Can’t Eat Just One

1,065 total words    

4 minutes of reading

Photo Credit: Joanna Brichetto, "Jerusalem artichoke and sky"

A surprise island of sunflowers is blooming in our little city yard, under and between two feeder poles. The surprise is that winter squirrels, chipmunks, and white-throated sparrows let so many seeds go uneaten in the grass. I wouldn’t have thought this much waste possible, but the evidence is plain. And gorgeous.

I get to watch the show from a lawn chair. The flowers are a living stage for creatures:

bees, flies are there to eat pollen and/or nectar;
crab spiders, assassin bugs to eat insects who eat pollen and/or nectar;
lacewing and ladybug larvae to eat anyone small enough to get eaten;
beetles to eat leaves;
aphids, spittlebugs galore to suck sap.

Seeds will be next on the menu. They are starting to form at the outside rim of the oldest flowers, and the seedlets are so new they still wear little beanies of remnant flower parts. But someone has already nibbled the developing fruit—too soon—and the decapitated seedlets reveal innards of whippy fat. Like library paste, if you remember library paste. Or Crisco, if you don’t. And if you don’t remember Crisco, how about unrefined coconut oil at room temp?

Last week, I took a photo at the literal height of bloom, before stalks started to topple. What looked like heaven, now rather looks like hell. Stems short and tall are felling themselves from heads too heavy to hold. Meanwhile, bindweed pulls other stems bit by bit toward horizontal. Rescue efforts don’t work: stalks snap in half when I unwrap the vine’s anticlockwise coil. But bindweed also means there is at least one flower face that leans directly into mine.

I stare at a sunflower’s eye—the disc—trying to make sense of the math and the miracle. It is a mini-frisbee of green Fibonacci spirals, with living arcs, whorls, patterns. Each bump will burst into a teensy, five-pointed star, but in sequence: outer spirals first, curving toward the still-tight center. And each begins as male—with mini anthers of pollen—and then morphs to female, with mini stigmas ready for (someone else’s) pollen. If all goes well, each disc floret will ripen into a seed. Which means last winter’s leftovers will help feed this winter’s squirrels, chipmunks, and white-throated sparrows. Right? This is how it is supposed to work.

But my mystery nibbler does not wait for winter. More seedlets are decapitated, ruined, every day. This is not squirrel work. Squirrels tend to drag a flower to the ground, bite the head clean off, carry the head to the top of the fence; grasp the disc in both hands like a steering wheel; fix me with one saucy eye; and bite, bite, rotate, bite, rotate. More chunks fall out of their mouths than stay in.

One morning at the kitchen window, as I fill the kettle for tea, I see the someone. A female goldfinch. Her breeding plumage is greeny yellow: a camouflage midway between the sunflowers’ school-bus rays and the green bracts beneath them. She selects only the sunflowers with withered rays, and with faces angled slightly down, as if the flower’s chin is tucked toward its neck. She stands on the forehead of this tilted rim and tucks her own head to bite and twist new seeds from their pockets. The color match is so close—bird and sunflower—if I look away I cannot see her again without a search.

Photo credit: belen bilgic schneider, "Self-Serve Sunflower Seeds" (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

And I do search, because I need to watch this beautiful creature “ruin” the seeds I thought I was saving.

This is how it is supposed to work.

Of the cast of thousands who are busy eating, drinking, and otherwise working our unexpected harvest, she is the star and I am star-struck. I’m her biggest fan. I mean, I still want to watch the warm-up acts. All are limited-time engagements. I still want to watch crab spiders hunt, and hoverflies hover, and beetles beetle. I want to watch a party of aphids hang from their mouthparts (legs free) and dance synchronized butt shimmies. And I will always think it an absolute thrill to see spittlebugs fart foam while sucking sap from a leaf axil. But oh, the glory of this green-gold bird. She takes my breath away when she bites that whippy fat, and I find I’m holding a full kettle at the window so long, my arm aches.

Robert Frost said “Nothing gold can stay,” but maybe she can? Goldfinches haven’t nested yet. Most of my neighbors only grow short turf and tidy trees. Maybe she’ll notice my goldenrod and asters and frostweed and mountain mint—future meals, all—and raise her family here?

Today, I see a male goldfinch at it. He is bright gold: a yellow you cannot take for granted. He is why people call goldfinches “wild canaries.” Even on fresh sunflowers there is no chance of camouflage. He eats from the rims as the female did, and does not flinch at the ruby-throated hummingbird, who checks him out at speed (too near her feeder) or the Carolina wren, just as nosy, if not as fast. I take photos through our wavy, old window in hopes of catching something of the action and beauty, and especially of those yellows and greens and golds.

All because of a few seeds. From spittlebugs to goldfinches, this entire, multi-act summer spectacular springs from fallen seeds forgotten by winter foragers. It shouldn’t astonish me, but it does: how so much—life, death, beauty, occupation—can come from so little. The happy accident that created all this activity was aided, I’ll admit, by lazy lawn care. What if I had mown the seedlings? Or cut the flowers when they aged past “pretty”? What if I only grew turf and trees? I’d have far fewer eaters, barely a menu, no drama to watch from lawn chair and window, no dinner theatre that caters to every taste and every kind of mouthpart: to those who sip, sponge, suck, lap, bite, or chew.

The goldfinch “contact call”—the sound they make to one another in flight—is potato-chip, potato-chip. Isn’t that sweet? But the funny thing is goldfinches make me crave salt: as in super salty potato-chipspotato-chips. And the funnier thing is that Lay’s Classic Salted—the quintessential, everywhere brand of potato chip—comes in bags colored not unlike a male goldfinch in breeding plumage. Wild canary yellow. Which means year-round, when I see potato chips, they make me crave goldfinches.

Me and my chips, they and their sunflowers. We are insatiable. Because you can’t ever eat just one.

  • Joanna Brichetto

    Joanna Brichetto is a naturalist in Nashville, where she writes the urban nature blog Look Around: Nearby Nature. Her essays have appeared in HippocampusThe HopperstorySouthThe Ilanot ReviewAbout Place JournalLongleaf ReviewVine Leaves Literary Journal, and The Fourth River.     

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