Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

A sunflower bud unfurling its rays

with 44 comments

I was late tackling sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) this year. I finally took my first pictures of some on July 2nd but didn’t like the results. July 10th in the northeast quadrant of Mopac and US 183 provided more magic. At about three minutes apart, here are two takes on a bud gracefully and asymmetrically unfurling its rays.


And here are not two but three takes from Eric Hoffer‘s 1951 book The True Believer:

There is in us a tendency to locate the shaping forces of our existence outside ourselves. Success and failure are unavoidably related in our minds with the state of things around us. Hence it is that people with a sense of fulfillment think it a good world and would like to conserve it as it is, while the frustrated favor radical change. The tendency to look for all causes outside ourselves persists even when it is clear that our state of being is the product of personal qualities such as ability, character, appearance, health and so on. “If anything ail a man,” says Thoreau, “so that he does not perform his functions, if he have a pain in his bowels even … he forthwith sets about reforming—the world.”

A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding. When it is not, he takes his mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other people’s business. This minding of other people’s business expresses itself in gossip, snooping and meddling, and also in feverish interest in communal, national and racial affairs. In running away from ourselves we either fall on our neighbor’s shoulder or fly at his throat.

All active mass movements strive… to interpose a fact-proof screen between the faithful and the realities of the world. They do this by claiming that the ultimate and absolute truth is already embodied in their doctrine and that there is no truth nor certitude outside it. The facts on which the true believer bases his conclusions must not be derived from his experience or observation but from holy writ. “So tenaciously should we cling to the world revealed by the Gospel, that were I to see all the Angels of Heaven coming down to me to tell me something different, not only would I not be tempted to doubt a single syllable, but I would shut my eyes and stop my ears, for they would not deserve to be either seen or heard.” To rely on the evidence of the senses and of reason is heresy and treason. It is startling to realize how much unbelief is necessary to make belief possible. What we know as blind faith is sustained by innumerable unbeliefs. The fanatical Japanese in Brazil refused to believe for years the evidence of Japan’s defeat. The fanatical Communist refuses to believe any unfavorable report or evidence about Russia, nor will he be disillusioned by seeing with his own eyes the cruel misery inside the Soviet promised land. It is the true believer’s ability to “shut his eyes and stop his ears” to facts that do not deserve to be either seen or heard which is the source of his unequaled fortitude and constancy. He cannot be frightened by danger nor disheartened by obstacles nor baffled by contradictions because he denies their existence. Strength of faith, as Bergson pointed out, manifests itself not in moving mountains but in not seeing mountains to move. And it is the certitude of his infallible doctrine that renders the true believer impervious to the uncertainties, surprises and the unpleasant realities of the world around him. Thus the effectiveness of a doctrine should not be judged by its profundity, sublimity or the validity of the truths it embodies, but by how thoroughly it insulates the individual from his self and the world as it is. What Pascal said of an effective religion is true of any effective doctrine: it must be “contrary to nature, to common sense and to pleasure.”

Those insights about true believers in fanatical movements
resonate every bit as much today as they did 70 years ago.

© 2021 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

July 20, 2021 at 4:32 AM

44 Responses

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  1. My black-eyed susans in the yard look just like your sunflower. Almost ready but not quite.

    Steve Gingold

    July 20, 2021 at 4:42 AM

    • I’ve noticed several species in the sunflower family that open their heads asymmetrically. You’ve added black-eyed susans to the group. Presumably that pattern was already present in the common ancestor of those species.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 20, 2021 at 7:27 AM

  2. The sunflower bud is very pretty! From the Wikipedia link, Hoffer had a varied and unusual life. His comments on mass movements appear to correspond well with the QAnon movement.

    Ms. Liz

    July 20, 2021 at 6:09 AM

    • I remember from when I was young that Hoffer was referred to as the “longshoreman philosopher.” Like you, I was prompted by these passages to read up a bit on his unusual life.

      My understanding is that Hoffer was looking at common traits of “true believers” as a type, rather than any inpaticular. In the third quotation he mentions Japanese militarists and Soviet Communists, because at that time (1951) they had recently caused the deaths of millions of people.

