I cannot choose a favourite plant, a favourite flower, but I do know that I enjoy ruminating on sunflowers at the end of their lives. Big, desiccated, drooping under their own weight. One year, when I still lived with my parents, I planted a giant variety of sunflower in front of the house, right by the big bay window that faced onto the street. By August the flowers were a mess. They couldn’t stay upright. My father tried to fix them; he looped string under their heavy heads, and tied the string to the eaves of the house. Well, they stayed upright, all of them looking rather like they had hanged themselves. Suicidal sunflowers. I was delighted.
I don’t grow great sunflowers now; apartment-living and balcony-gardening are not conducive to flowers as tall, or taller, than I myself am. This year I am growing bushy tomatoes, green beans, spinach, sweet peas, chives, basil, columbine, zinnias, bachelor’s buttons. Those latter two will grow fairly tall, up to about my stomach. I hope they will remain upright in their narrow pots.
In the morning I drag myself out of bed. (I have never felt refreshed after sleep, nor have I ever met another well-rested human being. I think Not Being Tired is a myth. Except, perhaps, when it comes to my father, who seems to have no problem with mornings. But he assists sunflowers in suicide, so there is something odd about him anyway. He’s not right.) In the morning I drag myself out of bed and I make coffee, and while the machine gurgles and splutters I stumble out to my living room, to where my plants sit in their pots, and I drop to my hands and my knees and I breathe my fetid morning breath on my seedlings. They don’t mind. They like the carbon dioxide.
I check to see who has unearthed themselves this morning. The bachelor’s buttons are very eager, already a few inches tall. The zinnias follow close behind. The tomatoes grumpily are just beginning to emerge. The very first green bean plant is just coming into being, the fattest of the seedlings. When I see it I want to put it in my mouth, followed by handfuls and handfuls of dirt. Ditch my organs, ditch my brain, I want to be just a bag of skin plump with earth. Let’s see what germinates.
What’s the point in thinking of flowers without thinking of corpses. It’s all a vegetation myth, the oldest myth we know. I remember when I first understood that T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland was one big vegetation myth, and at last the poem made sense (mostly, as much as that poem can make sense to anyone). April is the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land . . . Death and resurrection. Sunflowers committing suicide; next spring they’re sprouting again. Or you’re swallowing their seeds over the cold winter. But that is also a new life of sorts. When they unearthed The Tollund Man from the peat bogs of Denmark there were seeds in his stomach. His last gruel of winter seeds / Caked in his stomach . . .
Last summer, in the height of the August heat, I bought a sunflower, a small one, from the supermarket. I pedalled home with it jiggling and shaking in my bicycle basket. We, the sunflower and I, sped past the Rideau River, weaving around the never-ending Ottawa construction. I was just getting used to this city. I was thinking a lot about my parents’ garden hundreds of kilometers away.
When I got back to my apartment, I put my new charge out on the balcony where it would get some good light. Within ten minutes there was a crash; the wind had blown over the pot, and it was rolling towards the balcony’s edge, as if it hoped it could get under the railing and plummet seven storeys down to the asphalt below. Always looking to die, those sunflowers.
What’s the point in thinking of flowers without thinking of corpses.