Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

The head that’s behind is ahead of the head that’s behind it *

with 40 comments

Sneezeweed Flower Head in Front of Another 3841

Here are two flower heads of what’s been called sneezeweed, Helenium quadridentatum. I find these flowers not at all weedy—in fact another scientific name for this species is the doubly elegant Helenium elegans var. elegans—and I’m not aware that they’ve ever made me sneeze, at least not more than every other pollen-bearing thing out there in nature.

The date was June 15th and the location was the Warbler Vista component of the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge northwest of Austin.


* Interpret the title in both a developmental and spatial sense (whether developmentally then spatially then spatially, or spatially then developmentally then developmentally) and it makes sense. Honest. And isn’t it strange the way our English syntax and semantics allow those two complementary interpretations, both of which are true?

UPDATE. If even that explanation seems cryptic, let me go ahead and give the two interpretations:

1) The head that’s behind [in the back] is ahead of [more developed than] the head that’s behind [less developed than] it .

2) The head that’s behind [less developed] is ahead of [in front of] the head that’s behind [in back of] it.

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

August 3, 2014 at 5:50 AM

40 Responses

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  1. I wrestled with the title of this post in an insufficiently caffeinated state, though it finally made sense when I finally read the footnote.

    Mike Powell

    August 3, 2014 at 5:56 AM

    • There’s nothing like a little Sunday morning decaffeinated wrestling, Mike. I’m glad the footnote brought your mind back from being footloose and fancy-free.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 3, 2014 at 8:12 AM

  2. Oh this is poetry, I fell in love with this photo!


    August 3, 2014 at 6:41 AM

  3. I must say, given the view you’ve provided, shouldn’t your title be ‘The head that’s behind (spatio) is ahead (devo) of the head that’s in front of it (spatio).’ Perhaps I’m missing something and, unlike Mike, I’m fully caffeinated right now. Anyway, whatever its resolution, Joanna and I always enjoy your wordplay … it keeps us on our feet. D

    Pairodox Farm

    August 3, 2014 at 6:48 AM

    • What you wrote is correct too, D., but then I wouldn’t be able to repeat the behind that makes the second part of the title mimic the first part. To make that clearer, I’ve extended my footnote above to give the two interpretations.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 3, 2014 at 8:36 AM

      • Language, writing, and punctuation … where would we be without all three? D

        Pairodox Farm

        August 3, 2014 at 9:39 AM

        • Given the state of all three of those in the populace today, I’m afraid to find out where we are. A few days ago I went to a Trader Joe’s that recently opened in the neighborhood, and the sign for the nectarines said they were $.59¢ each. I showed the sign to the manager and he read right over the decimal point, as if it meant nothing (which is unfortunately what it meant to him and what it means to most people). But there’s hope: the checkout girl with the ring in her nose and a bizarre hairdo understood that the price on the sign was less than a penny. I asked her how much math she’d had and she said she’d gone through precalculus in high school (which couldn’t have been far behind her).

          Steve Schwartzman

          August 3, 2014 at 9:52 AM

          • Oh my … has this become a ‘story-telling-thing.’ When we first arrived in PA we went grocery shopping and asked for one-third of a pound of sliced turkey breast. I am sure that if I had asked for a quarter or a half of a pound the woman behind the counter would have been able to fulfill my request by zeroing in on 0.25 and 0.50, respectively. As it was, and given the digital scale she had to work with, she was at a loss and I had to provide a bit of assistance by suggesting that she add turkey until the digits read 0.33! Here eyes were as wide as saucers. D

            Pairodox Farm

            August 3, 2014 at 10:02 AM

            • That’s all too common an occurrence, alas.

              Steve Schwartzman

              August 3, 2014 at 10:07 AM

            • Depending on the person on the other side of the counter, and knowing how many slices I put on a sandwich, I ask for the number I need for the amount of sandwiches I will be making….plus 1 slice per sandwich for Murphy. More math for me but in the end also much easier.

              Steve Gingold

              August 3, 2014 at 10:18 AM

        • At the rate things are going….the future.

          Steve Gingold

          August 3, 2014 at 10:15 AM

  4. Gorgeous!


    August 3, 2014 at 7:23 AM

    • This species usually grows in damp ground, where it can form colonies. I saw some just two days ago.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 3, 2014 at 8:40 AM

  5. Now that is one fine brain teaser to start the day!

    Susan Scheid

    August 3, 2014 at 7:23 AM

    • Top o’ the morning to ya, Susan. Just in case readers’ brains didn’t tease out the meaning, I’ve gone ahead and extended my explanatory footnote.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 3, 2014 at 8:44 AM

      • The explanatory footnotes are priceless. In actual fact, I “got” it by looking at the photograph vis-a-vis your title. Is this a case of a photograph being worth a thousand words??

        Susan Scheid

        August 3, 2014 at 9:12 AM

        • I’m relieved that you got it before it could get you, Susan. Your question reminds me that Wordsworth had the best name a writer could have.

          Steve Schwartzman

          August 3, 2014 at 9:37 AM

  6. I was up at 3 today in hopes that the forecaster was mistaken about the sky conditions this am. For a disappointing change he was totally accurate. All in the way to explain why now, 6 hours later, I am a bit groggy as I read your title….and footnote…and am now recovering from a twisted brain. Well, most will tell you that my brain was already that way and they are probably correct.
    As you might guess, I like how you have lined this all up. The others in the further background create a nice warm and complementary feel to the overall image.

