Tuesday, November 10, 2009

History Channel to Feature Saranac WWII Veteran

A History Channel documentary will feature an Adirondack veteran of World War Two: Archie Sweeney of Saranac Lake. The 10-hour series WWII in HD, which will air over over five consecutive nights from Sunday through Thursday, November 15-19 will be narrated by Gary Sinise.

Archie Sweeney was a resident of Saranac Lake Village (where one of his sisters still lives; another lives in Glens Falls), who came to the series late in production according to Larry Miller, who did research and character development for most of the men and women in the series. “I had finished preliminary work for six characters when I got a call from the producer who told me that they wanted a character who was killed early in the war, preferably in North Africa,” Miller told me. “That was going to be a problem for several reasons. Men who died early in the war had very little time to write letters or diaries so there would probably be very little material to work with. There would be no oral histories recorded and obviously no book written.”

What Miller hoped to find was a man who had surviving family members and who had saved information relating to his experiences. “Almost immediately, my thoughts turned to the Adirondacks,” Miller says. “My chances to find surviving relatives were better if I could find someone from a small town rather than, for example, Manhattan. These families were, at the time, less mobile than those from larger cities. A side benefit would be that I could work and be in the Adirondacks simultaneously.”

Miller began his search by reading the casualty lists published in the New York Times where he found three men from the Adirondack region who had been killed in action in North Africa. A search of their obituaries told Miller that two of the men were survived by only their parents – the third was Archie Sweeney, whose several siblings survived the war. “After several months of researching newspapers, public records, service records and interviewing his surviving relatives, I had gathered enough information about the young man to write a narrative of his short life and brave death,” Miller said.

Larry Miller sent the short biography he wrote about Archie Sweeney to the Almanack. Here it is in its entirety:

Corporal Archie Sweeney was twenty one years old when he graduated from Saranac Lake High School in Saranac Lake, New York. He was not their best student. Once he teasingly told his two little sisters that when you did well in high school they used the word “flunked”, so when he came home one day and told his mother that he had flunked math, the girls greeted him with hugs and congratulated him.

“Polite” was the term most often attached to his name. It helps to be polite when you share your living space with eight brothers and sisters. And it becomes a survival skill when you are separated from your family, Archie to one relative and his two younger sisters to another, because your mother has died and your father is too ill to care for you. (His mother died from cancer and his father has a broken neck that he sustained while digging trenches along the roadside. After his accident, he spent many months in a body case.)

At the time of her death, Archie was working two jobs and attending high school. He loved his days spent on his father’s farm in Lawrenceville, a tiny village in upstate New York almost as much as the times he and his brothers spent at their dad’s hunting camp Floodwood, a speck on the map located in the Adirondack Mountains, where they hunted and fished during the fall and winter when the farming was idle. It was during those frigid winters that his sisters remember Archie bundling them up, seating them in a sleigh, hitching the horse up and driving them to church.

When the war broke out, Archie was the first young man whose number was called in the draft lottery held in nearby Lake Placid. But Archie has enlisted the previous day. On New Years Day, 1941, he told his older brother that this was a good way to start the year. It was time to move on; to see what life had in store for him. Two days later he walked to Lake Placid a few miles away, to report for his physical.

He took a train, the first time he had ever been on one, to Fort Bragg, N.C. where his politeness was put to the test training with the 39th Infantry, 9th Division.

By the middle of March, he had been assigned to Company H and proudly sent his company photograph home. There he stood, right next to the company flag, all 5’ 11”, 145 pounds of him, standing ram-rod straight and looking quite serious.

Early that summer, Archie returned home and stayed at the farm. One of his sisters took a snapshot of him standing proudly in front of their barn. That evening, as she was preparing for bed, she saw Archie, standing as comfortably as if he had been sitting, watching as the sun set. “What are you looking at?” she asked. “I’m just looking. I don’t know if I’ll ever see this again.”

