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10 July 2024

My head has been turned by the sunflower

Though there is something a little unnerving about all those unblinking, yellow cyclopses, peer closely and I can see a beaming smile.

By Simon Armitage

I’m watching the sunflowers. They seem infinite in number, occupying thousands of acres of sand-coloured soil on the rolling hills around Grottazzolina. The plants lay siege to the house of some friends in the Marche region of Italy – I know, I know, but I’m taking a break from looking after the poetic needs of 66.97 million people.

Helianthus annuus, to call the common sunflower by its binomial Latin name, is a heliotrope, implying that as the sun moves across the sky the heads will pivot on their stalks, like satellite dishes, tracking the light source. I’ve also read that during the hours of darkness, they swing around to the east again to await the luminous breakfast of dawn. It’s a somewhat contested theory and I won’t go into the botanical science because I’d be bulls****ing, but on today’s evidence the theory doesn’t stack up. It’s 5pm now and the flowers that were facing me at 10am are still gazing in my direction. To be fair, it’s been pretty cloudy, so maybe they’re just a little disorientated and need the soft reset of night. Or maybe it only applies to the buds before they bloom – understandable but less impressive. Where’s their sense of theatre?

It’s a windless evening and there’s something a little unnerving about all those unblinking, yellow cyclopses, staring with a kind of curious expectancy, too conspicuous to be spies, too innocent to be peeping Toms. The flowers themselves look like children’s drawings of the sun; peer more closely and you might see a face and a beaming smile. Their height as well, putting them at eye-level with most people, encourages the kind of anthropomorphism that is sometimes frowned on by poets who work in language laboratories and play Schoenberg at the faculty disco. It’s only natural to describe the world through the lens of our own experiences; if the sunflower notices me at all I’m perfectly happy that it perceives me as tall plant with unusually flappy leaves, a thick bendy stalk and roots that help it to move around. They keep on looking. The sunflower is the national flower of Ukraine. I think about what those flowers have seen over the past couple of years in those vast tracts of land to the east, all the things those wide-open eyes have witnessed.

A recent political manifesto pledge to reintroduce National Service (no prizes for guessing which party) was clumsy and desperate, even if some imp within me chuckled at the idea of the TikTok and Fortnite generation having to peel potatoes for the armed forces, or polish the moustachioed general’s staff car. But what about some kind of Nature Service, an obligatory period of experience and learning to put the next generation in touch with the Earth? A kind of enforced grounding, if you like. If the environmental crisis facing the planet is as much of an emergency as any war or conflict, why aren’t we recruiting older teenagers and young adults to defend the cause, or training their minds for the battles ahead? It needn’t be arduous. A month in the woods or the hills or at sea, or a summer in the fields, telling the difference between a stag and a wren, tracing foodstuffs back to their source, joining some of the dots.

I’m aware of the dangers of sounding like an old git, huffing and puffing and moaning about these kids today. But it’s not just a generation gap that I’m trying to describe; it’s the schism between the aloof, digital and consumerist world we’ve come to inhabit, and the world itself. A place of endlessly complex interactions and eternal systems, from the processes by which a seed might come to germinate and grow – as miraculous as any resurrection – to the passage of a gigantic nuclear fireball across the sky 365 times a year. Understanding and respect begins with observation.

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The sunflowers still haven’t turned their heads, but in a day when I’ve been thinking and writing about them, they have turned mine.

[See also: The immersive sounds of the Polish wilderness]

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This article appears in the 10 Jul 2024 issue of the New Statesman, All Change