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.


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:


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


I wish I’d been that rabbit.




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.


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.


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.


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


Bird feet, two by two, hopping, hopping:


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


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…


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?


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.


just like the bird who crossed here:


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.


It had.


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

In Which We Update Many Unrelated Things

This post is a miscellany. And how time does fly! I promised to be more diligent here, and haven’t lived up to my word.

Blowin' in the wind

Hay is just in. We admire the loft and barn floor full of bales, but in the run-up to the job, frankly, I always feel a little nauseated. Every time, it’s a juggling act for the date as you watch for weather and wait for the call from the baling man. And then begins my major sustained physical effort of the year. It is to be expected that when the call comes, the weather will be hot. It had better be, since the hay would spoil in the field if it weren’t good haying weather, but the tax on the aging body is increased by some predictable ratio of effort to temperature.

There are pleasures in haying: the world smells wonderful. The scene is beautiful with either flowing windrows of raked grass or beaded lines of finished bales strewn across the fields. The afternoon or morning sun casts patterns of shadow over the landscape. The sound of field machinery is on the air, intermittent as tractors run over a hill and out of range, and then back again, or a baler stops for adjustment, or the crew just stops, for water or lunch. Hawks balance on the wing over shorn fields, looking for that now-exposed rodent who only yesterday sheltered in the stems. Crows stalk back and forth across the acres, picking at whatever can be found in the newly revealed world of cuttings. Haying time is beautiful.


Haying time is filled with challenges, too. Last year our clutch failed as we labored uphill in the evening with our trailer load of bales. This year, we suffered a flat tire on the trailer when it was loaded with two tons of hay. This year we found the trailer wiring ripped apart in crossing a field, and made repairs before hitting the road for home. This year the pulley belt on the hay elevator required loving attention before it consented to drive the chain and raise the bales. This year we mired the pick-up in the mud where a spring rises in the pasture, and spent 45 minutes or so digging it out and shoving boards beneath the wheels. It seems it’s the normal thing in farm work, to lose time to trips for parts or tools, to break-downs, and repairs. The halt to the music of work and progress is always anticipated, though unknown until its moment.

But we got it in. It’s like appreciating a pantry full of jars of peaches, when we look at the barn loft full of sweet-smelling, square-baled grass. And I admit to some self admiration when I reflect: One more year. I can still do it.

This year, last spring, we rolled out the old potato barrel from storage. I’m not sure why we put it away. It’s given us loads of potatoes in the past. Here it is on planting day, back in April:

The potato barrel

This is a food-grade barrel. You don’t want to do this with a chemical barrel, so shop well. Sometimes you can get such things from bakeries or food-preparation companies, or restaurants. Or you can find them at container re-sale outfits.

We put in a good bed of rotting hay and manure from the sheep pens. See the worm? Earthworms are good news!


… and then a layer of seed potatoes:

Seed spuds going in

to be lovingly covered with more good compost. “Compost” of course is the polite word for rotted barnyard manures and bedding, as well as household scraps and garden waste. If you don’t have a ready source of sheep bedding and rabbit pellets, you can make excellent compost from your kitchen. As the potato plants grow, we add more bedding material, carefully arranging it among the emerging stems and leaves, as if we were heaping soil along the rows in a conventional potato bed. We keep doing that until the barrel is heavy with soils and growing plants. I like to use small, whole potatoes with several eyes for seed instead of cutting up larger ones. It saves having to treat the cut surfaces against rots and infections. The skins of the little potatoes do a good job all by themselves. And, since you buy seed potatoes by weight, it’s my theory that you get more eyes (sprouts) for the weight this way.

In time, the growing potatoes push themselves out through the holes in the barrel, and set flowers…


and eventually, when the plants die back, we will tip the barrel over and retrieve our potatoes. We’re not quite there yet. Here is the barrel last week:


It seems to be doing well. Anybody with space for a 55-gallon barrel can grow a long row of potatoes this way.

Look who stopped by for a look-see while I was out feeding one morning:


We each stood still and looked at the other for quite a while. Then the little cottontail decided that if she couldn’t see me, I couldn’t see her, either.


Last fall I put in bulbs of the beautiful Angelique tulips. I had quite a drift of them years ago when we lived in Portland. Last fall I saw some in the bulbs bins and suddenly remembered how much I had enjoyed them. Seems I am not alone. Look at this stunning pale green spider making a home in the bloom. We chased each other around and around a few times before I could get a good photo; the spider must have been wondering what that lumbering giant had in mind with its one eye flashing a red light every now and then.


By now, of course, in July, the tulips have passed on. The seed pod of the Angelique is beautiful all on its own, though:


One of the hens has gone broody. All she wants to do is sit on the nest. So I’ve marked the eggs she’s collecting and will let her have her little family if she wishes. You can see these are not all the eggs of one hen. As the offspring of tulip seeds, these chicks will be a mix of the characteristics of their parents. The likely father of this brood is a Maran rooster. In the nest I see Maran eggs, Americana eggs, and Barred Plymouth Rock eggs. Chickens are without prejudice. She will accept any chick that emerges as her own.  How much easier to let her bring them up than to raise a batch of chicks under lights in the attic, move them out to the barn when they grow too big and stinky for indoors, and then grow them to a suitable age and finally let them loose with the rest of the flock. After all, chickens know how to raise chicks!


July is seeping into August now. It’s dry here, and hot. I remember when summers lasted forever, and the hot days were of no real bother. I remember when the chief concern of summer was skinned knees. Just now I look down at the scab on a shin I barked against a gate yesterday, and I think, very little changes as the seasons unroll in order. Very little changes, but it’s all new again every time.


