Tansy Dance, Pasture Parties, and Br’er Rabbit

We are just back from two wonderful weeks in Italy (sunshine, food, seashores, food, music, food, art, food…) with a group from Portland’s All Classical radio. Casting a loving eye over our little farm, I immediately espied an infestation of Tansy Ragwort. Ugh. I do realize it must have been there before we left, but until it raises its bright, happy, bad-smelling flowers, you can miss it in a pasture.

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Pretty, isn’t it? It’s an invader, though, and can kill livestock in grazing fields. Tansy ragwort (Senecio jacobaea or Jacobaea vulgaris) is native to western Europe, arriving here in the 1920s. By the 1950s it was a terrible scourge, killing thousands of livestock animals who fed on contaminated hay. Pasture lands across the west were golden with its late summer blooms.

Time out for terminology: Senecio jacobaea, commonly called tansy ragwort (or just ragwort, or ragweed, or stinking ragweed, or stinking nanny/ninny/willy, staggerwort, staggerweed, or stammerwort, dog standard, cankerwort, mare’s fart, cushag, benweed, bunweed, bundweed, beaweed, bowlocks, curly doddies, or curly head, kettledock,  slavewort, fizz-gig,  felonweed, stanerwort, or yellow perils)

Illustration Senecio jacobaea.jpg (This image is in the public domain because the copyrights of the original work of art have expired. It is a reproduction of a painting by the Swedish botanist C. A. M. Lindman (1856–1928), taken from his book(s) Bilder ur Nordens Flora (first edition published 1901–1905, supplemented edition 1917–1926?).

is not the same weed as Tanacetum vulgare, Common Tansy,  or bitter buttons, cow bitter, golden buttons…

 This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1923. It is a reproduction of a painting by Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé (1840–1925)Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz

which is, all on its own, a fairly noxious, invasive plant from mainland Europe. This one has historically had some medicinal and culinary applications. It is still listed by the United States Pharmacopeia as a treatment for fevers, feverish colds, and jaundice, and has been used as an insect repellent. Tuck it round you in your coffin to ward off worms.

That may be about enough on the distinctions of tansies, but you can clearly see the problems with naming. Look for the raggedy leaves to spot ragwort.

Beginning in the 1960s Senecio jacobaea was greatly controlled through the introduction of insect predators: the cinnabar moth, the tansy ragwort flea beetle, and a seed head fly. Unlike so many well-meant introductions of species intended to control others, this one seemed to work, and not to have unforeseen negative consequences. Farmers and university scientists believed tansy ragwort had been all but annihilated.

But now, the climate has changed. We’ve had some weather recently that pleases the tansy ragwort, and is not so salutary for the cinnabar moth and her friends. The clever, patient tansy ragwort has taken the opportunity to surge into prominence again. It’s interesting that while horses and cattle fall to the toxins in tansy ragwort, sheep are unaffected. Our sheep could safely graze in an invaded field. But, though sheep have been suggested as a biological control for ragwort (Journal of Range Management), I have noticed that if there are alternatives, the sheep disdain it. So I was out there yesterday lopping and bagging flower heads and pulling the stems from the ground. The idea is to get it before it does this:

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While I was cutting and pulling and sweating, I noticed the resident gophers have been partying again. I see this mostly in spring when they turn up all kinds of pottery and glassware in their mounds, signs, I believe, of their tea times and other imbibings underground. I imagine them celebrating their own waking to the season and their lively romantic carryings-on.

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Sometimes I am surprised at remnants of what must have once been treasured pieces of fineware. It seems gophers are none too careful with their belongings.

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But yesterday I truly blinked at what came up from below: a substantial length of plumbing pipe and joint ejected from the household to the surface, along with a piece of broken window glass.

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What on earth, if you’ll pardon the phrase, can be going on down there?

Having filled my quota of feed sacks of ragwort heads, I thought it was time to gather some blackberries in the afternoon. They’re just coming on here, with those big stem-end first berries scenting the summer air.

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It’s another nasty plant, really, the Himalayan blackberry. “Invasive and difficult to control,” say the university websites. That does not describe their savage attitude toward passersby. But I believe that if your landscape is overtaken by a fruit-bearing invader, you might as well make the best of it. I rummaged around and found my milk jug with the string attached, and headed out to the sticker brush.