On 25 September 1942 the 39th, the Fighting Falcons, boarded 5 ships and sailed out of New York harbor. On the 6th of October 1942 and about 4,000 miles later, the convoy dropped anchor in Belfast Harbor. The 39th moved to Scotland and awaited the departure of the 47th and 60th Infantry Regiments from the US and their first D-Day.

The 9th Infantry Division saw its first combat in the North African invasion when its elements landed at Algeria in Ain-Taya 15 miles east of the city of Algeria on November 8, 1942. Moving swiftly the 39th defeated the Vichy-French troops and had the city surrounded.

The next three months were spent guarding communications lines along their front.

Company B picked up a new rifle platoon leader during this period, Lieutenant Charles Scheffel.

The war was not going well. The Germans were retreating but we couldn’t face Rommel’s tanks with our big guns. The units that tried that at Kasserine Pass suffered a devastating defeat.

The U.S. plan involved the U.S. 1st and 9th Infantry Divisions, to occupy the hills on opposite sides of the El Guettar Pass which would enable the armored troops to pass through the valley without being fired on from its flanks. This force attacked Hill 369 on the afternoon of 30 March but ran into mines and anti-tank fire, losing 5 tanks. The tanks were removed, and the 1st and 9th attacked again the next day at 06:00, moving up and taking several hundred prisoners. However an Italian counterattack drove them back from their newly gained positions, and by 12:45 they were back where they started with the loss of 9 tanks and 2 tank destroyers. A further attempt the next day on 1 April also failed, after barely getting started.

Captain Scheffel recalled that, “On March 27, 1943, my first wedding anniversary, I took out Ruth’s picture and wished I was back in Enid. I kept thinking what a shitty place to spend an anniversary. At least we weren’t fired on during the first night, and for that, I was grateful.”

On April 1, Archie was writing a letter home. “It’s very quite here this evening. I think the war may be coming to an end.” [see p 7 of my notes-when the skirmish occurred a few days later.]

His older brother, Harold, received a telegram on May 8th, 1943 informing him that Archie was “Missing in Action”. Two days later an Army chaplain arrived at his door to tell them that Archie had been killed the same evening he wrote his letter.

He was twenty five years old; the first Saranac Lake Village soldier to die in action.

Photo: Saranac Lake’s Archie Sweeney during World War Two. Photo provided.


Monday, November 9, 2009

Reminder: Local Journalism Conference Tuesday

Just a short reminder that the Adirondack Center for Writing (ACW) is hosting a journalism conference at the Blue Mountain Center, in Blue Mountain Lake, tomorrow (November 10th).

The keynote speaker will be environmental journalist Jeff Goodell, author of Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy Future (Houghton Mifflin, 2007). I will participate as a panelist in a discussion on blogs. Will Doolittle of the Glens Falls Post-Star, Mike Hill of the Associated Press and Brian Mann of North Country Public Radio will also be there.

The conference is open to all. For more information contact the Adirondack Center for Writing, at (518) 327-6278 or acw@paulsmiths.edu.


Monday, November 9, 2009

The Last Days of John Brown: The Famous Beard

For reasons of political expediency, Republicans in the North initially distanced themselves from John Brown and his raiders. Many joined the chorus of (often pro-slavery) voices proclaiming Brown insane, no doubt in part to protect their own political party, for as John Brown’s biographer David S. Reynolds put it, “the implication was that republicans, and by extension many Northerners, were lawbreakers who threatened national peace.” The truth of course, was that Brown had probably already planned a raid into Virginia to free slaves there before the Republican Party was founded in 1854. » Continue Reading.


Monday, November 9, 2009

APA: Big Tupper, Route 28, Lows Lake, Zoning, Snowmobile Trails

The Adirondack Park Agency (APA) will meet on Thursday and Friday (November 12th and 13th) at APA Headquarters in Ray Brook to consider the temporary re-opening of the Big Tupper Ski Area, reconstruction and widening of Route 28 in Oneida County, and more. Amendments to the park’s land use maps will also be considered, including whether to set a public hearing for the re-classification of about 31,570 acres. » Continue Reading.


