Sunflower Sutra

Nothing quite lifts my spirits like a field of sunflowers in all their glory. Last year, a field outside the village was set in flowers; this year, it’s in corn. I have to go further to find my fix but there’s no shortage of them in Zala county. I’m not quite sure what it is about them that is so restorative. Perhaps it’s the whole heliotropism thing: they follow the sky from East to West when they’re young but as they age, they stay fixed towards the East. And they’re the only flower with ‘flower’ in their name.

The Internet is rife with sunflower seedlings:

SunflowerThey’ve inspired artists like Van Gogh, Gaugin, and Klimpt. They’ve inspired poets like William Blake. But my favourite find in my reading today is the Sunflower Sutra by Allen Ginsberg – too good not to share.

I walked on the banks of the tincan banana dock and
sat down under the huge shade of a Southern
Pacific locomotive to look at the sunset over the
box house hills and cry.
Jack Kerouac sat beside me on a busted rusty iron
pole, companion, we thought the same thoughts
of the soul, bleak and blue and sad-eyed, sur-
rounded by the gnarled steel roots of trees of
The oily water on the river mirrored the red sky, sun
sank on top of final Frisco peaks, no fish in that
stream, no hermit in those mounts, just our-
selves rheumy-eyed and hungover like old bums
on the riverbank, tired and wily.
Look at the Sunflower, he said, there was a dead gray
shadow against the sky, big as a man, sitting
dry on top of a pile of ancient sawdust–
–I rushed up enchanted–it was my first sunflower,
memories of Blake–my visions–Harlem
and Hells of the Eastern rivers, bridges clanking Joes
Greasy Sandwiches, dead baby carriages, black
treadless tires forgotten and unretreaded, the
poem of the riverbank, condoms & pots, steel
knives, nothing stainless, only the dank muck
and the razor-sharp artifacts passing into the
and the gray Sunflower poised against the sunset,
crackly bleak and dusty with the smut and smog
and smoke of olden locomotives in its eye–
corolla of bleary spikes pushed down and broken like
a battered crown, seeds fallen out of its face,
soon-to-be-toothless mouth of sunny air, sun-
rays obliterated on its hairy head like a dried
wire spiderweb,
leaves stuck out like arms out of the stem, gestures
from the sawdust root, broke pieces of plaster
fallen out of the black twigs, a dead fly in its ear,
Unholy battered old thing you were, my sunflower O
my soul, I loved you then!
The grime was no man’s grime but death and human
all that dress of dust, that veil of darkened railroad
skin, that smog of cheek, that eyelid of black
mis’ry, that sooty hand or phallus or protuber-
ance of artificial worse-than-dirt–industrial–
modern–all that civilization spotting your
crazy golden crown–
and those blear thoughts of death and dusty loveless
eyes and ends and withered roots below, in the
home-pile of sand and sawdust, rubber dollar
bills, skin of machinery, the guts and innards
of the weeping coughing car, the empty lonely
tincans with their rusty tongues alack, what
more could I name, the smoked ashes of some
cock cigar, the cunts of wheelbarrows and the
milky breasts of cars, wornout asses out of chairs
& sphincters of dynamos–all these
entangled in your mummied roots–and you there
standing before me in the sunset, all your glory
in your form!
A perfect beauty of a sunflower! a perfect excellent
lovely sunflower existence! a sweet natural eye
to the new hip moon, woke up alive and excited
grasping in the sunset shadow sunrise golden
monthly breeze!
How many flies buzzed round you innocent of your
grime, while you cursed the heavens of the rail-
road and your flower soul?
Poor dead flower? when did you forget you were a
flower? when did you look at your skin and
decide you were an impotent dirty old locomo-
tive? the ghost of a locomotive? the specter and
shade of a once powerful mad American locomo-
You were never no locomotive, Sunflower, you were a
And you Locomotive, you are a locomotive, forget me
So I grabbed up the skeleton thick sunflower and stuck
it at my side like a scepter,
and deliver my sermon to my soul, and Jack’s soul
too, and anyone who’ll listen,
–We’re not our skin of grime, we’re not our dread
bleak dusty imageless locomotive, we’re all
beautiful golden sunflowers inside, we’re bles-
sed by our own seed & golden hairy naked ac-
complishment-bodies growing into mad black
formal sunflowers in the sunset, spied on by our
eyes under the shadow of the mad locomotive
riverbank sunset Frisco hilly tincan evening sit-
down vision.
Berkeley, 1955


Mystery solved

I mentioned before that our new garden is full of surprises. As the trees, plants, and bushes bloom, we’re gradually getting to know what we’re living with. We’re still undecided whether we have apricots or peaches, but time will tell.

