Autumn olive

I have numerous invasive plant species on my property.  Of the woody species, there are two trees I literally hate, Ailanthus and Mulberry, and there is a particular shrub that I want to hate, but with which I have a love-hate relationship.  Autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellate) is a shrub that gets rather large and can spread in clumps, crowding out other plants, thereby reducing diversity.  Even bird diversity becomes reduced in areas where autumn olive takes over despite the fact that birds eat and spread the seeds initially.  It has several common names: Autumn olive, Elaeagnus, Oleaster, and Japanese Silverberry, but I’ve only ever heard people use Autumn olive in Virginia.

Have you ever seen those environmental brochures titled Do I have to mow all that?  They promote the benefits of habitat edges and riparian borders for both wildlife and stream health.  They discuss how not mowing all your lawn will save time and money, and reduce fossil fuel emissions.  I believe this, and erred in favor of the brochure’s wisdom when we moved to Halcyon.  The previous owners mowed clear to the stream bank.  They mowed all 6 surrounding fields or sections that are not what we call the yard proper – the areas immediately surrounding the house.  They mowed so much that some areas were just clay, a remnant from the hundred years that Halcyon had been a dairy farm.  I didn’t want to mow all that.

I didn’t have time to mow all that anyway.  Work, long summer vacations once I started teaching, and sabbaticals all insured that plants and trees could continue their slow and steady marches to claim land unhindered by any sort of regular clearing.   Areas that originally were bare clay are now brush habitat or beginning succession woods.  We have an abundance of rabbits, birds, squirrel, and deer.  We’ve seen turkey, fox, and bear sign, opossum, raccoon, beaver, and a mink at Halcyon over that last 10 years.  This is because the habitat for wildlife has improved.

Well, habitat quantity has improved.  I’m not so sure about quality.  It turns out that I do have to mow more than I’d like or we would be invaded by ailanthus, mulberry, honeysuckle, multiflora rose, garlic mustard, and yes, autumn olive.  The autumn olive seems to have exploded in numbers.  This is why I hate it.  So why do I love it?

It is an attractive shrub.  The undersides of the leaves are silvery, and look lovely when the wind is blowing.  The flowers are creamy white and lend a subtle fragrance to the air when in bloom.  All those blossoms become a small red fruit with one central pit – hence the name olive.  It is the fruit that causes my ambivalence with this invasive species.  When I first didn’t want to mow everything, or poison the invasives, I thought of other ways to keep them from spreading.  I found a website on invasive species called If You Can’t Beat ‘em, Eat ‘em.  I could make jam!  And so was born a new tradition for me that nurtures more than my material body.

Underside of autumn olive leaves

Autumn olives are high in lycopene, a phytochemical found in tomatoes and some other red vegetables.  Lycopene is an antioxidant and is being studied as a potential agent for cancer prevention.  That is a good reason to eat the berries, but it would certainly be a lot easier to just eat more tomatoes.  I don’t make the jam merely because it is healthy.  I make it because it slows me down, puts me in the moment.  When I started doing this, I was still teaching and I desperately needed to slow my mind and be in the moment.  I needed to capture a fall day and fully live it because they were just flying by.

Nothing about making the jam is easy.  They are a pain to pick.  I usually collect in half hour increments between September and October, freeze them until I have enough, and then begin the cooking and canning process.  It is also an onerous process to get the juice from the berry.  I use a conical aluminum berry press and a lot of elbow grease.  Then there is the time spent cooking down to jell stage and canning.  Perhaps because it takes a lot of time is why I feel so singularly engaged while completing this task.  Added to this feeling is the (false) notion that I am reducing or using up an invasive species, and a sense of self-reliance that comes from doing something myself with a wild species that I’ve found.

Autumn olive in fruit

This year the autumn olives were ready early.  I was mowing in early August and was astonished to find bushes full of berries ready to pick – usually they are not ready until September, and I’ve picked as late as mid-October.  Have I just never noticed early berries before or did all our summer rain help with fruit production?  I looked forward to picking those berries.

For some reason, though I did not get to that task for several weeks and when I walked that field, basket in hand, I could not find a single autumn olive with any berries.  It seems the birds beat me to all of them.  Would I not be able to can and eat autumn olive jam this year?  I thought of naked pork roast or cheese and crackers without that dollop of deep burgundy jam and I was sad.

Luckily, there are more fields and more autumn olive.  It has not been great picking and I’ve collected less berries than other years, but there will be a canning day this year.  I’ll pick a chilly or rainy day, make a fire, roll up my sleeves and marvel how time slows down.

Elaphe obsoleta obsoleta

The black rat snake laid claim to Halcyon before we did.  We were unaware of this, of course, and bought the property “snake unseen.”  However, it is not possible to hide for long when your species is numerous and when individuals can reach 4-6 feet in length.  It is also not possible to hide for long when you like to enter homes in search (I hope) of mice.

