Foreign vipers, wild foods

Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! But jungle snakes as well? Hmmm? We’ll see.

As the Sturgeon Moon wanes toward the fall equinox and the hard- and soft-mast crops mature, I’m still in my summer mode when the first quarter-mile of the last leg of my daily walk back to the truck brings me through the refreshing Green River, known to the Happy Valley’s first people as the Picomegan.

Wearing shorts and Keen sandals — my grandsons call theirs “water shoes” — which offer traction plus hard-rubber toe protection for my feet and theirs, plus polarized sunglasses that clear a window to the stream bed of free-flowing, stone-bed water, I can monitor minnows, crawfish and underwater gravel-cased caddis pupa as I walk my dogs. Before descending down into the water through a steep, narrow beaver trench, I allow the dogs to eat green-apple drops while I gather six or eight prime specimens to carry in my pocket and throw into deep water to initiate swimming retrieves and baths in one playful fell swoop. This fruit and the selected grasses and carrion they eat along the way supplement their dry dog food and provide added vitamins, nutrition and likely herbal medicine they seem to have a good handle on. Yes, and Chubby continues to eagerly run daily to the Rose of Sharon bush along my property’s western perimeter to eat as many reddish flowers as I allow, assuming they too have something good to offer or he wouldn’t eat them.

I must admit that a new disturbing thought crosses my mind lately during ankle- to knee-deep river rambles. I just can’t purge the image of 20-foot rock pythons I read about in Edward R. Ricciuti’s “Bears in the Backyard,” a book I reviewed last week about new potentially dangerous critters infiltrating suburban habitats. Ricciuti says the Florida swamps are now the home of these giants snakes from faraway jungles that are bought as pets and released into the wild when they get too big to feed and care for. Although such a snake could never survive our winters, thus no danger of them growing 10 additional feet after release as they do in Florida, someone could still release such a snake that’s at least 10 feet long into a local river to get rid of it, and I admit the thought enters my mind as we splash through the river. Ricciuti says that with the North American climate warming at an alarming rate, these huge snakes capable of killing Everglades alligators, panthers and deer, will eventually be capable of wintering over perhaps as far north as the mid-Atlantic states, and that has to be spooky indeed to outdoor enthusiasts as far north as Virginia.

So, tell me: Why does the government allow these huge constrictors into the country? They don’t belong in North America.

But let’s not digress. Back to the river rambles and a short revisit to assessment of fruits and berries and nuts along the way, all of which attract wildlife such as deer, bears, turkeys and many smaller critters that devour mast crops to nourish themselves for long, cold winters.

The appearance of that beech limb I wrote about falling to the ground for some reason last week has changed dramatically. A woman who sits next to me at work asked if I’d bring in some beechnuts for her to examine. So I picked a handful Sunday morning from that fallen branch. In a week, the leaves had gone from healthy green to dry, crinkly brown and the thorny husks had switched from olive to golden brown while spreading their wings to allow the two olive-colored shelled nuts, faded some and drier than a week ago, to fall free. I never investigated the meat inside until Monday afternoon in the office, and it had gone from wall-to-wall white to a narrow, shriveled-up tan sliver dwarfed inside the three-sided shell. The discovery explained why in my half-century travels the overwhelming number of beechnuts I’ve opened have been hollow. Clearly the edible white meat disappears fast by drying up once the nuts hit the ground. Apparently, enough fall in moist places where they can quickly take hold and germinate, because in beech groves I’ve visited for years there are few meaty nuts despite dense, immature, smooth-gray understory beech saplings. A forester told me last year or the year before that many of those upstart trees sprout not from nuts but off the roots of larger beeches.

It never ceases to amaze me how I can walk the same place daily for nearly two decades and continue to glean new information about plants and animals, woods and fields, swamps and rivers, the sky, and history deep and shallow from year to year. Not only that, but I’ve been studying this place I call home here in the upper Pioneer Valley for at least 55 years, and miraculously keep bumping into new, exciting discoveries weekly, if not daily or by the minute. I guess that’s what makes life worth living, especially if you’re curious and want to understand your place and that of your deep ancestry. Only fools believe they can ever know it all. Fact is, no one ever knows it all. Sadly, life isn’t long enough to get to that loftiest state of consciousness.

Responding to last week’s column assessing bottomland mast crops, after I had confessed I had not yet explored royal upland hardwood spines, an observant hilltown reader chimed in early this week with a detailed mast-crop report “from around 1,700 feet.”

“Up here, we have a limited acorn crop — much less than last year when there were so many that it was like walking on marbles through the oaks,” he wrote. “… While acorns are sparser, white ash trees are having a booming seed year. Just loaded.

“Although acorns are limited, there has been abundant food in the woods for bears, etc. this summer — starting with red elderberries, then lots of raspberries, chokecherries, apples, etc.” he continued. “It looks like there will be plenty of regular elderberries, too.

“Checking scat lets you see what bears (and fox and coyotes) are eating. One sample last week was loaded with apple chunks. … Some I saw this week had black-cherry pits in it.”

So there you have it — the state of natural feed from above and below — plus a little tease about big imported serpents capable of squeezing the life out of a full-grown man, not to mention many unprepared animals that cross their paths through the infiltrated wetlands.

Just the thought of it can be unnerving.

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