In Memoriam

Curly Clematis (Clematis crispa) ~ Gone, but not forgotten

Hidden away beneath a tangle of dewberry, frog fruit, and milkweed, the tiny wonder lay only inches above the ground. A flash of purple drew my eye to its crinkles and curls, aglow even in the dim light of a cloudy afternoon.

I talked to the flower as I photographed: affirming its beauty and fussing at it for its ground-hugging behavior. Finally satisfied, I returned to the car, took off my boots, and prepared to leave.

Only then did I see the future, traveling toward us at the pace of a county mower. As the machine worked its way along the small road, enthusiastically chewing up everything in its path, a great cloud of grass, gravel, and dust rose above the shredded winecups and flattened milkweed. When I looked, my clematis had disappeared.

Inexplicably grieved, I watched the mower move off into the distance, and asked myself:

How often does a need for imagined order bring beauty to an end? How many wonders have we unknowingly destroyed? How many treasures will we allow to disappear, never to return?

Would I have placed myself in front of the mower to protect that single clematis? Probably not. Of course not. But will I remember my impulse to do just that? I certainly hope so. There’s a world depending on such impulse.


Comments always are welcome.

38 thoughts on “In Memoriam

  1. With winter on its way, the mower is now in the sheds. There are now a bewildering arrangements of snipper, cutters and mowers. Nothing escapes the fastidious gardener hell-bent on order and subordination of the wild and free.

    1. Pruning, trimming, and mowing all have their place. Even on the prairies, mowing’s a fine tool to replicate the effects of grazing. But there’s a certain mindset that insists on a one-size-fits-all approach, and that can have some unhappy side effects. It’s easy not to think about it all — until the death of a single flower focuses our attention.

  2. That’s a good phrase: “need for imagined order.” There are plenty of people—alas—who prefer seeing much of nature mowed to within inches of the ground.

    Once, years ago, I came across a mower on the side of Interstate 35 in downtown Austin who was cutting down bluebonnets before they’d had a chance to produce seeds. After I confronted the guy and started taking photographs of him as evidence, he drove away in a hurry. One tiny victory against so many losses.

    1. I saw a presentation a few months ago by Doug Tallamy, whose work you surely know. In his book Bringing Nature Home, he’s rather persuasive about the true value of our perfect green lawns, contractor-friendly shrubs, and non-native flowers. Needless to say, he finds their value minimal.

      Speaking of bluebonnets, on the Willow City Loop I saw what had to be acres of gone-to-seed bluebonnets. One look at those seed pods, and I recognized what I should have known, but didn’t. They’re in the Fabaceae, the pea family.

      Do you remember when I mentioned the League City Garden Club’s development of a wildflower plot in a highway median here in town? They tilled; they planted; they erected a beautiful sign. But this spring, there wasn’t a single flower to be seen. When I asked about it, I was told that the city itself mowed down the whole thing. One of these days I want to find a member of the garden club who’ll confirm the story. If it’s true, I can only imagine the confrontations that took place.

      I do think many highway departments are allowing more flowers to seed before mowing. Education and public pressure (including confrontational photographers) are the keys, I suppose.

  3. Sniff. Yes, we’re very happy to mow away so much for the sake of conforming to some ideal of beauty, when beauty is there and available. That was a beautiful photo.

    1. I was pleased with the photo, Tina. I’ve photographed them before, but always from a different angle. I liked the symmetry of this view.

      I wonder if one of the most effective ways of changing attitudes isn’t with the kids. Granted, it’s the adults who are making the decisions and paying the bills now, but in a decade or two, it would be good to have a new generation that isn’t afraid of nature, and is able to make better choices. The prairie demonstration gardens and urban ecology programs in the schools are all to the good.

  4. “A world depending on such impulse”, I liked that line. What gets me is that in my childhood any mowing was done for horses, cows, for sustaining some life, not for the “imagined order”. To waste something just like that would have been considered sacrilegious, even bad luck…

    1. It’s a different way of understanding and relating to the world, I suppose. For one thing, our forebears were dependent on the health of the world surrounding them in a way we hardly can imagine. If the crop didn’t come in, they didn’t eat. If our grocery store is out of our favorite treat, we go to another store.

      I certainly wouldn’t argue that we shouldn’t mow, but more thoughtful mowing would be good. I’ve heard it said that “we have to keep to the schedule, so that everything gets done.” It might be helpful to bend our human schedules to take nature’s schedule into account.

  5. My first thought is that you made a beautiful discovery, you enjoyed an wonderful interaction as you spoke to the flower as you photographed, and your comment “finally satisfied” tells me that you were complete in your time of enjoyment. Finally, you shared your moment and your photograph with others who did not know that this flower even existed.

