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Man on sand dunes. (Vincent Liota)

Sunflowers Seen Flying Through Empty Desert. Why?

by Vincent Liota
Nov 2, 2012

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Flower petal Hand reaching for petal. Leaves blowing over a dune. Leaves over desert.

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Vincent Liota

I've been hearing strange wind stories all my life. The best ones are both wildly improbable but still true, like how the Empire State Building gets hit by wafts of barley flying in on jet streams from Iowa, or how tons of sand from the Saharan desert rain down every year onto Brazilian rainforests. You never know what the wind will bring. The wind decides.

Here's a new one. I found it in Craig Childs' latest book, which is an adventure/science tale that takes you to extreme environments all over the world. In a chapter about deserts, something utterly improbable happens.

To set the scene, Craig and his friend Devin are hiking across an isolated, treeless Mexican sea of sand, dunes in all directions, nothing around, nothing near, no sound but the wind. Craig is pausing to rest.

Then, out of the blue, he sees something.

"A single yellow sunflower petal blew over the dune crest. It was captured for a moment in the small, swift drum of air where I was reclining. The petal circled several times, ticking and tapping.

"So there was life. Somewhere. I wondered, could it be a flower abandoned years ago, buried, dried and only now exhumed? Or was it grown from a stray rain, didn't get far enough to seed?

"I almost snatched it with my fingers, but it quickly kept going. I was watching it flutter away, clicking across the sand, when a second petal took its place in the lee. Like the one before, it tumbled several times and then shot off. A third followed, and after that another. I crawled to the crest to look over, wondering what I was to see, perhaps an army of sunflowers blowing in my direction?

"Across glinting sand, I caught sight of a train of a few flower parts jogging ahead of one another in the wind. Petals continued arriving in twos or threes by themselves until every one had been presented. It seemed impossible, something I did not know could happen in the world, a flower anatomically divided but unaccountably kept together. How many miles had it traveled in this fashion?

"Next came the detritus of pistils and stamens, an excited trail of nuptials jumping into place. Last to go were bits of dried leaves and stem hurrying to catch up. For a while, I couldn't move. Why in the world would one sunflower be in the middle of the desert? And how could this have happened to it, caught in a self-organizing wind, an act of chance that seemed highly unlikely."

Is there some way to explain what happened here? A rogue sunflower, from where he doesn't know, scampers by, leaping through the air and is gone, followed by a parade of sunflower parts, moving in a tight cluster — Why? Maybe some seeds got loose, got wet, sprouted and got carried away? Or maybe on a far distant road, someone hurled sunflowers in anger into a curiously stubborn breeze? Surely there's an explanation.

But Craig knows, and we know, that whatever it is, the wind won't tell.


Craig Childs'book is Apocalytic Planet: Field Guide to the Everending Earth. Our illustrator, Vin Liota, is a reporter/producer/designer who frequently contributes to NOVA Science Now and ABC News. Last time he was here, he drew images of human hair growing very slowly. He can do anything.

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