Sitting at my kitchen table, amongst the salt shaker, cups of tea and books, I watch the birds come and go from bird feeders: one near the blue berry patch, another by hulking hops climbing a later and two near the kitchen window where morning glories bloom in the summer. A storm howls outside. Snow blows and swirls. The white pines, along the fence line, bend yielding to the wind. Their branches gesticulate the story of storm.

I am grateful the bird feeders are filled with Sunflower seeds. Sweet Chickadees quickly come and go from the feeders. The Sunflower seed’s will protect the wee birds from hunger and cold. As the temperature drops, unable to rely on the sun for warmth, birds need extra food to fuel their inner heat.

Every spring, as soon as earth thaws, we plant sunflowers to mark the boundary between the dirt road to our house and the garden. As summer days lengthens, the neighbourhood kids, awed by stretching stalks, broad leaves and massive flower heads, will ask me if they can have a flower for their mothers. The Sunflowers’ towering presence cause strangers stop to chat about Sunflowers they have known. One passerby told me about a fence he made with sunflower stalks that lasted for years.

The flowers begin to bloom in the first week of August. At first the flowers unfurl with feigned shyness. Each bright yellow petal unfolds slowly over a couple of days until the flower’s full magnificence is reveals and turns towards to the sun. This is when the pollinators arrive.

The gigantic flowers buzz with honey bees from the hive nestled at the back of the garden. Big, fuzzy bumble bees hover over the flowers and butterflies linger, sampling the nectar each floret offers. It is magical when the humming birds arrive, zipping about the massive flower heads, their ruby red throats glinting in the sun.

It was a stellar patch of Sunflowers this year. Before planting the seeds, we enriched the soil with last year’s compost. Compost is a dynamic environment of billions of bacteria feasting on rotting plant material. The bacteria in the compost gifted the Sunflowers with extra nourished this spring. We never had flowers so tall.

There are five main ways the soil bacteria helped to co-create this year’s sunflowers:
The bacteria stimulated the Sunflowers to make growth hormones that caused the sprouting seed to grow and grow and grow!
The bacteria from the compost helped the sunflowers’ roots absorb minerals the plant used to make strong stalks and the hard seed covers.
The Sunflowers used the minerals the bacteria broke down for the roots to absorb as fuel sources. Minerals, along with sunlight, are essential for Sunflowers’ energy metabolism. Without the minerals from the soil, delivered to the Sunflower’s roots by bacteria, the flower would not be able to live.
Along with minerals the bacteria offered a steady supply of nitrogen to the sunflower’s roots. Plants need nitrogen to turn sunlight into energy through a process called photosynthesis.

The bacteria and other microbes, including fungi, and the Sunflower’s roots live in a community. The diverse community of microbes around the roots is called the soil biome. One gram of healthy soil has a thousand different microbes.

Like any community a soil’s biome exists because of supportive relationships, boundaries and rules. Being able to talk with your neighbour about events in the community that have impact on everyone’s well being is important to the health of a community. The dynamic communicative relationships between bacteria, fungi and other microbes living in the soil creates a rich environment for Sunflowers to thrive.

The Sunflower is part of the soil’s community. Like the any good community member the Sunflowers does not just take minerals offered then by the microbe. The Sunflowers provide the microbes in the soil biome with something they can not make for themselves. The Sunflowers’ root feed the microbes sugars the flowers make with energy from the Sun.

As the summer days shortened on the Sunflowers’ face seeds begin to appear. The seeds are arranged in spirals – one spiral turns clockwise while the other turns counter-clockwise, just like the spirals found on Pine cones, Aloe plants and galaxies. As the coats on the seeds turn from green to black, the birds arrive.

The Cardinal’s red feathers flash as he nibbles on the seeds one at a time while perched on the head of a the biggest flower. Blue Jays, the colour of the sky and shadows, swoop along the fence line chasing the other birds away. The Jays seem to goggle up the seeds, hard shell and all. A flock of yellow Grosbeaks arrive in the garden like a wave coming a shore. They feast on the sunflower seeds while their high pitched peeping floods the garden. A shy red Finch darts through the sunflowers and rests on the sunflowers’ broad leaves. Acrobatic Nuthatches flitter through the Sunflowers while Chickadees, come and go with a single black seed in their beaks. Each seed a bird pulls from a Sunflower’s spiral leave behind a honey cone like lattice a on the flower’s face.

The lattice from which the birds extract the seeds is made of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium and calcium. These minerals were delivered to the sunflower’s roots by the microbes in the soil biome. The flower used to minerals to make the sturdy stem that could support both their massive flowers and the birds who perched on them. Once the stems were full grown the minerals were used to make a container for the seeds to develop in. The remaining minerals were stored in the seeds for next year’s crop of flowers.