Sunday, November 8, 2009

Are You Getting The Almanack Every Day?

More than 1,200 people get Adirondack Almanack delivered to their In-box each day.

You can subscribe through E-Mail or RSS, or follow us on Twitter or Facebook.

It’s a convenient way to get real-time news and information about the Adirondacks.


Sunday, November 8, 2009

4th Annual Carnivorous Nights Taxidermy Contest

It’s time to haul that albino jack-a-lope out of the attic; time to dust off that high quality deer butt door bell, or other animal rump art, and head down to the big city to show ’em how its done. Yes – it’s strange taxidermy time and “Science Geeks, Nature Freaks, and Rogue Geniuses” will be gathering Sunday, November 15th at the 4th Annual Carnivorous Nights Taxidermy Contest at the Bell House, a 1920’s warehouse converted into a music and events venue in Gowanus, Brooklyn. The event is hosted by the Secret Science Club, which bills itself as a “lecture, arts, and performance series.”

“Show off your beloved moose head, stuffed albino squirrel, sinuous snake skeletons, jarred sea slugs, and other specimens,” the event announcement reads, “Compete for prizes and glory!” There will be a “feral taxidermy talk by beast mistress Melissa Milgrom,” author of the forth-coming book, Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy and an appearance by the Grand Master of Taxidermy, Takeshi Yamada. But the highlight of the event will be a juried taxidermy show judged by a panel of “savage taxidermy enthusiasts” that includes Robert Marbury, co-founder of the Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists, and Secret Science Club co-curator Dorian Devins.

The contest is open to any and all taxidermy (homemade, purchased, and found), preserved and jarred specimens, skeletons, skulls, and gaffs and beyond. The organizers are quick to point out this year that wet specimens must remain in their jars. Prizes will be awarded for categories that include best stuffed creature, most interesting biological oddity, and more.

Entrants need only contact secretscienceclub@gmail.com to pre-register, and arrive at 7 pm on the night of the contest.

The contest was begun in 2005 by Secret Science Club co-curators Margaret Mittelbach and Michael Crewdson as a promotion for this taxidermy-inspired book Carnivorous Nights: On the Trail of the Tasmanian Tiger. “The event has since taken on a life of its own,” the organizers tell us, after first-year winners Andrew Templar and Jim Carden (co-owners of the Bell House) began providing a permanent home for what has been dubbed a “beastly annual smack-down.”

Photo: Mike Zohn of Obscura Antiques received the 2008 Order of Carnivorous Knights Grand Prize for his “shadowbox mise en scene” of albino weasels posing as miniature polar bears.


Saturday, November 7, 2009

Sea Serpents in the Adirondacks? You Bet!

Scandinavian folklore has described eskers as being formed by large sea serpents crawling inland to die. Celtic lore describes eskers as being formed by monks carrying baskets of sand inland from the sea as a form of penitence. What are eskers?

They’re glacial features that kind of look like an up side-down riverbed. As a glacier retreats, it leaves behind outwash deposits of sand, gravel, and stone that may form long, interrupted, undulating ridges. Sometimes, just like a river, they branch off and there may be two or three in a roughly parallel arrangement. Colloquially, they have been called horsebacks, hogbacks, serpent ridges, and sand dunes.

Luckily, these interesting features are commonly encountered while paddling (and carrying) in the Adirondacks. Most Adirondack eskers run in a NE to SW arc, starting near the N. Br. of the Saranac and extending to Stillwater Reservoir, with the highest concentration within the combined St. Regis/Saranac basin. Others are found in the drainages of West Canada Creek and the Schroon, Moose, Hudson, and Cedar Rivers. The Rainbow Lake esker bisects that lake; A. F. Buddington, an early geologist, says this is one of the finer examples of an esker and considers it to extend (in a discontinuous manner) for 85 miles.