      I’ve heard of QAnon but have never knowingly met anyone in that movement. If I did, I’d ask questions to find out what they believe. There don’t seem to be many of them, and as far as I can tell they don’t control anything. In contrast, the “woke” are in charge of or have great influence in higher education, teachers’ unions, entertainment, much of the news media, some large corporations, and increasingly our government.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 20, 2021 at 7:20 AM

      • “The FBI has arrested more than 20 self-identified QAnon adherents who participated in the 6 January violent unlawful entry of the Capitol.” ~from an FBI Bulletin at Scribd which explains what QAnon is and provides an Outlook that some [disappointed] adherents are likely to engage in real world violence and attempt to harm Democrats and others. The guy with the horns at the Capitol attack was one of them. Marjorie Taylor Greene was a QAnon supporter in the past. Link: https://www.scribd.com/document/511874438/Adherence-to-QAnon-Conspiracy-Theory-by-Some-Domestic-Violent-Extremists#from_embed

        Ms. Liz

        July 20, 2021 at 5:52 PM

        • Wow: “more than 20.” In a country of over 300 million people, of course you have some crazies on the political right. I’m not for craziness. I am for weighing things. The few hundred people who broke into the Capitol are a minuscule percent of the number of left-wing rioters who for month after month in 2020 caused over a billion dollars in damage, destroyed hundreds or thousands of businesses (many of them minority-owned), and caused the deaths of at least some people. If you’re outraged about the “more than 20” QAnon members, you must be apoplectic about the thousands of Antifa and Black Lives Matter rioters who did hugely greater damage—and who almost entirely got away with it.

          Steve Schwartzman

          July 20, 2021 at 6:56 PM

          • The 20 were only the ones who “self-identified” but many people have been sucked into or influenced by the conspiracy theories they’ve propagated. It’s white supremacy that’s the real danger and we’ve already seen how the lies about the “stolen election” incited the violence. A DHS newsletter from 07 June stated, “Racially or Ethnically Motivated Violent Extremists-White Supremacists2 (RMVE-WSs) are a subset of the Domestic Violent Extremist (DVE) and have been the most lethal DVE movement since 2001. RMVE-WS are motivated by a belief in the superiority of the white race and primarily target religious, racial, and ethnic minorities, places of worship, and law enforcement because they perceive these targets as opposing their goals or threatening the white race. ~CP3 Newsletter: Issue 1

            Ms. Liz

            July 20, 2021 at 7:49 PM

            • I’m Jewish, so I have no use for white supremacists. However, white supremacists control no institutions and pose practically no threat to me or the country, whereas “woke” fanatics are quickly gaining control of most institutions and threaten the very existence of this country as a free nation. What the DHS says under the current administration is nothing but “woke” propaganda.

              Steve Schwartzman

              July 20, 2021 at 10:24 PM

              • Some of these militia are keen to start a Civil War! And there was the plot to kidnap Governor Whitmer in Michigan. And the attack at the Capitol. It’s hardly trivial.

                Ms. Liz

                July 20, 2021 at 11:46 PM

                • As I’ve acknowledged, there are some crazies of the QAnon sort. You seem obsessed with that small bunch, which has no institutional power, while consistently ignoring the much larger bunch of racialist, dogmatic, cancel-crazy, delusional, free-speech-hating extremists that mostly control the news media, entertainment, sports, higher education, the teachers’ unions, and now the branches of the government itself, including the military. If those ideologues succeed in bringing down the United States—and make no mistake, that is their goal—the Tasman Sea might soon become an extension of the South China Sea, and there’ll be no one left to protect you the way the United States did the last time around.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  July 21, 2021 at 5:39 AM

                • The current administration is simply trying to give all Americans a fair go instead of a favoured few and that includes things like truth and respect for diverse groups of people, and for the environment. They’re not trying to bring down the United States.

