Mack Williams column: Sailing silk

  • Posted: Monday, October 14, 2013 1:20 a.m.
    UPDATED: Monday, October 14, 2013 1:57 a.m.

On my exercise walk the other day, something sailed past my face. Compared to my plodding, jerky cardio, that object wafted along in a steady smooth legato, truer “lighter than air” than any zeppelin or blimp. It was one of those seed-carrying, seed-sowing tufts of plant silk, purely vegetable in origin, made by a dandy lion, milkweed, etc., and not spun by a crawling caterpillar.

If a man’s necktie were to be crafted from this sort of “silk,” the substance and texture would be so negligible as to necessitate its tying down with a metal clasp just to keep it from flapping about in even the slightest of breezes, i.e. its wearer’s exhaled breath.


I saw several more tiny “puffballs” being ushered along by the breeze in the parking lot at the local mall. Those kept on going as if they sensed that any dropping of seed there would be similar to those dropped in Biblical “fallow ground.”

Just as I was driving off the other day, one of these “silks” floated into my car by way of the window, but I quickly “shooed” it outside with my hand, knowing that if it dropped its seed, it could not take root there. The state of clutter in my car might say otherwise, but at least I don’t think I have anything living there that even approaches that which was living in that garbage compactor on the Death Star.

I later chatted with a pleasantly attractive and sweet lady who was sitting on a bench beneath a tree. My respectful gaze into her eyes kept being interrupted constantly by a small multitude of puffballs passing by in the background. Their frequency was as at about the same rate as that of shooting stars in one of the more prominent annual meteor showers. If she took offense, or mistook my apparent “attention-deficitness” to mean that I was in a rush to be someplace else, she didn’t say so.

Innately feeling the need for outside corroboration of what I had seen, I mentioned those frequently flying silk puffs to her, and to my surprise (and reassurance) she said she had noticed their prevalence too.

Over the next several days, I found myself keeping track of these floating orbs’ appearance as they glided into my field of vision. I saw them lit brilliantly in noonday light, while garnished with red at sunset and morning, bringing the sailor’s weather warnings from the clouds to within reach. Unlike the canvas of a tall ship, there was no taughtness in these sails’ rigging.

Since some of them passed by minus their black “spots,” it was evident that they had already dropped their cargo and were now sailing seedless, just for the pure enjoyment of the ride.

My reference to “dropped cargo” suddenly reminds me of during the late 1950s to early 1960s when my father and I would watch an old World War II movie on our black-and-white TV (a “black-and-white” redundancy there). When an upward pan of the camera showed a multitude of parachutes floating to earth, my father would often say “Someone blew a dandy lion!”

Later, in the light of an afternoon sun, a great number of these feathery wisps were miraculously drifting in every direction of the compass, but within the bounds of a relatively small space. Looking more closely, I realized that most of these were under their own power, and were the sunlit, membranous wings of insects similarly illuminated in that slanted, evening light.

My sighting of the silk was lost at nighttime, but I’m sure that their fibers still caught the incandescent, lunar, planetary, and perhaps even some faint stellar rays.

I notice the puffs everywhere now, but can’t believe that they are any more prevalent this year than in any of my previous 61. Perhaps I’m just more “attuned” to them now, in the same manner as a hunter for arrowheads becomes attuned to the sight of just a bit of projectile point poking through the soil.

Unlike the lesser silken puffs from other plants, those of the milkweed plant are the comparative “colossi” of the seed dispersal world. Seeing one of them whisk by the other day in a gusty breeze, I thought of the tonsorial fashion of teasing involved in ladies’ trips to the beauty parlor in the 1960s (the word “beehive” coming to mind). A few of those same ladies are still enamored of that style, along with similar ones of the day, to which they now add a bit of blue.

Passing under a tree, I saw something white drifting down, but it wasn’t a silken puff. In addition to the direction of its motion, it actually was “down,” feathery down, evidently dislodged from an old bird nest where it had been stuck since spring. Being of a little more substance than what I had seen previously floating, it didn’t veer too much from its falling path.

A different sort of way to conclude a reverie of plant silk sailing through the air is to mention the crucial service performed by such silk for the nation in the days of World War II. Due to the Japanese being in control of Java, our source of kapok as stuffing for life jackets was unavailable. Scientists back then determined that the silk of the milkweed seed pod was almost totally impervious to the absorption of water and would make an excellent substitute. Thousands of schoolchildren were enlisted in the nationwide effort to collect milkweed seedpods and send them in so the silk could be extracted to make “milkweed kapok” for the life jackets of American sailors.

The milkweed leaves, however, provided no wartime service, as they were needed at home as the sole provider of the Monarch butterfly caterpillar.

After World War II, many G.I.s went back to their civilian jobs, and the milkweed silk went back to its peacetime work of gracefully floating its seeds to whatever, perchance destination they might be bound. This followed its wartime service of valiantly and gracefully (well, perhaps not gracefully, but maybe a little so) floating U.S. Navy sailors in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans until their hour of rescue.

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