There is a long discontinuous esker from Mountain Pond through Keese Mill, passing between Upper St. Regis Lake and the Spectacle Ponds, and continuing to Ochre, Fish, and Lydia Ponds in the St. Regis Canoe Area. Other very interesting eskers are found on the lower Osgood, at Massawepie Lake (you drive on the esker to get to this lake), near Hitchins Pond on the Bog River/Lows Lake trip, and along the Saranac River near its namesake village. An esker in the Five Ponds Wilderness can be paddled to (though is usually hiked to). It bisects theses ponds and, at 150 feet high, is among the tallest.

Examples of twin or double eskers are those at Rainbow and Massawepie Lakes and there are triple ridges near Jenkins Mountain and Cranberry Lake. Eskers make for great hikes. They generally support tall stands of white pines. You can often see related glacial features such as kames, kettle holes, and kettle ponds. If you’re lucky, you might also find some sea serpent scales. If you can’t find these, put on your penitent face and bring along a basket of ocean sand on your next paddling trip.

Map of the Rainbow Lake esker (to come) by A. F. Buddington, 1939-1941. Esker ridges are indicated by yellow shading. Source: Geology of the Saranac Quadrangle, New York, a 1953 New York State Museum bulletin (# 346)


Saturday, November 7, 2009

In Newcomb: Identifying Roadside Roses

Perhaps November is really not the time of year to try to identify roadside roses. Sure, the hips are lovely, and they certainly look as though they should be distinctive. Lots of trees are easily identified by their fruits alone, so why not roses? How difficult could it be?

I confess right up front that while I appreciate roses as much as the next person, I am not a rose aficionado, one of those people for whom roses are the sole reason for existing on this planet. I enjoy their colors, their fragrances, and their abundance of brightly colored fruits in the fall, but I don’t dedicate my life to their propagation. Perhaps if I spent a little more time among the roses, however, I wouldn’t find myself in my current predicament.

Last month I took some nice photos of some of the rosehips I found growing along Route 28N. It was early morning, there had been a crisp frost overnight, and I had my new lens to play with. I ended up with a nice image or two, and all was fine…until today, when I decided to write up an article about our local roadside roses. I mean, if you are going to write about something, you really should be able to identify what it is, beyond the obvious (rose). It turns out that sometimes this is easier said than done.

I started where I always start when trying to identify plants: my Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide. It listed several species, and had color illustrations of flowers, leaves, and even some of the hips. But since all I had to go by were some photos of the hips, I thought I should try to narrow the field by finding out what species actually grow in New York.

According to the Revised Checklist of New York State Plants, by Richard S. Mitchell and Gordon C. Tucker, New York is home to no less than twenty-eight species of roses, seventeen of which are non-natives, and two of which are endangered. Unfortunately, this checklist is just that: a checklist. It doesn’t give tips for identifying the plants it lists, nor does it provide a list of plant locations.

So, I next turned to the state’s new on-line nature information website: New York Nature Explorer (http://www.dec.ny.gov/natureexplorer/app/). It’s supposed to be your one-stop-shopping location for identifying and learning about the plants and animals of our fair state. I typed in “rose” and hit “search.” It turned up exactly one rose in the entire database (although it also listed things like rose pagonia – an orchid— and rose-breasted grosbeak—a bird). What happened to the other twenty-seven?

Not to be discouraged, I went to Google and ran searches for each rose on the checklist (it’s been a long morning). I found lots of photos of flowers, but few of hips. And none seemed to match mine. The light at the end of the tunnel was getting further and further away.

Turning back to Newcomb’s, I counted nine species of roses, all of which occur in New York. The other eighteen from The Checklist that were not listed are all non-natives, apparently garden types that jumped the garden wall. I figured that I had found my best possible source for ID help. Ironically, it was where I had started about four hours ago.

A couple, like the swamp rose (Rosa palustris), were easy to eliminate from my search – they require wetlands, or at least habitats that are more amenable than the dry, salty side of a highway. Smooth rose (R. blanda), as you might guess from its name, is a relatively thornless species. Looking closely at mine, it didn’t qualify. Not only was the stem covered with thorns both large and small, but so were the stipules at the end of the fruit.

