Snakes and sunshine: the rougher side of living off the land
July days simmer along; each day seeming hotter than the last. Our hills swelter under a blazing sun, and even the hound dogs look for shade. The gardens are flourishing in spite of the heat, and along the highways and byways, Queen Anne's lace lift their gauzy faces to the sun. This flower is also called wild carrot, which is edible but rather tough.
My sister Susie's grandson Levi Braley who is a cadet at the Air Force Academy has been home on a visit. He was relating a recent experience in which his troop had to "live off the land" in Colorado for five days. They had to rely on their own resources and told of eating grubs and ants, along with other things.
He said the black ants tasted like strong licorice, and the little brown ones were sort of sour. It got me to wondering how well we would survive if we were on our own for five days. If you had a cooker and could build a fire, it wouldn't be too hard in our West Virginia woods. This time of year there are lots of greens that are edible, wild raspberries and blackberries and lots of edible mushrooms.
It is a little early for wild nuts, such as walnuts, hickory nuts, butternuts or beech nuts, but a person might stumble onto a scrubby apple tree. We would miss the spices and seasonings that are used every day, but we wouldn't starve.
Of course, a person would need to know what plants and mushrooms are edible before they ventured afield, or they could end up a statistic. I love reading the wild food cookbooks, but those recipes are saturated with olive oil, butter, rich cream, spices and garlic (of course, you could use wild onions or garlic) and salt. If you were strictly living off the land, you wouldn't have these things.
Bunny Crockett wrote that I passed up some mighty fine eating when I refused the rattlesnake meat. If I were stranded in the woods and hungry, I probably wouldn't turn it down (if it were already killed, cooked and seasoned!) It really is something to consider, though -- how to survive on your own.
I got some feedback from some of my readers concerning the snake tales. From Houston, Texas, Bernie Fulks writes, "Many years ago I went on a rattlesnake hunt down in So. Texas, around Freerer. No place to stay down there, so I took our van. (My wife refused to go.) The hunt was advertised as sanctioned by Texas A&M. They milk the snakes to get the venom that is used to make serum for people bitten by snakes. There are many rattlesnakes in that hot-desolate area of So. Texas.
"The trick is to catch a snake and put it into a coffee sack; when the sack is full, it is tied off and dumped into a 55-gallon barrel. The workers started drinking beer at breakfast and drank it all day long. At the end of the day, you had a bunch of drunks dumping sacks of rattlesnakes into these barrels. I saw one of the sacks kind of miss the barrel and I'm sure that a couple of rattlers got loose in that crowd of people.
"So -- I retreated to my van and it was blocked in by trucks, so I just slept in the van that night. The next morning the Texas A&M people showed up, so I stuck around to watch them milk a few rattlesnakes -- and turn them loose again. It was a three-day event, with barbecue pits turning out some good food, and lots of music. I stayed one day, and I never went back!"
We do have some cases of snakebite here in our area, and my cousin Phyllis has been bitten twice. She was only 12 years old the first time and was swinging on a grape vine down in Dismal Holler. She was the only one who saw the snake, and she said it looked as big around as a can of milk. The doctor said it was undoubtedly a rattlesnake, as it was an inch between the fang marks on her leg. She almost died. Her mother, my Aunt Eva, killed a chicken, split it open, and applied the warm carcass to her leg.
That was the same remedy that Grandma Samples used when Aunt Eva was a girl down on Big Laurel, and got bit in the cellar by a copperhead. I reckon Cousin Phyllis must be a snake magnet, for she was bitten by a copperhead snake after she was married and was expecting a baby. She was picking strawberries at Aunt Dessie's and got bit on the finger. Aunt Dessie sucked some of the poison out, and her mouth was really affected. The unborn baby was fine.
I remember Granny Summers telling me of a copperhead that was in her garden. It struck at her and missed, and bit a tomato. She said the tomato turned blue as indigo. (That's what she told me, anyway!) I got a snake story from Lawton Posey from Charleston, who wrote, "When I was in charge of a church camp not far from New Orleans, the counselors were a great bunch of kids. They adopted a black snake which was rather tame -- the snake even liked to swim in the pool." He didn't tell me what happened to it.
One of the funniest snake stories happened when Criss was still working in black-topping. He was foreman over a crew of men, and one day at lunch time they all went for something to eat, except Bruce Belt. One of the men, Buck Martin, was deathly afraid of snakes. While they were gone, Bruce caught a big black snake and rolled it up in a large potato chip bag.
The men returned, seated themselves in the back of the pickup, with Criss in the cab. He had a sliding glass window open between him and the men. Bruce casually dropped the bag in the back of the truck, and the blacksnake rolled out. Buck took a flying leap over the tailgate and landed on his back on the gravel road. The snake headed for the open window right at Criss, but fell off the rail before it got there. It was a good thing, as he would have probably wrecked the truck.
I'll try to get off the snake stories next week. I have a brined pickle recipe from my sister, Mary Ellen. Watch yourself in the cucumber patch! Contact Alyce Faye Bragg at firstname.lastname@example.org or write to 2556 Summers Fork Road, Ovapa, WV 25164.