Our first encounter occurred a few weeks after we arrived.  My daughter Mauri was outside on the rope swing, which was tied to an old, large black walnut tree.  I was inside painting the first of what would come to seem like an endless supply of painting jobs in our new home.  I heard her come in the front door and up the stairs.

“Mom?”

“Hmmm,” I replied.

“Can snakes climb trees?”

“I’m pretty sure that they can,” I replied, remembering the small snakes that climbed the shrubs outside our Houston home, and even one that tried to climb the dining room wall because I was trying to remove it with a broom and a Rubbermaid bin.

“Well, then there is a large black snake climbing the swing tree, way up high.”

She said this in a matter of fact manner with no apprehension in her voice.  I went out with her to see, but it must have been very high up by then because we could not find it.  I can’t remember if Mauri continued to swing that day, but she certainly was not afraid of swinging in the days and years after that snake-climbing incident.  I’m glad for that.

The next sighting of the snake I came to call Mama – because she is so large and because we see numerous smaller snakes every year – occurred a few months into our new home.  My in-laws were visiting and my father-in-law opened the kitchen door, but did not go out.  He closed it, and then announced that a 5 foot black snake just went around the corner and under the house.  Again, there was no apprehension in his voice or any real reaction from all of us inside the house.  We knew it was a black rat snake and that they are good to have around.

Black rat snake

Over the years we have collected their shed skins because they are beautiful.  Chris would often bring me one with the same munificence in which he might bring me daisies.  The skins adorn a windowsill or a shelf for a while.  Later, I compost them in a cleaning fit stemming from the notion that my house should stop looking like a nature center display and more like a home.  We have found skins in the yard, in the crawlspace, in the barn rafters, and even in the ceiling of the downstairs bathroom when we remodeled.

I used to take the skins to school to show my students and to display in my science center.  Every year when the subject of snakes was raised, either because of a science lesson or because I brought in my son’s pet corn snake, the students would become instantly engaged, much like they might if they’d just surprised a snake in the grass.  Through the chorus of voices expressing their love or hate of snakes, there would always be one story of how a student’s father had killed a snake.  Usually these were without knowing what kind of snake it was or whether it was any real threat.  I hated these moments.

It is natural to be afraid of snakes.  Perhaps there is even an evolutionary reason for our fear.  What I hated about those stories from school was that fact that I could not probably change someone’s fears by just direct teaching in the classroom.  Oh, don’t worry; the changes of a black rat snake biting you are very slim.  It is not venomous.  Actually, it is very helpful and farmers are usually quite happy to have them around to control rodents.  Somehow this message is lost on a squirmy group of fourth graders, stuck in their chairs, and getting a lot of their fears from TV, other media, and from some grownups.

He’s wary of me too.

I’m not fear-free when it comes to snakes.  It is not a bite I am worried about.  I learned from a talk at a Texas State Park that we’d need to be three days from a hospital to be in danger of dying from a venomous bite.  It is the part about being surprised.  When I come across one, I am startled, and then wary.  I leave them alone or shoe them away from the foundation.  And I’m not happy about the location of the most recent skin I found.

Our house is in varying states of repair and one such space not yet finished is a small passageway between our bedroom and the front of the house.  There is a tiny “cousin-it” closet and a hacked together roofline from when the front of the house was added on to the original slaves’ quarters.  At least Halcyon has history and charm, if not class!  In this space you can see the metal roof – the acoustics are awesome during a rainstorm – and NOW you can also see a snakeskin.  It’s just hanging there.  Did its owner contemplate slithering down the wall into the bedroom to check things out?  I am now thankful that the bedroom is cold, probably as cold as that ceiling area that needs repaired, and the snake shed its skin and left.

Black rat snakeskin

Or did he?  There is also a snakeskin hanging from the ceiling of the side porch (also in dire need of repair).  This ceiling is connected to the roofline of the passageway.   I’m guessing that he is living above that porch ceiling.  My point is that while I am not comfortable with the idea that a snake might slither across my bedroom floor, I would not have it killed or removed.

I appreciate our black rat snakes.  They help keep the mice down.  They have a role here at Halcyon.  By finding snakes over the years, and then stopping to watch them when I do encounter one, my fears have abated.  It helps that my son has a pet snake, a caramel corn snake named Blizzard.  I made myself hold Blizzard when he was little so that I would not be afraid of him later.  He is now almost 4 feet long, skinny still, but strong.  He is nice to hold.  I don’t recommend people go out and try to hold wild snakes, but I think more encounters might go a long way in helping mitigate our fears, rather than just having someone tell us that most snakes are harmless and we should not worry.

We are getting a woodstove insert at the end of the month, which means our bedroom will finally be warmer.  I think it is time to seal up that passageway ceiling before the snake decides he’d like some toastier quarters for the winter.