The fruit of Rosa rugosa, a common escapee, look like balls that have been flattened on both ends. The fruits on my specimen do not fit this mold. I was ready to settle on it being a pasture rose (R. carolina), but all photos and drawings I found of this species were nowhere near as thorny as mine. My hopes of success were now pretty well dashed.

But that’s the great thing about being a naturalist—I have an undying curiosity to know the answer. I may not learn the identity of these roses today, tomorrow, or even this year. But you can rest assured that come summer next year, when the roses bloom and fill the air with their perfume, I will be out there with my field guide (and camera) in hand, determined to identify these plants. Even if I have to send specimens to the authors of The Checklist.


Friday, November 6, 2009

Weekly Adirondack Web Highlights


Friday, November 6, 2009

Lake Groups: Dead Zone Should be Lake George Wake-Up Call

A dead zone that re-appeared in Lake George’s south basin for the 23rd consecutive year this past summer is proof, if proof were required, of the need for greener land use practices, lake protection organizations argue.

The zone is an area depleted of oxygen and devoid of life that extends from Lake George Village to Tea Island, said Peter Bauer, the executive director of The Fund for Lake George.

“It forms in the south basin rather than in the northern basins, not because land use practices are better in Bolton or Hague, but because more tributaries flow into that basin,” said Bauer. “It’s truly the canary in the mine-shaft, a warning of future water quality trends if we don’t improve our land-use practices.”
» Continue Reading.


Friday, November 6, 2009

This Week’s Top Adirondack News Stories


Thursday, November 5, 2009

Adirondack Music Scene:Lowville Fond Farewell, Potsdam A Cappella, Reggae By The Rez

Music can be heard this week in Lowville, Potsdam, Saratoga, Thurman, and Saranac Lake (of course). Everything from a cappella to reggae to bluegrass. Quite a few events for the slowest month in the Adirondacks.

Thursday, November 5

There is a big show tonight in Lowville. The Lewis County Historical Society is hosting the last scheduled US performance of Tanglefoot,a Folk Roots Band from Ontario that has been performing together for 25 years. They have quite a following, so get there early if you don’t already have tickets. This concert is part of the Black River Valley Concert Series and starts at 8pm. Call 315-376-8957 to reserve tickets or for more info. http://www.tanglefootmusic.com

Friday, November 6

In Jay, the Jay Entertainment & Music Society (JEMS) is hosting Ballroom Dancing Instruction from 7-9pm. Cost is $5 per person or $8 per couple.
JEMS website: http://www.jemsgroup.com

The Putnam Den in Saratoga has The Breakfast playing from 10pm-2am. The Breakfast used to be called Psychedelic Breakfast and have played in the Adirondacks several times. We had them at Wiseguy’s in Lake Placid back in 2004 and they more recently headlined a night at The Backwoods Pondfest in Peru. They are a combination of Jazz and Rock. The Putnam Den is a relatively new venue and they have quite a few bigger bands on their schedule. I wish them luck, Saratoga has been in need of a good bar venue since Aiko’s closed down a few years ago. http://www.putnamden.com

Saturday, November 7

Potsdam area residents have some choices Saturday night. The band Shwa is playing at Clarkson University in The Cheel Commons at 8pm. Folk, Pop, and Rock influences can be heard here: http://www.shwamusic.com

Sweet Honey in the Rock will be performing in the Helen Hosmer Concert Hall at SUNY Potsdam. They are an a cappella group that has been performing together for 36 years. Show starts at 7:30pm. Listen here: http://www.sweethoney.com

Also at SUNY Potsdam, Ithaca-based Funk-Rock band Revision will play Hurley’s Nightclub at 7:30pm. This venue is operated by SUNY Potsdam students. The show is free for students and only $3 for the general public. http://www.revisionmusic.com