    I once stopped on Hwy 90 to photograph a beautiful, and very large, rattlesnake as it crossed the highway. It moved like poetry moves through the mind, with many hidden subtleties if you take time to see them. As I turned to get back in my car, an oncoming vehicle swerved across into the lane where the snake lay just so it could run over the horrid creature. A second later it lay dead where just moments before I had marveled at its complex beauty. A senseless killing that disturbed me and still does.

    But I came to realize that life is fleeting, and we must enjoy each moment such as your encounter with the flower as a gift of that moment.
    We are losing plant and animal species at the rate of 150-200 per DAY. This is 1000 times greater than what would be considered “normal” in the natural world. Does that answer your question “How many treasures will we allow to disappear, never to return…”

    As for the mower, there is a practical side to consider: I know of three motorcyclists personally who have been either killed or seriously injured on rural roads here in the Big Bend where the grass was not mowed and large animals (deer and javelina) ran into the roadway unseen due to high grass on the shoulder and collided with them. We build highways and we are going to use them, so maintenance is a must, regardless of our grief over wanton destruction of nature. Out here we have a saying, “Eso si que est.” (It is what it is).
    I love your photograph of Curly Clematis, and in that there is joy. Thanks for sharing.

    1. The mowing and its consequences aside, I did spend some time thinking about another aspect of the situation. You alluded to it when you said I’d shared the flower with people who didn’t even know it existed. When I stop to think about how many flowers never will be seen, it’s breath-taking. Add trees and grasses to the list, and insects, and birds, and fungi…and people, too — well, you get the point. Life is fleeting, and we’d best get busy looking.

      I never miss an opportunity to pull out one of my favorite Annie Dillard quotations, so here it is:

      It is so self-conscious, so apparently moral, simply to step aside from the gaps where the creeks and the winds pour down, saying, I never merited this grace — quite rightly — and then to sulk along the rest of your days on the edge of rage.

      I won’t have it. The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous and bitter, more extravagant and bright. We are making hay when we should be making whoopee; we are raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus.

      Go up into the gaps, if you can find them; they shift and vanish too. Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn, and unlock — more than a maple — a universe. This is how you spend this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon. Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you.

      As for mowing for safety; your point’s well-taken. I’m not at all averse to that. Even in the wildlife refuges, there’s regular mowing to keep paths clear, vision unobstructed at intersections, and so on. County and ranch roads have to be maintained, too. Part of the reason I was startled to see this particular mower is that it was on a barely-traveled road to a bait camp. It is a county road, but there wasn’t even a foot’s worth of growth along it.

      Of course, there’s also this: the road edged a field filled with ladies’ tresses orchids I’d found only days earlier. I made the man get down off his machine to tell me whether that field was under assault. If it had been, I might have laid down in front of the mower. It would have made a heck of a police report — or an obituary.

  6. I would have been so tempted to pick it, illegal or not. Not dig it out, just pick the bloom, carry it home and give it love till its time had come to go. In fact, I had this discussion with Rick last weekend. He has these pretty little purple violets or myrtle blooms (I’m not sure) on the ground popping up everywhere and I said before he mows he needed to bring me a bouquet! I hated the thought of seeing them mowed down!

    Now, dandelions, not so much! There’s something about them I love — and something not. But I do remember, they are always the first bouquet a child gives its mother.

    1. It wouldn’t have been illegal, Jeanie, but I think you might have been disappointed. Dandelions and violets hold up pretty well, but many wildflowers wouldn’t last until you got home. It’s a lesson I’ve had to learn, since I grew up with cutting gardens. Tulips, roses, zinnias, bachelor buttons, and such will last — especially with a little care. Wildflowers clearly prefer to stay right where they are, and they’ll sulk if they’re taken from their home.

      The first time I heard someone refer to violets as something to be eradicated, I couldn’t believe it. We babied our violets when I was growing up in Iowa, hoping they would multiply. But I see that wild violets can be invasive in lawns — here’s an article that you might want (or not) to share with Rick. I found it fascinating. Those are sneaky little plants you have; it’s no wonder they’re able to spread as they do.

  7. It’s a beautiful flower, never seen one before. Likewise dewberry, frog fruit, and winecups, all such interesting names, don’t grow around here, looked them all up. Clematis can be challenging to grow around here.
    If its any consolation, as the Highway Reaper comes through, mowing is at least better than hosing the shoulders with herbicide, until the only thing along our highways, the first thing to grow back, and very appropriate, is ragweed.
    At my parents’ house, a visitor commented that the lawn was awfully full of wood violets, white and purple, and that Chem Lawn, or something like that, could bring around a tank truck to take care of that. (don’t worry, not happening).

