorous summer nights to this Southern girl. A daughter of the prairie, Dianne also sees sunflowers in economic terms, as a crop to be monitored and assessed rather than the subject of a tourist’s photo shoot. Yes, of course she appreciates the sunflower’s beauty, but she “sees” something different, something beyond my field of vision on this bucolic August afternoon.
It is January, 2013, and I am sitting in my home office in Pennsylvania. I have just returned from North Dakota. It was not a pleasure trip, although it is always good to visit friends, breathe the prairie air, and revel in the vastness of the land and sky. This time I went to help lay to rest my dear friend Paula, to assist in honoring her life’s work and faith witness, and to mourn with friends and family her sudden and too-early passing. It is winter. It is cold. There are no sunflowers to cheer the spirit. Only snow and sadness cover the stalk-stubbled prairie fields.
I now “see” too keenly what Dianne sees in the sunflowers. The glorious brightness of the blossom is not the ultimate end. Winter comes with its darkness and desolation. Snow casts a funereal pall across the quiet earth. And winter comes also to our lives, as loss and loneliness cover the naked soil of the soul.
Yet winter will yield to spring, and a fresh crop of sunflowers will push their hardy shoots through the fragrant, freshly-turned prairie soil. Yes, the sunflowers will return again–hopeful, bright, trusting. And riotously joyous, always joyous. As the psalmist reminds us, “weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” (Psalm 30:5).
I’m told that North Dakota farmers are planting fewer and fewer fields of sunflowers. Nationwide; the USDA forecasts a drop of about eighteen percent in sunflower acres planted. It’s a crop that must be shared with birds, and there haven’t been as many price insurance options in recent years. Other crops promise better yield and more favorable return, so naturally there may be fewer fields of flowers. Farming, like life, is rife with risk. The only truly certain thing is the present moment, and each moment is a seed of hope ready to be sown.
I will again plant sunflowers this spring in Pennsylvania. In fact, I will plant more than last year’s few token plants. I want to see an abundance of those sturdy stalks balancing massive flowering heads, heavy with seed and promise. Planting and tending them is an act both of defiant joy and of fond remembrance: defiant joy from “seeing” them not as a harbinger of winter and desolation but rather of creation’s beauty and God’s abundance, and also as a fond remembrance of my Dakota days and some very dear friends.
What do you “see” when you gaze upon a field of sunflowers? What might you need to “see” differently?