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Do you remember the story of B’rer Rabbit and the Wonderful Tar Baby?  Do you remember how the worst, the very worst thing he begged not to happen to him when Br’er Fox caught him one day was to be thrown into that briar patch? “Please!” he begged. “Do whatever you want to me, hang me, skin me, cook me, pull off my legs and ears, but please don’t throw me in that briar patch!” So, being that foxes and rabbits are always fussing with each other (in the 1888 Charles C. Jones, Jr. book Negro Myths from the Georgia Coast Told in the Vernacular, it is a Wolf, but the relationship is constant), Br’er Fox did just that thing. He threw that rabbit right into that briar patch. Where, it turned out, Br’er Rabbit was most happily at home because that was where he was bred and born, right in those sticker bushes.

I remind us of this tale only because, I might say, not everyone is comfortable when they end up tossed into the briar patch. Picking berries I made a small misstep, and the branches beneath me weren’t there, and I tumbled right into Br’er Rabbit’s house, and I did not like it one bit. There is nothing to do but save the bucket of berries as you are going down, and then prickle yourself out as carefully as you can.

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I wish I’d been that rabbit.

 

 

 

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Published in: on August 8, 2016 at 12:43 pm  Comments (4)  

Woods Walking on a Snowy Afternoon

A snow day off from work calls for a walk in the woods. I took two today, one in the early morning, just after feeding the animals, when I could look back at a moment of clear sky in the west.

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And one in the afternoon when, though a certain gloom had fallen over the woods and the snow was just beginning to assert itself, I couldn’t stay inside. Like a little kid on a day out of school, I put on my boots and hat and headed out again.

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I found I wasn’t the only one walking in the woods. The beginning of a snowfall, before it’s deep enough to hide the evidence, offers all kinds of clues to who shares the woods.

Here, in the morning light, are the tracks of a rabbit heading into the brush.

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And nearby, the skittery  footprints of some little rodent making her way across the path.

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Bird feet, two by two, hopping, hopping:

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I have to admit, some of us leave less elegant notes on our passing:

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But now, sound the doom music, the rumbling kettle drums, the minor chord of danger nearby…

A coyote makes his way uphill through the snow. See the marks of his toenails ahead of the pads. Imagine him moving along the trail he knows so well, sniffing the air…

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His tracks run in a straight line, trotting through the woods except for evidence of a moment when he paused… To whiff the scent of prey just missed? To scratch?

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Here, a crossroads: rabbit and coyote. Which passed first? The coyote follows the cleared track. The rabbit keeps to the brush except for a half dozen hops to the other side.

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just like the bird who crossed here:

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The bird has the advantage of flight if caught in the open. It seems that, on this occasion, the two shared ground but not time.

Oh, and back home again, we have Brer Cat, who had emerged from his briar brush to inquire whether meal service had arrived.

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It had.

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Published in: on February 7, 2014 at 3:52 pm  Comments (7)  

An Autumn Congeries

Ah, the foul weather has come, and we are shuddering and building fires in the stove. We had our first snow last week, gone now and turned to mud in the yards.

But there are fine things going on anyway. The young ram is courting his ladies. And courting. And courting. Being he’s just a youngster, he seems assiduous enough in his amours. He’s fairly polite about it all. When the mood for love strikes, he sniffs the air for confirmation, and trots toward the lady of his desires. He bumps her gently on the hips. She steps away demurely. He’s sure by now, so he turns toward the action end of things. At first she may walk away from him. He follows. He reminds her he is there with an additional few nudges. By the time he decides to consummate things, they are in agreement over the matter, and she pauses, presents herself to him, and… it’s done. It takes longer to work out the deal than to perform the act.

Our woods are damp and chill. Across the road and along the path up the Butte, Fall is as good as its name, with foliage littering the way. The scent of autumn in the woods is earthy, moldy, tannic and fungal. It’s a good scent.

All our complaints through the long wet summer have given way to joy: the yield of mushrooms in the woods has been good this year. Here is the beautiful Chanterelle in its native home.

And here it is in my home:

In several collecting days we bagged around 15 pounds live weight. Done in the skillet, in their own nectar, packaged and frozen into serving-size portions, they will come out for later use as fresh as fresh.

The scattering of fungi all through the woods is a wonder to the eye. Here are puffballs, spent of their puffs and looking like chimney pots.

And here, you see, the fairies are back in the woods. This is where they have been a-dancing overnight in the woodlot.

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In the barn we have two litters of rabbits all warm in their nests. The doe pulls hair from her coat to make the softest nursery you can imagine. There are seven little ones in here, snuggled next to each another. Mom hops in and out with what seems like careless disregard for the babes in her way, but none seem to get smashed.

Here’s proof: that’s a tiny black rabbit in there.

