Earlier this year, I’d been thinking about how my sunflowers made me feel. I wrote about it and entered it into the Green Alphabet Writing Prize (a competition organised by the Flipside Festival, in conjunction with Friends of the Earth), and I found out I’d been longlisted! The idea was to take a letter of the alphabet, and write a poem or short piece of prose on an environmental theme. I chose ‘E’ for ‘Encounter’. Here it is:
My balcony is my tiny world; from here I enjoy the sun, and immerse in a book, and drink a cold beer and pretend that’s life. But today the sun hides. A cool breeze sees its chance, and mischievously blows my skin, urging me out of my book and asking me to look up. I see the Oak tree on the horizon, an unchanging presence. Swallows play above, returning without fanfare from their transcontinental journey. A ripple of yellow catches the corner of my eye, like the shooting star I saw over Dartmoor. My eye follows.
I planted dwarf sunflower seeds a while ago, and each time I return from my travels they are bigger. They are unfurling their yellow, albeit cautiously, seeing the dead daffodils that droop by their side. They seem to look up at me, willing me to notice.
“You’re doing great!” I encourage them. They nod in appreciation, and bloom.
I feel a wave of guilt. One of them looked sickly from the start and didn’t survive my last trip away. I say sorry to it.
One sunflower notices my grief, and turns to look at me in the breeze. “No need for sorrow” I hear it say. “We grew for a long time before you put us into pots.”
The sunflowers speak as one, a quiet confidence radiating through their unfolding. They whisper reassuringly, “you’re doing great”, and urge me to keep planting, playing, experimenting. They smile patiently at the products we horde in an attempt to tame nature and turn it into an extension of our four walls and routines, but they tell me I don’t need any of it. We must care, but not by fussing, classifying and deadheading. We care by noticing, listening, engaging — with forests and oceans, with tiny and vast wild things, with each other.
“A bee visited us when you were out”, a sunflower whispers. “He liked the lavender”.
Their childlike yellow presence counters the bleakness of concrete, and of my occasional hopelessness. “Your preening can’t make nature more perfect than it is” they remind me: "You’re a caretaker, not a creator. We’re connected: you to the bee, bee to the tree, and on it goes. Look out for it: that’s where the work is, that’s where the hope is."
So I put down my book and go and collect seaside pebbles, and old driftwood, and I show them I care about them, too. I listen to where they come from, how they were formed, how the ocean they once knew is changing. I put them next to the flowers, and I throw imperfect soil around, filling broken pots and experimenting with what else might grow. I follow my instinct like swallows follow invisible navigation lines, feeling as much a part of nature as the flowers, the Oak tree, the shooting star.
The sunflowers smile on, keeping me watered with deep and quiet truths that I can’t find in a book.