In Saranac Lake, Reggae band Spiritual Rez is playing my favorite Adirondack venue – The Waterhole #3 – at 10pm. These guys are a national act on their way to WV, NC and FL after this show. Spiritual Rez also played the Songs by the Lake Concert Series in Lake Placid this past summer. Band website: http://www.myspace.com/spiritualrez
Venue: http://saranaclakewaterhole.com or http://www.myspace.com/saranacwaterhole

Sunday, November 8

Sunday the party moves to Thurman. Hickory Ski Center is reopening this winter and Sunday is their Open House. The Stony Creek Band will be playing in their Base Lodge from 1-4pm, there will be food on site, and there will be a job fair. The Stony Creek Band is a group of very talented musicians playing mostly bluegrass originals and covers. I especially enjoy the mandolin and sometimes dobro.
Band website: http://www.stonycreekband.com
Hickory Ski Center: http://www.hickoryskicenter.com

Just a few miles away at The Stony Creek Inn, The Rock Brothers are playing at 7pm. They have live music every Sunday and it is very popular. People usually show up for dinner around 4-6pm and stick around for some dance music. This is also the home of The Stony Creek Band, who plays here about once per month.

If I were going to travel out of the area for a show this week it would be to Ithaca to see Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad. http://www.giantpandadub.com

Please also check out http://www.adkmusic.com for more music related stuff.

Photo: Tanglefoot Website


Thursday, November 5, 2009

In Paul Smiths: Owls Of An Adirondack Winter

With a full, November “beaver” moon overhead we plodded along on the Paul Smiths Visitor Interpretive Center trails. The crisp leaves of maple, birch, and beech that crunch underfoot seamlessly drowned out all sounds. We need to periodically stop and listen. I give a hooting call mimicking our native Barred Owl. Nothing on this first try. We walk through the woods some more, onto the other trail. “I heard something that time!” one of our listeners calls out. Just a distant dog barking. I move us farther down the trail to my lucky spot. Lucky because this is where I always find the owl we seek tonight.

Who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you-allll is what my hoot sounds like as it echos off the frosty forest that is as still as the inside of a church. The bright moonlight allows for somewhat easier watching of the silhouetted trees as we look up at them after every hoot is given. Finally a response. But it’s not the normal barred owl call that I expect. It’s higher in pitch and squeaky. I run through the archives of owl calls in my head but nothing clicks. » Continue Reading.


Thursday, November 5, 2009

Nate Pelton, Almanack’s Guest Adirondack Music Contributor

Our regular Adirondack Music Scene contributor Shamim Allen is over in Europe for the next six weeks, so North Creek’s Nate Pelton has graciously accepted the role of guest contributor while Shamim’s gone. I’ve been trying to get Nate to contribute for some time – he knows the music scene in the southern and eastern Adirondacks well, and would be an outstanding addition to our music coverage here at the Almanack, which tends to focus on the northern and western parts of the region. It’s my hope, this short foray into the world of the Almanack will become a permanent feature, but we’ll have to wait and see. Like most of us around these parts, Nate has a lot of irons in the fire.

After more than ten years as a raft guide and manager at Hudson River Rafting Company, Nate and his wife established the North Creek Rafting Company in 2006. During the “other” North Creek season, Nate is a trail groomer at Gore Mountain and runs the North Creek Tuning Shop. Nate also does web design and development as Grateful Design, and is the man behind ADK Music Event Production. Nate has been handling the arrangements for North Creek’s Music by the River concert series.

Nate has dabbled in a variety of music styles. He says the first concert he can remember attending was Michael Jackson’s 1988 Bad tour with parents and sister. Nate has since seen such legendary bands as The Who, The Rolling Stones, Supertramp, Stevie Wonder, and Elton John. He’s seen about 40 Grateful Dead shows in the early 1990s, and also wouldn’t miss a chance to see South Catherine Street Jug Band, Donna the Buffalo, or Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad.

Please join me in welcoming Nate.


Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Wild Clematis of the Adirondacks

Any stroll along a damp patch of land, be it river or stream, canal or marsh, is bound to yield discoveries to delight the senses of any curious person. One of my favorite finds, and one that is gloriously obvious at this time of year, is Old Man’s Beard, or Wild Clematis (Clamatis virginiana).