    1. There’s another lovely in the clematis family that resembles this one, often called the scarlet leather flower. I don’t see it nearly as often as this one, but it’s a real beauty. So is Clematis virginiana, a pretty white-flowered clematis that’s native to your area. If you ever plant an upstate NY garden and want a prolific bloomer, that would be the one.

      Flower names are wonderful. The white clematis I mentioned sometimes is called the devil’s darning needles. I could guess where that came from. I’ve always wondered if frogs really eat frog fruit, but what I’m really curious about is how the plant got the name the USDA has given it: turkey tangle fogfruit. I didn’t leave out the “r” — they actually call it “fog” fruit.

      You’re right about mowing being preferable to herbicide. Now that I think about it, I don’t see that kind of spraying happening around here any more. Occasionally I’ll spot it being done along fence lines in the country, but the big trucks with the big sprayers seem to be gone.

      That made me curious, because ChemLawn used to be everywhere. As it turns out, they rebranded the business. ChemLawn now is TruGreen. Doesn’t that sound ever more healthy and responsible?

      1. The plant names are wonderful and weird. Those government botanists are pretty wild! Turkey Tangle Fogfruit??!! Sounds like something backwoods, you’d drink out of a brown jug.
        I don’t know if you’ve got “garlic mustard” growing in Texas, it’s also called hedge garlic and jack-by-the-hedge. I just looked up that last one,never heard it called that. “Garlic mustard” sounds like something I’d try on an Italian sausage, but the plant is a real invasive pest, and needs a more hostile name like “Underfoot Stink” or something. Someone in my family, living in New Mexico, just got the loan of some goats, to get the overgrown undergrowth on their land under control, I imagine those goats would love eating garlic mustard.

        1. I’d not heard of it, but it certainly does have a reputation. I found it on our Texas invasives page, with somewhat prim but quite insistent instructions to get rid of the stuff. Apparently it’s willing to overwhelm anything in its path.

          The Nature Conservancy in Indiana sometimes has garlic mustard pulls in their preserves. I wonder if they serve sausage?

          1. Good idea! Sausages would motivate me! :)
            In school, the teachers made the “Columbian Exchange” of plants, etc. sound like a totally positive thing, but some days, I wish it had an exchange counter, so we could send garlic mustard and kudzu back.

  8. What a lovely and perfect flower, here one minute and gone the next, but thankfully you happened along to capture its beauty and remind us that life can change in an instant. Near Mindo people will whack the ornamental bananas with fast swings of the machete… when they were quite lovely, providing color that pleases the eye, brings in the humminbirds, and later provides food for the tanagers…

    Your post rolled in last night just when I was about to go to sleep, and I was so tired I wasn’t capable of writing a word that would make sense! The story, however, and the memory of that beautiful clematis, stayed with me until I drifted into dreamworld…

    1. Your mention of the Mindo machetes (doesn’t that sound like a good name for a band?) reminded me of another point of contention around here: the tendency of people to come in and trim the palm trees while they’re still filled with nests. Any number of birds build in them, as well as squirrels. Watching displaced families search for new homes — or perish because of the process — can be sad, to say the least.

      In the end, I think that’s what made the loss of this particular flower so compelling: actually seeing it disappear. Flowers fade every day, or are trampled by cattle or kids playing soccer. Soemtimes, they’re dinner for the insects; flower beetles are as funny as they are voracious. But we don’t see that, and so we don’t think about it. Perhaps if we thought about these things a little more, we’d make wiser decisions.

      1. so true.. you talking about the palms brought back vivid memories of witnessing the destruction of the mangroves, and all of those rookeries of egrets and herons and frigates and — it all but broke my heart day after day…. i did stand up to them and vowed to tie myself to a tree if they went beyond casa loca…

        people now see that the trees have importance.. upriver lost not one meter of soil, and downriver – oh my… it’s why it’s not wise for me to move back into casa loca…

        yes, someone has to speak up for those who have no voice.. even the bees and petite clematis have rights to thrive…

  9. I too enjoyed the Clematis as a last lovely look for the day yesterday. What an interesting blossom it is with such lovely color and curls!! I think sometimes in terms of beautiful potted orchids and things you get from a garden shop, when there are many gifts just as beautiful everywhere if you just look. Having a camera does help with that as you are more alert to color and possibilities, I think anyway when carrying one. Some flowers, even without the mower, are just for the day and then they fold up and are gone by nightfall. Beauty is both temporary and enduring and the job of art to remind us it was there. Thanks for this sweet gem.