                  Ms. Liz

                  July 21, 2021 at 6:27 AM

                • I strongly disagree. If the people in charge wanted “to give all Americans a fair go,” they wouldn’t deny black children a decent education, as they’ve been doing for decades. It’s easier for educationists to scream racism at every will-o-the-wisp than to teach arithmetic and geography and history. Kids get passed along from grade to grade no matter how little they’ve learned, and at the end they’re handed a meaningless diploma. The teachers’ unions, which are as closely allied to the current administration as any group could be, are educational criminals.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  July 21, 2021 at 7:21 AM

                • I know little about the US education system, unlike you. I think individual States get to determine their curriculum? so Republicans hold sway in Texas and are removing some core curriculum elements that in my view should be mandatory like MLK’s Dream and Birmingham Jail speeches. I have much sympathy for educators who always get caught up in the left/right conflicts over race and religion (thinking of past conflict over theory of evolution). It must be really tough being a teacher.

                  Ms. Liz

                  July 21, 2021 at 4:22 PM

                • You’re correct that each state sets its own educational curricula and standards, setting forth the minimum things that must be covered in each course. Public schools put lots of time and energy into trying to get students to meet those minimum requirements, though schools on the whole fail to get them there (which offers evidence that they’re not using the right methods!). In the process, the smart kids often get shortchanged, with the educational establishment taking the stance that smart kids will fend for themselves and don’t need any extra attention. I disagree, and when I’ve had advanced sections I’ve always pushed those kids intellectually, asking lots of questions. Will this math rule still work if a certain condition is changed? Does the rule apply in this circumstance the way it did in that other one? Can we generalize this rule to other circumstances? Etc. So you see my own predilection as a teacher has always been to go beyond the minimum requirements. [I’ll split this up and continue in a separate comment.]

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  July 21, 2021 at 6:44 PM

                • I like the questioning approach, very much!

                  Ms. Liz

                  July 21, 2021 at 7:06 PM

                • So let’s come back to Texas Senate Bill 3, which passed in that chamber and must also be passed in the House to go on to the governor for him to sign into law. You can find the text of Senate Bill 3 here:


                  If you scroll down to Section 2, you’ll see the list of social studies topics to be covered. They include founding documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. They include more-recent things like the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. They also include the complexity of the historic relationship between Texas and Mexico, and the diversity of the Hispanic population in Texas. You’re correct that Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream speech” and his letter from the Birmingham jail are not specifically mentioned. I’d certainly include them if I were teaching 20th century American history. Senate Bill 3 can’t list every possible topic, so it says explicitly: “Nothing in Subsections (h-2) and (h-7) may be construed as limiting the teaching of or instruction in the essential knowledge and skills adopted under this subchapter.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  July 21, 2021 at 6:57 PM

                • Thanks for the link! I’ll follow that up when I have a bit of time. I’m glad to have a bit of help in understanding the situation!

                  Ms. Liz

                  July 21, 2021 at 7:04 PM

                • In spite of that, some leftist writers lied and said the bill prohibits teachers from discussing things like the Ku Klux Klan or the Jim Crow era. One writer disingenuously said: “Quick kids, read this before Texas makes it illegal to teach it.”

                  What the bill does prohibit is teaching that one race is better than another, or making kids feel guilty because their skin is a certain color. You can read Section 4 for yourself and see the other prohibitions. Teachers in some Texas school had started incorporating so-called Critical Race Theory into their classes, and Texas rightly wants to stop that.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  July 21, 2021 at 7:04 PM

                • I’m slowly working on getting a better understanding. There’s too much hysteria from both sides.

                  Ms. Liz

                  July 21, 2021 at 7:09 PM

  3. Those are beautiful. I love the blue sky with the yellow blooms.


    July 20, 2021 at 7:07 AM

    • Once I found this gracefully opening sunflower I knew I’d be able to get good pictures. Both shades of blue made good backgrounds for the sunflower’s yellow, which shines out especially rich against the dark blue.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 20, 2021 at 7:25 AM

      • Indeed! 😀


        July 20, 2021 at 7:27 AM

        • My use of flash and a small aperture (f/16) for the top picture darkened the blue sky and saturated the sunflower’s yellow rays.

