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The Natural World

In Fisher Park, a seed grows, a finch sings

By Ross Howell Jr.

Driving east on U.S. Route 421 near Liberty, I heard the North Carolina public radio announcement that my neighbor, Rob Brown, had just won the WFDD photo of the week.

I was on a sad trip. I was going to see Becky, my mother-in-law, who was in hospice care at her home in Lillington.

My wife, Mary Leigh, was already with her mom. Over the summer, we’d made many trips together — first to the facility where Becky received regularly-scheduled infusions; later, to a rehabilitation facility in Cary after she had broken a hip; and, more recently, to her bedside.

We were near the end.

Still, I smiled when I heard the radio announcement about Rob.

He lives across the street from us in Fisher Park with his wife, Lane. He’s a professional photographer. I’ve interviewed him for the pages of this magazine — a story in his own words about how the COVID pandemic had brought him back to doing the thing he’s loved since he was a kid: taking photos.

I knew quite a bit about Rob’s prize-winning picture.

It started with a sunflower seed a bird had sown in front of our house. I’d noticed the lone volunteer in the spring, sprouting about six inches from the edge of a flower bed.

If I had just taken the time to move the sprout from the edge farther into the bed, maybe I could’ve forestalled its demise.

But I didn’t. All I did was keep it well mulched.

The sunflower grew like Jack’s beanstalk.

On July 1, Mary Leigh took a snapshot of me with the volunteer. The sunflower stood higher than the gutters of the house, some 12 feet tall, with at least a dozen flower heads sprouting midway on the stalk all the way to the very top. Its broad-leafed foliage was profuse.

Neighbors emailed, thanking me for growing such a beautiful specimen. Passersby voiced their admiration. I protested that I had little, or nothing, to do with its success — that it was truly a self-made sunflower.

I thought about staking it because of its size and weight — but didn’t.

At least I thought to ask Rob to photograph the extraordinary plant when its bright yellow flowers opened.

Which he did, one hot morning while Mary Leigh and I were visiting Becky.

When we returned near dusk, twigs and leaves scattered on the street foretold what we would find. A thunderstorm had taken the sunflower down.

The leaves hadn’t yet wilted, so I hoisted up the stalk and tried to brace it with stakes. But to no avail. The roots were broken, so the stalk teetered and spun with the slightest breeze.

As the light faded, neighbors murmured encouragement and went inside. Warm light spilled from their windows into the dusk.

Near dark, I gave up, too.

We’re all under a death sentence, when you think about it. But it doesn’t pay to think about it too much.

When I was growing up in the mountains of Virginia, I often sought refuge in the natural world. There was conflict in my household, but outside, I found solace. Quietude. Beauty. Hope. And a myriad of interesting things.

The spring wildflowers I discovered in the woodlands were treasures. In school, I was careful to learn their names and characteristics. Likewise for bugs and spiders, and all number of slimy or slithering creatures.

It seemed to me that among the wildflowers and critters, death was a natural part of life. The large and constant pattern of their lives was indifferent to sorrow and death.

Early the next morning after the thunderstorm, I clipped a few of the wilted sunflowers. I arranged a place for them to dry out, planning to give seeds to the neighbors at Christmas and to plant some myself come spring — in the middle of a flower bed, so the roots could better anchor the stalks this time.

Then Rob’s photo arrived in my email inbox.


A goldfinch perched on a bower of gold singing to a blue sky. Indifferent to the coming storm. Captured by my neighbor’s skill, as a favor to me.

Just days later, Mary Leigh’s mom left us.

It was grim to watch her go, of course — to see how determined her body was to cling to the spirit that was leaving it.

But I’m sure Becky’s spirit found quietude and beauty. And her memory is our hope.

This spring, finches have returned and sunflowers will bloom — indifferent to destiny, indifferent even to their own beauty.

And that is the natural world.  OH

Ross Howell Jr. is a contributor to O.Henry magazine. Currently, he’s reading Margaret Renkl’s new book, The Comfort of Crows.