    1. I just mentioned those here-today-gone-today flowers to Lisa. It’s true that so many bloom and fade in a few days: or only one. One of the first lessons I learned is that when it comes to photographing pink primrose, or native dandelions, or even some cactus, you’d best work on their schedule, and not your own. I suppose that’s true with any sort of nature photography. Even the birds have their ways. In mid-afternoon, I could photograph the mallards at the marina, but I’d end up with studies of mallards napping, and not much else.

      I like this: “Beauty is both temporary and enduring, and the job of art is to remind us it was there.” Beyond that, art can elevate the ordinary and mundane, and reveal a deeper meaning. One thing is certain — images can linger. You know who comes to mind, of course. Plato!

      1. Ouuu I just got a teeny little thrill from being quoted!!!

        It is true about the elevation art can bring. One silly example is that a painted decayed moldy leaf in a scene always looks way better to me than in a photograph.

  10. Lovely image of a lovely flower, Linda. I’ve come across many places where only a short time earlier were covered with flowers only to have been mowed by my return trip but never have I seen it coming at me.
    We do, however, have some towns where they put out “Do Not Mow” signs including some highway medians.

    1. I’ve had that experience of seeing highway flowers disappear many times. Especially when I head to the hill country, I-10 can be edged with flowers on the way over, and denuded when I come home. They’re pretty good about waiting until the flowers seed, but there are times when I wonder if they’re not pushing things a bit.

      I’ve seen “Do Not Mow” signs. Around here, they often pop up around homes that have wildflowers (especially bluebonnets) growing next to the road. It seems to work: at least with the bluebonnets. Many years ago, before not-mowing became more acceptable, I had the pleasure of watching an old lady take on her town’s mowing crew, and win. Of course, back then, I didn’t fully understand her defense of her flowers the way I think I do today.

      Can’t you just imagine a PSA with a modern-day Paul Revere riding through the streets, yelling, “The mowers are coming! The mowers are coming!” Some organization ought to be able to make use of that.

  11. The (clematises?) clematis species I’m familiar with are all climbing vines, which is probably why it was ground hugging.

    This episode and your take on it reminded me of the joke of the person being shown around Heaven by St. Peter who cautions them that when they get to the next sector, they should be very quiet because that’s where they keep the (church denomination being looked askance at) and they think they’re the only ones here.

    We as a species are incredibly self centric and have a terrible tendency to barge in and take over as thought we’re the only ones here — or the only ones who matter anyway. We not only do it to plant and animal species, we do it to each other (Europeans “discovering” Africa, Australia, the Americas, the Pacific . . . .) I can only hope we as a species will grow up some day (hopefully soon) and learn to be good neighbors. This idea that “God gave us” the earth and all it contains to do with as we please is such a toxic idea on so many levels.

    1. I’ve found this species climbing, too, and doing a good job of it. The first time I found the flower, it was down at Bell’s Landing in East Columbia, happily making its way along the edge of the Brazos, together with grape vines and wisteria.

      I remember that joke, and it’s as funny now as the first time I heard it. It’s the kernel of truth that makes it amusing, of course.

      It’s interesting how the Biblical concepts of stewardship and dominion have been warped over time. When I was a kid in Sunday School and Vacation Bible School, we constantly were being reminded that the “earth and all that lies therein” was both gift and responsibility. Weeding gardens, taking care of pets, and being kind to animals generally were all part of learning to care for the world in larger ways. Even our tree climbing could be an occasion for lesson-learning. Perching in the big apple and cherry trees was acceptable; swinging on the branches of the more fragile willows was not.

      Teaching kids about the world is one thing. Helping them learn to love it is another. We need more nature-lovers, if we’re going to get out of this mess. People-lovers, too, for that matter.

  12. What a beautiful bloom and photograph. How sad that it was mowed. It would have been so much better to let it go to seed first. I remember walking the dogs through a wildflower meadow last year, the flowers were in full bloom and covered in caterpillars. A week later it was flattened.

    1. The truth is, the little clematis wasn’t an endangered plant, or even an uncommon one. Still, after the experience, I thought about Loren Eiseley’s essay called, “The Star Thrower.” I’ve had it set aside to use elsewhere, but it’s relevant here, both for the plant and for your efforts with the moorhen chick.

      Once, on ancient Earth, there was a human boy walking along a beach. There had just been a storm, and starfish had been scattered along the sands. The boy knew the fish would die, so he began to fling the fish to the sea. But every time he threw a starfish, another would wash ashore.