Published in: on July 28, 2013 at 12:11 pm  Comments (4)  

Summer Moving on…

Gone to seed

We see clear signs the summer is coming ’round to an end. Weather is still warm and bright, but suddenly it is no longer light when the alarm goes off in the morning.

I found this in our woods. It’s a fragment of what had been a fairly large paper wasp nest.

Wasp paper fragment

Here’s a view of the interior, the living quarters.

Inside the nest

Someone was bold enough to knock it from its location in the treetops, probably to harvest the larvae in the nest. You can be sure it was not me! I happily engage honeybees. Vespids are another story.

These were probably Bald-faced hornets:

Dolichovespula maculata

This is not my magnificent photo. It comes from the Wikimedia Commons, courtesy of  PiccoloNamek. The Bald-faced hornet is not as fierce as she looks — I’ve encountered them many times with no sense of aggression from them. That doesn’t mean you want to walk up and mess with their nest in late summer! They will protect their home with every intention to drive you away.

The Yellow-jackets, on the other hand, have been fierce these late summer days. The other morning one of the men on the construction crew came hurtling up the slope, swatting and cursing. He’d found a nest under a pile of pipe and neither he nor the Yellow-jackets were one bit happy about it. He called them ‘bees,’ and I was stern in my insistence that those were not bees; they were wasps. He didn’t seem to appreciate the distinction. Bees take the rap for Yellow-jackets all the time.

Meanwhile, the gone-wild crab apples are hanging thick on their branches in waste areas.

Wild crabs in season

Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) are molting their flight feathers, one by one. It must affect the rise and soar of the birds, but they stay up there anyway. I’ve seen several of them recently with serious gaps in their wings and tails, and a generous shedding of feathers onto the ground. These are big feathers — a foot or more in length.

A cast feather

Empty husks are appearing in the woods, a sign someone has been squirreling away nuts.

Hazelnut husk

Crickets have begun to sing.

And the woods overall have a scent of rich balsam. The orchard has begun to exhale that perfume of slightly fermented, nearly rotting windfall fruit in the grass.

Everything is sighing at the end of the season, casting its seed, gathering itself for winter.

Here’s something new from WordPress: audio files embedded in the post. Click the Go arrow, and listen to Summertime while there is still summer in the season.

Published in: on September 4, 2009 at 3:54 pm  Comments (2)  

Competition in Housing

The other day when I was out on a mushroom walk (and not finding much of any, by the way) I happened upon this:


Immediately I thought, What vandal has been chopping trees here? How indignant I was. This is public riverbank, along the shore of an old quarry behind an island in the Clackamas River. Cottonwoods grow here, and a fair amount of brush, and sometimes, in the fall or spring, edible mushrooms. Taking mushrooms is one thing. Chopping trees is another. Hmpf!

But then I noticed the unmistakable marks of chisel-teeth on the stump.

Incisive evidence

Ah-ha! Rodent at work! These are the marks of beaver teeth.

Contemplate for a moment, this young tree of 8 inches in diameter. Consider cutting it down with your teeth. It makes you think.

I met a couple of beavers once, long ago when I worked for the city zoo in Portland, Oregon. I was a college kid. You take the jobs you can get when you’re working your way through school. My mother pretended I was a research assistant. That sounded much better than the truth, that I was there to clean cages and feed the animals in the quarantine area on the hill above the gardens.

It was interesting, though. A cage-cleaner gets to meet animals she would never encounter in ordinary life. Animals coming into the zoo had to pass through qurantine before they could enter the general population, so we few, we lucky few, got to see them all. I served as hand-maiden to a juvenile lion, a pair of siamangs, 6 opossums (another time I may tell about the opossums), a couple of romping young cougars, a heron, a Hamadryous Baboon (blue face!), 3 gibbons, a Sun Bear, several owls, a Capuchin monkey, a Ring-tailed Lemur, a Ring-tailed Cat, and: 2 beavers.

The beavers were not glad to be there. They were not glad to see me each day. They were not glad to have their cages cleaned. They might have been OK about the feeding, but if so they didn’t betray much. They hissed at me. They showed their xanthodontous grins and chattered meanly. I was there to serve them. Did they appreciate it? I do not believe they did.

You see them in children’s books and they’re cute. Think of Mr. and Mrs. Beaver in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. What could be more appealing?


It is my opinion that, close-up, beavers are nasty big rodents.

But, anyway, I was out strolling that day, and came upon such skillful beaver-work on the banks of the old quarry. A person does have to be impressed. There were trees down everywhere. Some had been skinned for the tasty bits under the bark:

Beaver breakfast!

Some had been chopped and chiseled and left to lie. I can only wonder what the author of such industry had in mind. It’s as if the beaver simply has to cut down trees, even if only to leave them littering the shore.

I looked about for sign of the beaver’s house. Everyone knows beavers build lodges. Given the old quarry hasn’t any current or any stream to dam, I thought maybe the beaver lodge would be built into the bank somewhere near the cuttings. But there were so many trees were down all along the bank, so haphazardly and without plan, I couldn’t make head or tail of the architect’s intent. If it were me, I would cut trees near where I intended to use them. Obviously I do not have the mind of a beaver.

Castor canadensis

I’m rather glad about that, really.

At last I gave up the quest.  You can only spend so much time looking for the front door to a rodent house, and odds are when you find it you will not be invited in. These local beavers do not have the manners of the Narnian ones.

On my way back to the road, however, I spotted this in the brush and felt a little sorry for my superior attitude.

Sign of the beaver?

How was I to have known?

Published in: on April 28, 2009 at 3:35 pm  Comments (1)