Perhaps this fluffy tufted plant has a warm place in my heart because it was one of the first plants I learned as a naturalist intern fresh out of college. Or maybe it’s because the seedhead resembles, in miniature, a Truffula Tree. A Truffula Tree? Could it be that you don’t know about Truffula Trees? Horrors! Should your literary knowledge be lacking in this respect, then you must immediately get to a library and read a copy of Dr. Seuss’s classic book The Lorax. To quote but one passage: “Those trees! Those Truffula Trees! All my life I’d been searching for trees such as these. The touch of their tufts was much softer than silk. And they had the sweet smell of fresh butterfly milk.” Those in the know will probably nod their heads sagely, immediately seeing the similarity between the feathery grey-white seedheads of the wild clematis and the puffy, colorful tufts of Seuss’s fictional trees.

Wild clematis, also known as Virgin’s Bower and Devil’s Darning Needles (among many other names in a rather long list), is one of our native vines. While I never saw it while growing up, I find it is quite common up here in the North Country, where it clambers and sprawls over trees and shrubs along many of our waterways. I’ve encountered it along roadsides while strolling with the dog, and I’ve paddled wetlands where it looked like it was choking out all the other vegetation as it groped its way heavenwards reaching for the sun.

To the novice, and when not in bloom or holding forth its seedheads, wild clematis looks a lot like poison ivy. It’s the leaves. Like poison ivy, it has three leaflets making up each leaf, and they are a bit on the toothy side. Unlike poison ivy, however, wild clematis leaves are opposite: they are arranged in pairs as you look at the stem of the vine. Poison ivy leaves alternate up the vine: left, right, left, right, left, etc.

If you encounter wild clematis in bloom, you will likely be surprised to learn that it has essentially no petals. What nonsense, you might say, as you point to the four white “petals” that surround each bloom. Sadly, you are mistaken, for like bunchberry and poinsettias, these are the sepals, not petals, of the flower. Sepals are modified leaves, usually green and seen at the base of flowers (picture a rose, for example). Some flowers, like the aforementioned bunchberry, poinsettia and clematis, have colored sepals (red, white, pink) that look to the average Joe like petals. It may be only a technical thing, but it’s always nice to have your terminology correct.

I have frankly never noticed the flowers of the wild clematis. I’ve seen photographs that show the vines so loaded with blooms that you’d have to be practically blind to miss them, and based on the number of seedheads I see in the fall, it seems that my vision must indeed be turned inwards when I walk by the vines between July and September when they bloom. Nope, I rarely see the plants until fall, when the wispy, feathery seed tufts appear. And when the sunlight of early morning or late afternoon strikes the tufts and lights them up with a blinding glow, my mind clambers “Those seeds! Those clematis seeds! All my life I’d been searching for seeds such as these.”

While contemplating this article, I searched high and low for interesting tidbits and morsels of folklore that would tantalize even the most laidback of readers, but to no avail. How is it possible that such a visually fascinating plant, which climbs its neighbors by wrapping its leafstalks around them, has no “background color” for the eager nature-writer? The only thing I could find was the warning that the plant is toxic. It contains glycosides, which can cause a severe irritation to the skin (it is in the buttercup family, after all, and this is a trait of most, if not all, buttercups). Even so, many native peoples did use the plant for assorted medicines and ceremonial functions.

Like many native plants, wild clematis has beneficiaries among the local wildlife. Because it blooms late in the season, its blossoms are welcome food sources for many critters, including hummingbirds, butterflies and bees. Bees also find it a good source of late season pollen.

Now that November is here, and our world has turned from the fires of autumn to the greys that presage winter, we can find some solace in the whimsical seeds of clematis, especially in the low slanting light of early morning or late afternoon. If the sun is out and you find your spirits in need of a lift, seek out these plants at the ends of the day, and I guarantee that you will find yourself smiling.