Birds plant the sunflower seeds. Cardinals and finches have beaks designed to slice open sunflower seeds. When they pluck one seed from the Sunflower’s spiral, the seed next to it becomes loose and falls to the ground. In the spring, many Sunflowers will sprout where in the previous year there was a singular sunflower growing.

Blue Jays and their covid cousins, Crows and Grey Jays, are prolific Sunflower gardeners. Jays stuff a pouch found below their throats with as many sunflower seeds as possible. This is why at the feeder they look like they are gobbling the seeds down shell and all. Some reports say a Blue Jay can stuff as many as a 100 Sunflower seeds in its pouch. Others offer the more conservative number of 30. When the pouch is full, the Jay sneaks off to her secret hiding place and buries the seeds with the plan to return at a later date. When spring arrives and the soil warms, seeds left behind in the Jays’ cache sprout. Sunflowers can be found growing in the most unusual places, like behind the garden shed.

The chickadees and nuthatches crack open the Sunflowers seeds’ hard shell on tree branches. As they flit about the garden with seeds in their beaks, some are accidentally dropped. These are the seeds that become the Sunflowers striving for the light under the White Pines or in the middle of the Angelica patch.

At our bird feeders, the squirrels squabble with the Blue Jays at the feeder over the Sunflowers seeds. Squirrels are not the only mammals to visit the feeders. In the late falls, we have had bears tear the feeders to pieces while feasting sunflower seeds. Just before the snow flies skunks and raccoons arrive to fill their bellies with seeds. And when the snow is deep, deer shyly creep into the yard to binge on the seeds that have fallen around the base of the feeders.

Everyone loves sunflower seeds. They are potent source of nutrients when food is scarce. The seeds contain 14 amino acids. Nine of the seeds amino acids are essential. When an amino acid is called essential this means your body can not make them and they must come from food sources. Amino acids are the bits and pieces that make up proteins. Muscles, red and white blood cells, hair, skin, and every other tissue and organs in our bodies are made of protein. Proteins also play crucial roles in biochemical process of our cells. Proteins are found in enzymes, hemoglobin, cells receptors and are essential for most of the work your cells do including turning genes on and off with your DNA.

The birds, bears, raccoons and deer seek the protein in the seeds to help keep their bodies strong and resilience during winter months. The amino acids in the sunflower’s seeds provide fuel for the Chickadee to stay warm while nestled in the White Pines’ shelter during winter storms.

Sunflowers also make and store Linoleic acid in their seeds. Linoleic acid is an essential fatty acid. Linoleic acid is called essential because bodies can not make it and every one of the cells in your body uses this fatty acid to make healthy cell membranes. All of life needs linoleic acid to have resilient, flexible and water proof cell membranes, including birds, bacteria and plants.

Let’s pause for a moment and contemplate membranes. Membranes are both surfaces and boundaries. They both contain and keep out. Membranes, like boundaries, create relationships: inner and outer, self and other, here and there. Membranes like good boundaries are porous and allow what is needed in and hopefully keeping what is not needed out. Membranes define, accept, guard and reject. Membranes are essential for the life of the cell.

A healthy cell membrane, also called a plasma membrane, is elastic and flexible. It lets some things in and keeps other things out. Your body, an all other living beings on this planet, make cell membranes with fatty acids, including linoleic acid. When you, a blue jay, raccoon, or bear, eat a sunflower seed it journeys through the digestive system until it reaches the small intestine. In the small intestine the linoleic acid is broken apart by enzymes from your pancreas. It then mingles with bile from your liver. The bile emulsifies the linoleic acid. This helps the small intestine absorb this essential nutrient. The linoleic acid is taken up by your lymphatic system and transported to the liver. In the liver, the linoleic acid is packages into minuscule fatty acids that your cells use to make and repair their membranes. The fatty acids in cell membranes act like a seal, protecting the cell from leaks.

Like the Sunflowers roots, cell membranes interact with the environment it finds itself in. Whereas the Sunflower’s roots are in relationship to microbes in the soil biome, cell membranes are in relationship to your bodies other cells and microbes living extracellular fluid. Extracellular fluid is the liquid surrounding your cells. When you get a blister and the top layer of skin peels off releasing clear liquid, that is extracellular fluid.

One of the things the fatty acid in the cell membrane does is protect the life of the cell from microbes floating around in the extracellular fluid. Conversely, the microbe’s membrane protects it from our immune cells which are constantly seeking to rebalance your body’s biome. Both our cellular membranes and the microbes’ contain linoleic acids.

