Wildflowers strike resonant chord

California orange poppies, Round Valley Regional Preserve.

The universe is large, and getting larger. In the time it takes you to finish this sentence, the universe will have expanded in volume by 100 trillion cubic light years. Period. But run the video backward 13.7 billion years and you’ll see the universe shrink to a mere mathematical point. Call it the cosmic seed, inscribed by the most infinitesimal handwriting, like DNA, with instructions for the universe in its totality: galaxies and gadflies, planets and plankton. You and me.

I like to imagine God as the Great Gardener: creating a seed with the simplicity of the primal elements yet potential for the staggering complexity 13.7 billion years of expansion accrues; planting it in the coldest of soils, the nothingness before time and space; and with one searing command, one blast of incandescent breath, setting it in motion.

This could be one reason why the image of wildflowers in spring strikes such a resonant chord in us. Woven into the fabric of our world is the pattern of darkness to light, cold to warmth – death to rebirth – enacted yearly in the reawakening of sterile and shriveled meadows into orgies of color and fragrance.

There’s another reason why wildflowers should fill us with awe and gratitude: without them, the human race might never have come into existence.

A hundred million years ago not a single flower adorned our planet. It was a world in slow motion. The reproductive processes of plants required either direct access to water (through swamps, lakes, river systems, dew and raindrops) or wind-borne pollen-like particles. Some plants had developed primitive seeds, but the spread of plant life proceeded at a glacial pace.

Dominating the landscape were creatures with slow metabolism, the cold-blooded dinosaurs. They were slaves to the mercury level, plodding through their habitat in the warmth of daylight but largely inactive at night. Warm-blooded creatures existed in this Cretaceous Period but were hardly the dominant life form. They ranged from rat-like dwellers of trees and underbrush to lizard-like birds lurching through the primal skies.

Then, as the Age of Reptiles was coming to an end, something miraculous happened – as miraculous as creation itself. The first simple flower opened its petals. And the world changed.

Unlike a spore, the seed of a flower is a fully outfitted embryonic plant, a survivalist’s doomsday bunker stuffed with nutrients capable of sustaining the sprout. And armed with pollen, nectar, and seeds wrapped in a mantle of fruit, the ancient flower began attracting insects for pollination and exploiting birds and mammals for transportation. It developed featherdown for sailing on the wind and hooks for snagging a ride on a passerby’s hide. The angiosperms (“encased seeds”) were off to the races.

Blue-eyed grass, Sunol Regional Wilderness.

The dinosaurs disappeared with stunning abruptness. A special flowering, seed-producing plant we call grass made its debut. Grasslands swept across the continents, providing a nutritious buffet for the great herbivores, the horse and bison, and indirectly for their predators, the dire wolf and saber-toothed tiger.

Peering meekly from the forest at the great game herds was another creature. Like the other mammals his metabolic rate was high, requiring an energy-rich diet to sustain body warmth and efficiency. He was small, and abandoned the trees awkwardly on his hind legs, no match for the bison. But once he learned to heave a rock, swing a flint axe and build a fire, he, like the flower before him, hopped onto the reproductive fast track. And like the predators before which he had once cowered, he began taking ever-greater amounts of energy indirectly from the grass.

Indirectly – until that moment out on the waist-high savannah when he conceptualized the grass seed, the ancestor of wheat, as a thing to grow and consume for its own sake. That moment was itself a seed. From it would sprout cities and civilizations in countless succession, to our present time and beyond, rising and falling in ten thousand springs and winters of human history. The gift of the flower.

With acknowledgement to “How Flowers Changed the World” by Loren Eiseley.