Friday, June 25, 2010

Snake-on-Snake Violence

As I walked out to the workshop yesterday, I saw a strange dark object on the ground near the apple tree. A dead bird, perhaps? Suddenly, it started to rise up and thrash about. This was no bird--it was a large Eastern king snake. Its movements were so herky-jerky, I thought it might be injured. Then, suddenly, it became clear that there were two snakes writhing about. I wasn't sure if it was mortal combat or something friskier (not knowing much about how snakes do the nasty). Upon my approach, they moved off to the base of an apple tree which we affectionately refer to as Old Creaky.
I ran in to grab my camera and when I returned, I realized that what I was watching was one snake eating the other. Bite by bite, I watched the king snake devour what appeared to be a snake of nearly equal size (roughly 5 feet long). At first, I thought the other snake was one of our black rat snakes, but on closer inspection--you can get pretty close to a snake when its mouth is occupied eating another snake--the main course appeared to have faint versions of the yellow dotted lines that characterize our gourmand.
I hope you can see the mouth on the diner above just behind the tall blade of grass--he looked like a little gator in action. The tail on the left belongs to the victim and the tail on the right is that of the victor.
Here goes the last bite. As the king snake swallowed the tiny tail end of the other snake, it prepared to make a hasty exit. Up it went into Old Creaky. It didn't just climb the tree--it actually sequestered itself in the hollowed-out trunk. Not a bad place to hang out and digest. The standpipe where we fill our water buckets is just a few feet away, so there's almost always standing water there for anyone needing a digestif.
I hate to see this kind of snake-on-snake violence, but I gather that preying on other snakes is a hallmark of the king snake (it's good to be the king). I'm also starting to wonder if the chase had been on for several days. We had a bunch of empty bottles knocked off of shelves in the pump house as well as some small tools in the workshop. Both of these outbuildings are favorite hangouts for our black rat snakes, so maybe the king snake was hungry and went hunting there first. Just wish the snakes would stick to rodents. Maybe they've been doing too good a job lately as the mouse traps have been staying empty. OK, sweet dreams, everyone!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Blogged Down

Sorry for the long gap in posts. The extraordinary heat wave (2+ weeks of days with temps on either side of 90 and no rain) sapped me of all my excess energy. It took everything I had just to keep the garden and the buffalo watered. That and we had a bunch of wonderful friends and family visit. Writing a blog in the hottest room in the house is no match for lemonade on the porch with good company.

In case you were wondering, the risotto featuring our chicken of the woods mushroom turned out beautifully. It was tasty, too. The mushroom holds its shape, color, and texture better than any mushroom I've had before. The flavor really came through nicely. We enjoyed it so much that we went back and harvested as much of the rest of the mushroom as we could reach (this time with a long-handled pruning saw) and had another meal's worth. If I had to guess, I'd say we got around 1.5 pounds of fantastic fungus in all.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Chicken of the Woods

We've talked about getting chickens, but with the arrival of the buffalo this year, it seemed a bit much to take on. So much to learn about everything and not enough time to do it all well. Or even slapdashedly. Even so, chicken has made it on to the farm as of this week, albeit in a different form than we had envisioned.

On Sunday, I took a beginner's class in identifying mushrooms. Among the many pieces of sage advice (mostly having to do with how not to kill oneself by eating poisonous mushrooms), was one that I took to heart on my next foray: look up as well as down. While out and about on the farm Monday, I remembered a tree where I thought I'd seen some bright orange leaves near the trunk and had assumed they were part of one of the vines trying to take over. I looked up to see this:

Heavens! Could it be? It sure looks like a large Chicken of the Woods mushroom--a lovely, edible fungus. Bright orange on top and bright yellow underneath, it fit the profile of Laetiporus sulphureus. Very exciting! The only problem was that it was roughly 22 feet up in the tree. On Tuesday, Jim bravely went up the ladder to retrieve as much as he could reach. As he started to cut it down, he exclaimed, "This smells great!"

Although I was pretty sure I had identified it correctly, I heeded my teacher's warnings and hauled my sample off for expert identification.