    Steve Gingold

    August 3, 2014 at 8:45 AM

    • It’s good of you to notice—even with a twisted and groggy brain—the faint but warm glow of still other sneezeweed flower heads beyond the two primary ones. Background, background, background.

      Someone who gets up at 3 in the morning for the sake of photography is someone who’s devoted to his craft indeed. I’m sorry the sacrifice didn’t lead to something for you this time, but I’m sure you’re primed to pull another middle-of-the-night-er soon, and may it be a more propitious one.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 3, 2014 at 9:04 AM

      • Yep, middle of the night tomorrow morning again. Forecast is the same. I did go out around 6 and we’ll see whether it turned out propitiously later after wood stacking etc.

        Steve Gingold

        August 3, 2014 at 9:11 AM

  7. Such eloquence and elegance.


    August 3, 2014 at 9:01 AM

    • Oh, I like the sound of that: eloquence and elegance. Or as Conan Doyle didn’t say: Eloquentary, my dear Gallivanta.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 3, 2014 at 9:08 AM

      • Ha! The mystery is, why didn’t Conan say that? It should have been elementary for a man of his talents.


        August 3, 2014 at 7:27 PM

  8. A beautiful warm flower photograph and a brain teaser to start my day.

    Helenium ‘Moerheim Beauty’ has been blooming in my garden for well over a month. It’s a lovely sight to see. I looked up Helenium elegans (Pretty Sneezeweed). It is pretty, but not as elegant as my ‘Moerheim Beauty’, I don’t think.


    August 3, 2014 at 11:05 AM

    • A cultivar can look more pristine or showier than a natural species—and that’s the whole point of creating a cultivar, isn’t it? One of my sources says that Helenium is an American genus of 40 species (of which we have several right here in Austin). Do you happen to know which one was used as the basis for creating ‘Moerheim Beauty’?

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 3, 2014 at 11:19 AM

  9. Absolutely stunning beauty, love your sense of humor for the title!


    August 3, 2014 at 2:36 PM

  10. Great colors as always – love the title!!!


    August 3, 2014 at 5:06 PM

    • I don’t know how that title came to me, Nora, but I’m happy that it did and glad you like it.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 3, 2014 at 10:00 PM

  11. Clever title! Love the subject too. 🙂


    August 3, 2014 at 7:22 PM

  12. I didn’t think anyone could give that famous sentence about Buffalo buffalo a run for its money, but I believe you’ve come close. It’s a lovely photo, with a great title, but what appeals to me most is the way the bent stalk of the first seems to be lying just under the rays of the second. I really like it when that horizontal/vertical thing gets going.


    August 4, 2014 at 7:07 PM

    • I was really happy with that title, and I’m still wondering if anyone else has ever come up with something similar. If I were back in graduate school I’d ask around in the linguistics department to see if anyone knew.

      How plants interact with one another is something that has been catching my eye for quite a while, and I see it has caught yours too here. One of my proposed photography books, tentatively called Combinations, would feature pictures of two or more species together. Today’s photograph wouldn’t be in it because both flower heads are of the same species, but the idea of interaction is similar.

      As for horizontal (from horizon) and vertical (from vertex), those concepts fall under the domain of mathematics as well as art. What a happy overlap.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 4, 2014 at 7:21 PM

      • This is a true story, and I’ve been laughing about it all day.

        When I read your comment last night, I got to the bit about horizontal and vertical being math-related, and didn’t pay much attention. At 3 a.m., I woke up thinking, “x and y coordinates.” It was so strange. I mulled it over a bit and finally thought, “I believe we used to plot coordinates on graph paper in school.” I got up, woke up Google, and confirmed my hunch. By the time I headed back to bed, I had a grip on ordered pairs (x, the horizontal axis, always comes first), coordinates of a point, and so on.

        I even got as far as perpendicular lines, and learned that, when two lines are perpendicular, the slope of one is the negative reciprocal of the other. Since lines don’t have to intersect to be perpendicular, I’m guessing it would be possible to use the formula with your lovely sneezeweed blossoms up above, to determine if they truly are perpendicular to one another where their stems cross.

        But that’s not the end of the story. I was back in bed when I remembered your reference to “snow-on-the-x.”
        It occurred to me that “x” could stand for either plant, which meant it was a “variable”, and that reminded me of equations, and those blessed word problems:

        Steve sold twenty more photos of ray flowers than of disk flowers, and he sold twice as many photos of composite flowers than of disk flowers….

        Midnight math — who knew it could be so much fun?


        August 5, 2014 at 7:20 PM

        • Wow, what a blast of post-midnight math all right. To my eyes, the stems cross at close to but not exactly 90°. The stem that’s in front isn’t straight, and that non-straightness leads to considerations of how to define the varying slope along a curve and then how to calculate it in each place. Those were the very questions that led to to the development of calculus.

          Speaking of inclinations of lines, as math-inclined as I am, when I wrote “snow-on-the-x” I wasn’t thinking in terms of algebra but only wanted a shorthand way of combining snow-on-the-mountain and snow-on-the-prairie, so the x became my placeholder for mountain and prairie. You’re right, though, that the x serves as a variable here (and coincidentally is the letter most often used for that purpose in our algebraic tradition), so it’s great that you recognized is as such.

          While we’re on this subject, I’ll add that I have a post coming up this Sunday that answers a math question I posed 17 months ago but that no one ever answered (which isn’t surprising in a blog devoted to nature photography).

          Steve Schwartzman

          August 6, 2014 at 9:30 AM

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