They’re not into petting at this age. The little buggers are so wiggly and reluctant, it’s impossible to get a good photo of them.

Here are some 3 week-olds. Eyes open, they’ve come to the cute stage. Really, really cute. They fall over one another as if no one had bones or nerves.

They’ve trampled that beautiful nest into nothing, but by this age they snuggle for shared warmth, and that’s enough. Those rabbit skin coats they wear are remarkably warm. In summer, when they don’t want the insulation, their big ears serve as radiators.

These little ears require some growing before then.

And as I speak of warmth and weather, what better time is there to sit by the fire and work wool into garments? Here’s a beautiful batt of blended wool and silk, carded into color layers, ready to spin.

By selecting gobs (that’s a technical term of art) from different parts of the batt, spinning the varied colors, and then making a 2-ply yarn, the hues come and go through the yarn in partly intentional, partly unpredictable changes.

The passages of color are long enough to create broad bands in the knitted garment. Five balls like those above, make this:

Warm as a bunny’s butt.

Published in: on November 28, 2010 at 2:23 pm  Comments (2)  

Poo

At last we are given permission to do some landscape repair! The big feet have finished tromping on the north-side border of the house, the various machines of construction have finished compacting the soil there, the piles of assorted cast-off but perhaps valuable materials have moved onto the parking area, the wall has been painted, and I heard the words, “Sure, you can put in some plants.”

Easy to say. Here is what they left us to work with:

Much as I have chafed and fretted for this day, it was not with a glad heart that I looked on the wreckage of soil north of the house. Was this topsoil? Bottomsoil? Upsidedown soil? Who could know? Given its red clay base and adobe-like qualities, we decided to launch right into renovation before planting. Nothing is as discouraging as a garden planted in poor soil, and nothing is as difficult as repairing it after planting. So we fetched up the tiller from the vegetable garden and went to work on a dirt cocktail.

What are your ingredients, ask the mixologists? They are some good manures and a dash of salt. The salt comes from your brow as you mix.

Here, for instance, is mule poo in its native environs:

William, our mule, is an able producer of this material.  Unlike horses, who drop their leavings wherever they happen to stand, a mule has a tidy way of arranging skeins of apples in latrine areas. It makes collecting so much easier! The quantity of product delivered is impressive. Here’s an illustration of the processor:

This year’s mule manure has an assertive grassy nose, with a background of barnyard, and a faint air of fungus underneath. Earthy and dark, its overtones are firmly equine, but the careful connoisseur will detect the difference: a mule is not a horse, nor is it a ass. This age-worthy product is unique and pleasing in its bouquet.

Furthermore, it’s full of little, partly digested-up grassy bits.

Aside from the usual components of fertilizers (Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium: NPK), the grassy bits in equine manure are wonderful for soil texture. So, after we had raked off the surface gravel, and picked up the nails, screws, hunks of re-bar and other mysterious objects, we wheeled in barrow-loads of mule manure.

Here I am, delivering a measure of mule poo from our woods.

One at a time, barrow after barrow. I note: the house is uphill from the woods. The wheelbarrow is empty going down, loaded coming up. This is the wrong plan, but I’m not sure how to fix it.

Once sufficient jiggers of mule had been brought to the bed, we tilled it in. This is shaking and stirring all at once. We were cheered at the result. The rear-tine tiller breaks the manure apples and digs deeply. By the time we had finished, late in the day, the soil was looking lose and serviceable. The shovel sank to its shank with an easy push. We smiled at each other.

The cocktail is not finished, however. In the area where each major shrub will go, we bought in a shoveling of rabbit pellets. All manures are not alike, you must know. Rabbit manure is much higher in nitrogen than the mule manure, and is rich in phosphorus as well. The first is good for green growth, the second for flower formation. As it happens, we have a ready source of rabbit droppings.

Here is recent production, a sort of fumier nouveau for the discerning user.

It is entirely more assertive than the vintage we examined above. In the nose you will find a distinct aroma of ammonia. Some might call this an austere character, but its simple herbal sweetness refined by a grassy bouquet rescues it. As it is a nouveau, we expect a certain greenness, but rabbit is never harsh.

And there you have it. By the time we set the young rhododendrons in place as foundation plants to future development, the dash of salt had been thoroughly worked into the recipe. Dig well, improve tilth, provide nutrient, and irrigate deeply, and those rhodies should have a good start.

(There will be a hydrangea at the far end of the bed, but, frankly, we were too pooped to put another plant.)

Published in: on July 26, 2010 at 1:54 pm  Comments (10)