Thankfully, the Asheville Mushroom Club was meeting Wednesday night. The mycologists gathered agreed: it is a Chicken of the Woods. We're going to cook some up for dinner tonight. Chicken (of the Woods) Risotto, I think.

Huge score on the mushroom front! It should come back again in subsequent years, so if anyone has good recipes for this fun fungus, send them along.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Not Bad for a Monday

At long last, a day without rain or the prospect thereof. Even the humidity was down to a tolerable level. I got a in a good round of scything early enough in the morning that the hay was dry by suppertime. Now it's all safely stored in the corn crib which, by the way, is filling up nicely (I've already got more hay put up than I did for all of last summer). The garden didn't need watering, so all I had to do was grab the last of the sugar snaps and spray neem oil on the kale which is covered in caterpillar poop. Yuck, but manageable yuck. Last year it was the chard that the caterpillars attacked in this very location. Just proving the value of crop rotation. The chard in its new bed looks great.

The buffs were having a good day, too. All three came over to lick the dogs when we took our walk this morning and Bru licked back. Buddy even poked her head through the gate to explore briefly. Later when I cut through the pasture to head up to do some clearing for the new fence, I spent a little time playing with the buffs. Audrey flopped over for her belly rub as usual, this time using Eschol as a head rest. Awfully cute. Eschol seems to be the jogger in the group--always running from wherever he is to come greet me at the gate or to check out what machinery I'm using (he's fascinated by the lawn tractor and the truck--maybe it's because I move faster when I'm in/on them).  Effie continues to offer her subtler affections with gentle licks and snuffles.

Over the weekend, Jim uncovered some more mature crabapple trees just over the fence line where our property meets up with a large conservation area. When I went to check it out for myself yesterday, I also found great mushroom hunting grounds nearby with several interesting varieties fruiting at the moment. After attending a great beginner's class Saturday on how to identify mushrooms (courtesy of the Asheville Mushroom Club), I feel inspired to look here more often and work on identifying what I find. Maybe someday I'll be proficient enough that I can harvest some to eat without fear of poisoning myself or others (and, man, can some of these fungi mess you up--in the sense of truly, deeply deadly). Also, there were some other interesting plants that I need to identify. We're going to change our proposed fence line to protect this lovely little ecosystem from the buffalo.

On the way back, I found some black raspberries that have just started to ripen. So tasty!

In addition to the discoveries on the flora side of things, it was a good day for fauna. I saw one of our large rat snakes in the workshop basking in the window and I found a tiny box turtle in the field while I was scything. Ah, these are the things that make for a great Monday.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Living Lawnmowers

As I sit here waiting out yet another thunderstorm which has curtailed my lawn mowing for the day, I would like to pay tribute to our living lawnmowers: the water buffalo. While I was primarily interested in getting them so we could have our own source of raw milk, Jim saw an opportunity to keep the encroaching vegetation at bay. He never could convince me that goats were worth the trouble, but when buffalo captured my heart, he nudged, encouraged, and prodded me to get us some buffs.

He was right to do so. Within a few days of their arrival, we noted a very happy thing. The water buffalo seemed more interested in eating the weeds than the grass. They eat grass, and plenty of it, but we were completely thrilled to find them absolutely devouring the honeysuckle vines that have become our sworn enemies. This time of year, it's tempting to let honeysuckle be and to enjoy its sweet smell, but it makes us pay later. The vines grow rapidly and can quickly take over trees and, worse for us, fences.

When Gary, our fantastic fence man, put up our new barbed wire fence around what would become home base for the buffalo, he admonished us to be vigilant about keeping the vines off the fence. We have seen plenty of evidence around here of how quickly honeysuckle can collapse even a very sturdy fence. I had visions of spending my summer patrolling the fence line with my weedwhacker and pruning shears. Happily, the buffs are saving me from that hideous fate by nibbling down the vines along with a host of other, less fragrant weeds and seedling trees of undesirable provenance. Good buffalo. Just for that, we're going to fence off the big hill behind the barns and let you have a crack at that next.