          Steve Schwartzman

          July 20, 2021 at 7:45 AM

          • I very rarely take my speedlight with me, especially on hikes, and I tend to forget about my pop up flash, and my Full Frame camera doesn’t have on-board flash. You did good work there with yours. 😀


            July 20, 2021 at 8:07 AM

            • I miss the built-in flash that all of my crop-sensor Canon bodies had. It was convenient when I suddenly needed some extra light and didn’t have to stop, take out a separate flash, and mount it. By then a live subject might well have moved away. Plus there’s the extra weight I now have to lug around with me, including the flash itself and its four batteries. Oh well, that’s part of the price for getting the better quality of a full-frame sensor.

              Steve Schwartzman

              July 20, 2021 at 8:45 AM

  4. The asymmetrical opening of the sunflower bud is going to reveal the astounding geometry inside.

    Peter Klopp

    July 20, 2021 at 8:47 AM

  5. This is a beautiful photograph. Very sweet portrait. I once was invited to a gluten-free dinner at a friend’s house, to convince me that one can have a good dinner without this evil protein. The main item was barley soup. They did not seem to know that barley has gluten, and during dinner, conversed about the advantages of their poison-free diet. How much better they felt after making the life-changing resolution of saying no to gluten. I smiled.

    Alessandra Chaves

    July 20, 2021 at 8:47 AM

    • The curvaceous “movement” toward the upper left appealed to me in these images.

      Two weeks ago we had supper with friends we hadn’t seen since the pandemic began. One dish they served featured gluten-free pasta. It had a somewhat different texture from regular pasta but otherwise tasted about the same. Our friends find that avoiding gluten makes them feel better, and so for them it’s an advantage. I haven’t done a controlled experiment myself, but as far as I know gluten doesn’t have a negative effect on me.

      What you said about your friend not seeming to know barley contains gluten is interesting. You apparently didn’t want to spoil his dinner by pointing out that barley does contain gluten. I searched online and found a company selling barley flour and advertising it as “gluten free.” The package in the accompanying photograph, however, didn’t have the incorrect “gluten free” on its label.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 20, 2021 at 11:06 AM

      • I mentioned this because I think that beliefs are a powerful thing. Sometimes people will embrace a certain dogma without really understanding what they are doing. People will get inaccurate information, understand half of it, then embrace this whole new dogmatic thinking that has little basis in reality. My friends were consuming gluten regularly through barley, but because they did not know that, they continued to feel that their gluten-free diet had improved their lives. Embracing a gluten free diet without any good reason for it does not hurt anybody, but some dogmatic ideas that people embrace out there actually do.

        Alessandra Chaves

        July 20, 2021 at 3:41 PM

        • Amen to your last sentence. That’s why I started speaking out in the second part of many of my recent posts (which I’ve usually separated from the first part so that people who are only interested in nature photography can stop there).

          As for your gluten-free friends, in the interest of truth you should probably point out to them that barley contains gluten. And in the interest of etymology, I’ll point out that the English word glue traces back to Latin gluten, which in fact meant ‘glue.’

          Steve Schwartzman

          July 20, 2021 at 4:02 PM

  6. There’s nothing common about the ‘common sunflower,’ especially when one is isolated from its companions — at least, photographically speaking — and its details revealed. At this stage, I sometimes have to look twice to figure out whether I’m looking at a sunflower or a Silphium. The differences aren’t exactly subtle, but it can be akin to sorting out coneflower species. This pair of photos is proof that every sort of the patented Schwartzman sky can be appealing.

    I still have my copy of Hoffer’s book; it was included on the reading list of my first college sociology course. Despite the seriousness of the issues, both then and now, I did smile at that second paragraph. It reminded me of our new term “Karens,” and the mask-minding that goes on. If someone wishes to mask, fine. If someone doesn’t, fine. But a proportion of the population seems to feel as though they’re been appointed the arbiters of others’ behavior, and certain scenes I’ve witnessed are remarkable.