      An old Earth man happened along and saw what the child was doing. He called out, “Boy, what are you doing?’ “Saving the starfish!” replied the boy. “But your attempts are useless, child! Every time you save one, another one returns, often the same one. You can’t save them all, so why bother trying? Why does it matter, anyway?”

      The boy thought about this for a while, a starfish in his hand; he answered, “Well, it matters to this one.” And then he flung the starfish into the welcoming sea.

      1. That is just wonderful!!! We can only do what we can in our little corners of the world, but if everyone was a little more mindful things sure would change for the better…fast. xxx

  13. Poor little purple beauty! I love your impulse to brave the mower to protect it, Linda. Such a selfless thing to think of another before thinking of yourself! I’m not a “tree-hugger,” but I do believe there are beauties that we can’t afford to sacrifice to “progress.” Perhaps beauty though is in the eye of the beholder!

    1. The good news is that, over the course of many years, I’ve learned some impulse control. There’s not a thing wrong with feeling as we do in these situations, but figuring out the best response usually takes a little time — and a little rationality.

      It occurs to me that, like beauty, progress can be in the eye of the beholder. What some consider progress, others see as rank stupidity: which it sometimes is. I can’t help remembering the great oak tree that we moved here in League City, to get it out of the way of road construction. It was expensive and time consuming, and many people said, “Just cut the danged thing down.” But it got moved, and took root, and is part of a wonderful park now. It’s amazing what can be accomplished if people follow up on their impulses.

  14. Linda, I have that same little clematis fighting the very same battle in the right of way behind my house. There are a number of plants growing along the pipeline. Every few months they get whacked back… and every time they come back. I finally dug one up and planted in the bed around our old house. When the house went away so did the bed. Now if I see it coming up I spare it. When I don’t I’m as guilty as your county mower of planticide.

    The thing that always intrigued me about these dainty little flowers is how they aren’t dainty all. Those little nodding flowers live up to one of their other names: leatherflower.

  15. I’ve been surprised to find how tough our native plants are. When conditions aren’t right, they bide their time, and then come back and produce the most beautiful blooms. Of course, the business end of prairie plants are those roots that reach deep into the ground. They can take a good bit of above-ground disturbance, and still thrive.

    The right-of-ways can be fabulous places to explore. There’s one close to me that’s as good a place to find flowers as the nature center right next to it.The nature center’s mostly shaded, which is good for walkers, but the right-of-way is in full sun, and the flowers take full advantage of it.

  16. Read by phone earlier, but WP won’t allow me to “like” for some reason (against nature in so many ways HAHA)
    What a royal treasure. (reminds me of that old Strawberry Shortcake cartoon character hat…could have been the inspiration)
    Oh, the destroyed wine cups and milkweed.
    This reminds me of the manicured organized Garden à la française where gardens showed man’s dominance over nature and a symbol of wealth and power ( and the monarchy/upper class) vs the late 1790 romantic Gilpin natural gardens utilizing garden’s natural environmental elements and wildness.
    I’m beginning to understand my dad’s interest in local gardens/landscape elements when he traveled – the history of mankind shown front way they live with dirt and plants?
    Love the details of this flower image

    1. WP has been wonky for a few days. The usual: missing email notifications, inability to comment, and so on. Of course, it’s still not as amusing as Google maps. I was checking on the exact location of the Varner-Hogg plantation the other day, and the little marker showed me the name, address, and phone number of a friend who lives hundreds of miles away. I can’t even imagine.

      The hat’s a good association. It does have that vaguely cloche-like look. I was happy enough to get the little curls, even though I scared the woman carrying the mail half to death. She thought she’d found someone dead or dying in the ditch. The area’s isolated enough, on a dead-end road, so I suppose it could happen.

      Now that I think about it, the differences between formal and natural gardens in earlier centuries may parallel our current turf lawn/native plants discussions. Every time I drive past Tuscan Lakes and look at those Italian cypress — well, it’s odd. There’s no question that landscaping choices reveal a good bit about developers and homeowners. Your dad was right about that.

  17. Amen. So much has been lost to urban and suburban sprawl, too – e.g. in the early 80’s I lived on the northern edge of NYC, in a fairly bucolic neighborhood. A 15 min drive took me to a spot where an old greenhouse and other buildings stood surrounded by vacant fields. The fields were home to rabbits and yielded all kinds of wonderful flowers and berries. It was my secret spot. I was astounded to find out that my own father had worked at that same greenhouse in the 30’s – his first full time job over a summer before going off to college. After I moved, I returned there about a decade later – all gone.

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