 AFTERWARD

I drafted this post on Wednesday, and that evening I was enjoying a chat with friends in my knitting group when the conversation turned, quite serendipitously, to snakes.  One woman told how there was a small black snake living in her crawlspace.  She said she used to let her cats go down there to get mice, but now she won’t let them because she is afraid her cats might hurt the snake.  I had to clarify that she didn’t mean she was worried the snake would hurt her cats.  Nope, I heard her correctly.

Another woman told of holding her brother’s python when she was a teenager, and then more recently of regularly rescuing garter snakes from her cats.  One time she even picked up a whole squirmy pile of garter snakes she found in her garage, some in each hand, and marched them down to the woods to release them.

These stories warm my heart.

Did I Just Call Her Sweetie?

My garden has a golden orb-weaver. Her work is more amazing than anything I’ve ever woven.  She makes all her own tread; I have to buy mine.  She is very quiet and unobtrusive despite her large size and her vibrant yellow color.  She is a fantastic weaver.  Her radial web is eight inches in diameter and contains a stunning zipper of multiple treads down the middle.  She weaves to survive, while I just weave for fun.  She actually eats and rebuilds her web every night.  I wouldn’t dream of such a thing.

This amazing weaver chose to spin her web in a corner where a compost bin butts up against the fence.  There are a lot of grasshoppers in this side of the garden.  She must have known this.  The other day I witnessed a marvel of spider silk and spider skill, a feat I could never hope to copy with my knitting or weaving.  It happened in less than a minute, a minute that would have passed by unknown to my conscience if I had not turned around.

I was feeding a grasshopper to the chickens.  The chickens were out of their coop and congregating under a large asparagus plant.  They do not seem comfortable out of the coop yet and do not yet wander happily, snatching up bugs for me.  Either that or they’ve got me trained because I am still bringing them grasshoppers.   When I can catch one that is.  I opened my hand and the closest chicken grabbed for the grasshopper, but it jumped before she could get it.  This irked me – some days my reflexes are not that fast and I don’t appreciate waste.  So I turned to see where it jumped so that I could grab it again.

Argiope aurantia!  No, I’m not swearing.  This is the scientific name for the golden orb-weaver; also known as the golden garden spider, yellow garden orb-weaver, and writing spider.  As soon as that grasshopper hit the web, she put out a vertical zip line and descended from her perch at the top of her web.  With dizzying speed she proceeded to wrap over and over this meal that was struggling with all the hope left in its short life.  Argiope was done before the grasshopper’s hope ran out, and despite being bound tighter than a mummy and receiving a bite to the head, the grasshopper continued to struggle.  After maybe 20 seconds, he stopped and his abdomen throbbed back and forth.  I thought this was strange, not understanding it until he burst into action again, struggling in vain inside the spider’s handiwork.  I likened it to being wrapped tightly in saran wrap because I could see at least 6 threads coming from her abdomen at once. Each strand was separate, but so close together as to look like a narrow strip of tape.  The grasshopper struggled against this extraordinary substance for about 20 seconds.  Then he stopped.  Again, his abdomen throbbed.  Now I understood.  He was breathing hard!

Tightly bound grasshopper

I found another argiope with a small, inconspicuous web in my tomato patch.  I am assuming it was a male because of his smaller size and the web’s much simpler construction.   Would he be her mate?  His web was almost 12 feet away from her web, and I’m not sure if that is too great a distance to attract a mate in the spider world.  A male will construct a small web next to the female before mating.  While many male spiders die after mating because they are eaten by the female, the male argiope dies during mating – a strategy thought to prevent other males from also mating with the same female.  The male has two sperm containing organs called pedipalps.  When the second pedipalp is inserted into the female, it swells, and cannot be removed.  This also causes the male to die during the mating act.  After mating the female will remove the male, wrap him in silk, and save him for a snack.  How romantic.

Biting the grasshopper

Since I have not seen an egg sac yet, and the male has been MIA for two weeks, I guess he was not her mate.  I am waiting to see an egg sac.  The female will die with the first frost.  The spiderlings hatch in late fall and will overwinter in the egg sac.  They survive the tough conditions of winter by pausing their growth and development.  This is called diapause.

Something strange happened from watching this spider daily for weeks.  I can’t say it is a connection so much as a respect for her place in the world and even a bit of compassion.  Why I say this is because the last time I walked by her I had the crazy notion that I could catch a grasshopper for her.  This was not because she couldn’t, but just because I felt like doing something nice.  It’s a spider.  I know it is strange.  Even stranger though was when I couldn’t find one, and I walked past the spider to leave, saying, “Sorry sweetie, I didn’t find any.”  It came out naturally and I didn’t realize I’d even said it until I was out the gate.  I definitely surprised myself.  I just called her sweetie.

Argiope aurantia