    It also reminded me of that wonderful C.S. Lewis observation: “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”


    July 21, 2021 at 6:58 AM

    • What a great C.S. Lewis quotation! How have I not come across it before (or forgotten about it if I have read it)? That, along with the Hoffer (which I’d not read in college) and some of those remarkable scenes you say you’ve witnessed would make for a good “The Task at Hand” post. Hope you won’t keep us waiting long.

      As for the post’s botanical subject, you’ve heard me say more than once that there’s nothing common about the “common” sunflower. The species is carrying on later this year than usual, with good stands around town still flowering their heads off two-thirds of the way through July.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 21, 2021 at 8:01 AM

  7. […] quadrant of Mopac and US 183 on July 10th had me stalking sunflowers (Helianthus annuus), not just their buds and flower heads but also their rough stalks that present so many opportunities for photographic abstractions. For […]

  8. Hmm….not quite sure what source you are using for this “there’ll be no one left to protect you the way the United States did the last time around.” Our NZ view of the Vietnam War (if that is what you are referring to) is quite different. https://nzhistory.govt.nz/war/vietnam-war One also has to wonder if the US would rush to protect us anyway, even if we asked them to, because of our long running spat over New Zealand’s anti-nuclear legislation which effectively bars US military vessels from coming to NZ. Let’s hope we never have to find out.


    July 21, 2021 at 10:23 PM

    • I was thinking back to World War II, when the United States stopped the southern advance of Japan. Today the problem is China, which has aggressively pushed pretty far into the South China Sea. If you look at the map at


      you’ll see that China claims all the water down to Borneo, even though most of that is far from China and close to Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia, which it keeps threatening.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 21, 2021 at 10:58 PM

      • Ah, that is a different reference, then. Yes, the US did stop the southern advance of Japan but they did it with help from their allies, New Zealand and Australia. I can’t find the references just now but the US forces would have been in the Pacific without a paddle if it hadn’t been for the development of a sophisticated radar system and radar personnel units in NZ. These were deployed and relied on by the US forces in the initial stages of the Pacific Theatre of War. And, yes, China does claim a lot of water. So does NZ, through its EEZ, the main difference, of course, is that we don’t build on reefs and install runways.


        July 22, 2021 at 1:29 AM

        • I didn’t mean to slight the contributions of Australia and New Zealand in repelling the Japanese. (As an aside, when I was growing up I didn’t know that the famous physicist Ernest Rutherford was from New Zealand.) Radar developed by the British also helped the Americans. No question that it was a communal effort. Two things the United States contributed were a much larger population and a huge industrial capacity. (As another aside, you may have heard of Admiral Chester Nimitz, who commanded the U.S. Pacific fleet in World War II. He was from Fredericksburg, a town about an hour and a half west of Austin. Fredericksburg is now home to the National Museum of the Pacific War.)

          Not only doesn’t New Zealand build on reefs and install runways, it also doesn’t have a “president” for life, threaten its neighbors, steal intellectual property, suppress people’s freedom, etc.

          Steve Schwartzman

          July 22, 2021 at 8:38 AM

          • I didn’t know about the National Museum of the Pacific War near you. Our closest ‘war’ museum is just across town. My father used to like to visit there as it is on the site of the old air force base where he began his war service. I know you didn’t mean to slight our ANZAC contributions and in fact you didn’t do so. Let’s just say that for some of my generation who came of age in the Vietnam war era and the nuclear free Pacific era, our relationship with the US is complicated. Ditto with France, which sponsored a terrorist attack in NZ. Younger generations, being generally ignorant of history as they are, do not have these sensitivities over US power play in those years.


            July 23, 2021 at 10:03 PM

            • I’m sorry to hear that the younger generations over there are as ignorant of history as those over here.

              Steve Schwartzman

              July 24, 2021 at 1:08 AM

  9. The two images of the sunflower are beautiful. I prefer the dark blue background. Perhaps one can imagine the unfurling of the sunflower rays as the unfurling and opening of the mind to enlightenment.


    July 21, 2021 at 10:27 PM

    • I favor the dark blue background, too. And what great symbolism in “the unfurling of the sunflower rays as the unfurling and opening of the mind to enlightenment.”

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 21, 2021 at 11:00 PM

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