Tom Henry has given me a compelling reason to enjoy being stuck in traffic. Make that 365 reasons.
Henry, a commercial photographer, got a crazy idea last spring. He'd plant about 20 sunflowers on a stretch of unused airport land. But, as usually happens with crazy ideas, his grew. Pretty soon, Henry wanted to plant one sunflower for every day of the year, stretching 600 feet up and down a grassy hillside north of Hwy. 62/Crosstown between Cedar and 28th Avenues.
"Perhaps some kid looking out the window of an approaching flight," he wrote in an irresistible e-mail, "might happen upon it and gaze in wonder for a moment about how that got there."
First, though, he had to convince the Metropolitan Airport Commission (MAC). Then he had to convince his wife.
"Why not?" said Tim Anderson, deputy executive director for MAC operations and a member of the airport's arts and culture program. "The public is stressed enough as it is. It just made sense to add some fun while they're in or around the airport environment."
Anderson's arts group granted Henry about $1,100 for materials and tilling; Henry would do the rest. Henry went home to tell his wife, Cindy Nelson, a nurse at Hennepin County Medical Center, what he was up to.
"At first, she gave me this look like I might be crazy," Henry said. "Then she said it sounded whimsical."
Whimsical it is. I've never been as eager to pick up friends from the airport (unless they're arriving after sundown). As I toured what Henry charmingly calls his "Long and Winding Row," Minneapolis resident Maria Duane wandered up. Duane had seen a flyer at the Nokomis Community Center about Henry's living art installation.
"I knew that I had to come see it," said Duane, a birder and lover of sunflowers. "How did you come to think of it? It's just fabulous!"
Henry, who has inserted tiny wood markers to delineate each month, walked Duane to "her" birthday sunflower, April 28, and took her picture in front of it. Duane was delighted. "We need more things like this," she said.
Neighbors agree. Tom and Shary Mulhere, who live down the hill, offered Henry unlimited use of their hose for watering which, it turns out, was one huge chore. At first, Henry schlepped 40 gallons of water in buckets up the hill twice a week. Now it's 180 gallons, and three to four hours of watering weekly. "I love it when it rains," he said.
Some flowers already have reached heights of 10 feet; others are still puny. That means, he said, "that the show will go on a little longer," probably into early September.
The Mulheres hosted a Sunflower Happy Hour to celebrate Henry's accomplishment earlier this month. "Look how beautiful it is," Shary Mulhere said. "He worked so hard."
Henry isn't stopping at planting. After hours of watering, weeding and tending, he realized that it would be a shame to let an estimated 250,000 nutritious sunflower seeds go to waste. So he e-mailed Solveig Tofte, co-owner of Sun Street Breads in Minneapolis (www.sunstreetbreads.com). She jumped on board for roasting, even though, she says with a laugh, "I can't exactly picture what it means to roast hundreds of thousands of seeds."
The only sunflower Henry won't harvest is growing skyward in the 9/11 spot.
Once roasted, Henry will package and donate the seeds to food banks. (If you'd like to donate a drying space or packaging materials, please contact Henry at email@example.com. You also can visit Sunflowers of Summer on Facebook to enjoy Henry's photographs of the world's happiest flower.)
The funny thing is, Henry never planted a sunflower in his life before beginning this project. In fact, he never planted any flower. Now, he's hooked. That's good because MAC's Anderson is thinking about expanding the sunflower project to other spots around the airport next year.
Henry hopes you won't wait that long to see them. Today's a good day.
"I'm hoping that when rush-hour traffic comes to a standstill, people who are stressed will look up," Henry said, "and they'll feel the tension slide off their shoulders."
Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350 firstname.lastname@example.org