Our new domain, the Kis Balaton, has its own surprises. I’m not great at naming the various crops planted and unless they’re potatoes flowering or are already in bloom (like oil seed rape), I’m wrong more times than I’m right. And that, my friends, is taking some getting used to.

Right outside the village, I’ve watched a field of somethings grow taller and tried though I might, I was unable to put a name to what was growing there. This week, the mystery was solved. And I’m delira and excira to see a field of glorious sunflowers.

Many years ago, on one of my first forays out of Budapest, I saw fields and fields of these yellow beauties in all their glory. No matter how bad my mood, they’re guaranteed to make me smile. With temperatures soaring, and storms turning the power feed into a staccato-like chorus of on-again, off-again, bad humor is not infrequent, but not nearly as long-lasting as it might be in the city. I think I may becoming a nicer person. #lovinglifeinthevillage 🙂

I went in search of  a poem by William Blake that I vaguely remembered, and it says it all for me…

Ah! Sunflower

Ah! sunflower, weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the sun,
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the traveller’s journey is done;

Where the youth pined away with desire,
And the pale virgin shrouded in snow,
Arise from their graves and aspire;
Where my sunflower wishes to go.

Like Blake, I, too, am a little tired of the if onlys, and wish that more people (of all ages) would seize life by the petals and feel it, and live it, and be it. Sunflowers are planted, striving to reach a place they’ll never get to. Humans are not. We can move. We can follow the sun. We can turn our faces sunward and be positive. If we are fortunate enough to have a choice and not live under regimes who make our choices for us, we can choose where we go, what we do, and how we want to spend the short time we have on this Earth. By all means sunflower it – look at the sun and aspire to where and what you might want to be. But for Blake’s sake – move!


Guaranteed to make me smile

As the temperatures soar, my levels of tolerance drop. There is a direct correlation between how hot it is and what sort of mood I’m in. There’s also a direct correlation between how hot it is and the number of invites I receive to go places and do things. Those who have suffered the brunt of my intolerance know to keep clear of me if it goes above 35°Celsius and I’m nowhere near water.

I can’t help it. I’m just not built for hot weather. My sense of propriety switches off. My ability to let stuff wash over me is drowned in a sea of irritability. My more temperate ‘whatever’ is replaced by a three-letter initialism beginning with the same W. The best of modern minds have failed to find a solution for my weather-related bouts of short-temper. I watch the temperature like fishermen watch the tide and I, too, know when it’s time not to go out.

There is hope though. I’ve found one thing that is guaranteed to right the balance, to restore my usual equilibrium no matter how hot it is. And Hungary, at this time of year, has it in abundance. It’s a sunflower – or even better, a field of sunflowers.

IMG_3076 (800x600)Ever since I saw the poster for the 2005 movie Everything is Illuminated, with Elijah Wood (Jonathan Safron Foer) standing in a field of sunflowers, I was captivated. I was a couple of years in Hungary before I ventured to the hinterlands of Budapest and saw an actual field of the beauties for the first time. Last week, driving down to Somogyvámos, I had to stop half a dozen times to marvel at the sight.

IMG_3071 (800x600)I used to wonder what all the sunflowers were for. Despite the myriad flower stalls dotted around the city, I’m not exactly tripping over these yellow darlings. And there aren’t enough football fans in the country to eat all the sunflower seeds produced (for those of you who haven’t been to a football match involving a Hungarian team, you can tell where the Hungarian fans were sitting – not because of the discarded sweet wrappers or empty beer cans or cigarette butts – you can tell because of the carpet of sunflower seed shells they leave in their wake).

About a half a million hectares is given over to sunflowers in Hungary on which more than 40 different types of sunflower are grown. And hybrids aside, if you take the time to walk among them, you’ll notice how each one is slightly different – some look sad, others thoughtful, others deliriously happy – they’re the most human of flowers. The crop is primarily harvested for oil: hot pressed, extracted, crude, and refined sunflower oil. And it’s used in feed for animals and humans alike, and in cosmetics (such as Hungary’s famous Helia-D).

IMG_3078 (800x600)In fact, Hungary is the world’s eighth largest sunflower producer in the world. The tradition has been handed down through generations and sunflower oil is known in the industry as folyékony aranyat (liquid gold). It is said that back in the 1800s, the Russian Orthodox Church had a long list of things that couldn’t be eaten during Lent, including butter and lard. But the sunflower – and its oil – was a relatively new find, and so hadn’t yet made the list. When the Russians discovered they could the oil to cook, the flowers literally blossomed.

So, if you want to ask something of me when the temperatures are tipping 30, try first calming the stormy waters with a sunflower or three.

First published in the Budapest Times 1 August 2014