Let’s explore microbes and how their membranes interact with your cellular membranes.

Microbes are single cell living beings. In your body, there are at least 10 microbes for every one of your cells. Some people like to compare humans, and other animals, to walking microbe condos. Microbes are bacteria, fungi, archea, parasites and viruses. What are these trillions of microbes doing in your body? Most are seeking the nutrients. Like the minerals from the Sunflower seeds our cells turn into protein. Some of the minerals from the Sunflower seeds are also used to help our cells make energy. Microbe use the same minerals to create their single cellular body and fuel their various activities.

Viruses are unique amongst microbes. They don’t feast on our cells like bacteria or parasites. Instead they need our cells to replicate. Viruses are the tricksters of the microbial world. Think of them like computer hackers. Like hackers, viruses present themselves to cell membranes with a friendly gesture that appears to be acceptable. Once inside, they take over the core intelligent of your cells your DNA sequencing proteins.

On their own, viruses are unable to reproduce. That is why many believe that viruses are not living beings. One of the definition of living beings is their ability to reproduce. Viruses do not have the necessary DNA sequencing proteins needed for replication. They need your cells to do replicate their DNA. Without your DNA sequencing proteins, viruses make baby viruses.

Once the virus has hacked your cell membrane and taken over your DNA sequencing proteins they make 1000’s of copies of the self. Then they escape your cell through the it’s membrane seeking another cell to hack.

Bacteria, yeast and parasites are able to replicate themselves. They do not need your DNA sequencing proteins. Instead they hunger for the juicy fat in your cell membranes and the minerals and proteins tuck away inside your cell. To access the life affirming goodness inside your cells, the microbes need to penetrate your cell membranes.

Parasites and fungi use brute force to rip into the cell membrane. The tears in membranes caused by parasites often kill the cell.

Bacteria generally prefer not to use brute force to get their lunch. There is something to be said about not killing the cook. Bacteria have more discrete techniques for stealing their lunch.
Some bacteria have sharp thin needles they use to pierce the cell membrane to siphon nutrients from your cell’s interior. Other bacteria use chemicals to make minuscule hole in membranes.Through these holes the bacteria extracts the cell’s resources.

The cell membrane, on a cellular level at least, is the first defence against microbes. Because of this, cell membranes needs the nutrient like those Sunflower seeds contain to be healthy. Sunflower seeds contain both the fats and the amino acids necessary for strong cell membranes.

Yet there is more to it. Just because a bacterium pokes a hole a cell membrane does not mean it the cell dies. Cells are continuously repairing their membranes. Cells use similar processes to repair cell membrane as your body does to heal tears in your skin. To repair the damage caused by microbes, cells needs fatty acids and proteins made from amino acids. Once again the Sunflower’s seeds provide both. Curiously, the bacteria in the soil are the original source of the nutrients that build and heal resilient cell membranes.

Its a beautiful complex chain of events, the birds and humans that plant Sunflower seeds, the bacteria in the soil that provides the nutrients for the seeds to sprout and the seeds rich in the nutrients needed for healthy cell membrane. Or perhaps the humans and birds with healthy cell membrane who plant sunflower seeds so the soil in the bacteria can flourish on the sugars the Sunflower is able to feed them. This is one cycle within the great cycle of life on our beautiful planet.

When I slow down, it seems to me there is so much more to life then taking the resources one needs from the environment to live. Careful watching, listening and studying suggests to me that life both on a macro and microscopic level is generous.

Scientific systems of thought define life as an organisms ability to harvest the energy and materials required for growth and reproduction from their environment. Biologists call he process of taking energy from one’s environment and using it to grow and reproduce metabolism.

This definition of life seems to suggest that life is separate from its environment and the mind boggling interweaving of life is one simply based on resource extraction.

Let’s take the definition of metabolism used by science and rewrite it:

The environment provides organisms with the energy and materials required for life because they are part of the environment.

Written this way, life becomes a generous act by the environment in which the organism finds itself because the organism is part of the environment. The organism is not taking as in harvesting from the environment, but activity participating in life within the environment.

When we simply think of life as the receiver of energy and material, we loose the complex dance of life. The continuous giving of trillions diverse life forms, from microscopic bacteria to elephants, coral reefs to mosquitoes, creating our home called Earth.

When we shift our perspective of experiencing life a dynamic process receiving all one’s needs from the environment and giving all one has to sustain an environment to supports of life, life becomes blessed with feelings of mutual support and even death become part of the many faces of life.