When It Rains

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When the Monocacy overflows its banks, my oldest son pulls on his waders, mounts his bike, and speeds to the river, frantic lest he miss a moment of the spectacle, but, as he apparently needs someone with whom to share the wonder (and, amazingly, his active Instagram account doesn’t seem to count), he even more frantically insists that I come along. Secretly grateful to be wanted for something other than a ride to the airport, I follow along, prodded by the intermittent “hurry up!”s made necessary by my bikeless status. Someone, after all, needs to hold the dog’s leash and stash her poop bags, not to mention stop to clean up once in a while.

I haven’t looked at any flood charts, but my son and I reckon that this week the river was the highest it’s been since a stretch of rainy days in March 2014. While the “island” wasn’t  completely underwater, as we have seen in the past, it was shrunken by the swollen waters. The bluebells had become aquatic flowers, and flotillas of logs, branches, leaf debris and trash (I could make out plastic bottles, the distinctive red of a coke can, and the occasional flash of artificial color) drifted by at a frantic pace. A pair of darting swallows and the voice of a nearby kingfisher made me wonder about the other animals, not lucky enough to have wings, whose holes and homes were now underwater.

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Err,um, could you like, maybe, give us a lift?

And I do mean to include those animals with more than two or four feet, like this rather unfortunate spider and possibly doomed caterpillar. Honestly, it’s been a rough spring for the insects and arachnids, in pupal form or otherwise, what with the snow and lingering cold. And now this? Bother.

Not far into our explorations, we encountered a very large snapping turtle that certainly didn’t mind the extra water. My son poked it with a stick (of course), which provoked it into an aggressive hiss, which, in turn, provoked our Rosie-pup into lunging after it in our defense. Knowing that she would lose that battle, I held tight to the leash and suffered her whimpering frustration as the beast disappeared into the muddy depths.

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The snapping turtle is here somewhere: trust me.

Next week: cleaning it all up.

In the Air

Lately, as I sort through the photos in my laptop’s library, I find more of my son’s work than my own. Now outfitted with a much better camera, he takes dozens of photos every time we go planespotting (which is nearly every weekend these days), bouncing between Dulles, BWI, and Reagan National airports. I read or ruminate or listen as he and his friend discuss the finer points of every aircraft that passes over us. As time has progressed, I’ve been gratified to hear their arguments expand to include the merits of different camera settings or even the benefits of varying points of view and composition. It feels as if they’re learning something about more than aviation. Maybe that’s why I was especially pleased to find that my son has broadened his subjects to include the birds that he sees while his eyes are to the sky, particularly the gulls that hang out near Reagan National Airport. What was even better was noticing how alike his compositions are, despite the disparity between steel and feathers.

A profile:

 

A slight lift with a view head-on:

 

Entering the lens:

 

Preparing for landing:

 

Among my own few photos, I found evidence that something else is in the air: spring.

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On Loneliness

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During my long absence from this blog, I continued to visit the river, finding some respite in its wintry dun aspect. At the start of the year, it froze over completely, and the boys startled me with their delighted insistence on stomping over the surface to prove its impenetrability. It was some comfort to me when their mocking brazenness receded with the ice, although I missed the stillness that accompanied it. We were always alone on these coldest days.

My trash collection was perfunctory, distracted as I was by emergencies and the inevitable crises and phone calls and text messages that followed them. Among the regular bottles and cans and plastic snack bags, I once found a Frozen balloon.

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What I find remarkable about this now is not the balloon itself but the day on which I found it. I must have stepped out early on this expedition because the rest of this day was taken up entirely by moving my father’s things out of his last apartment. I ended up at a storage facility, alone, locking away the last of his possessions. There was a loneliness there that I never feel at the river.

It is the loneliness that comes of things. Discarded things. Ownerless things. That one shoe by the side of the road. The tent pole caught in the brambles. The handleless cooler buried in mud.

But when I collect these things, I take away some of the loneliness. Don’t I?

 

My Father

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My father died last week. It still feels too recent to write anything coherently, but every now and then a panic seizes hold of me — a deep, sickening fear — that the time when he was with me is passing away too quickly, that I am losing something vital that will be impossible to retrieve if I wait too long. So I try. I sit here putting words on a screen, and I feel as if I’m wearing blinders. I see but narrowly, unable to understand what is not directly before me.

Days before my father’s hospitalization this fall, when he was still walking, albeit warily, and his dementia had not yet so confused his speech, he and I visited the Catoctin Furnace, where pig iron was discovered and then, beginning in 1776, produced by the first governor of Maryland, Thomas Johnson. We followed the trail that leads into the woods beside the reconstructed furnace, past the ruins of the old manor house, where sparrows hopped between asters and pokeweed in the autumn sun, onto a rocky, narrow path framed by heaps of ancient slag, over the treacherously open Bowstring Arch Bridge, which overlooked a pair of dogs gamboling after sticks a woman tossed into Little Hunting Creek. I stopped my father on the bridge to take a picture of him, something I rarely did. I had no idea this would be the last hike I would ever take with him. I had no idea. But it was a beautiful day. And he smiled.

It was this day I remembered when, the night before his funeral, I tried to think of something to say at his service. My brother and sisters had all finished their pieces, each beautiful in their uniqueness and approach, but my head was too filled, too noisy, too confused by images of my father’s last days. It was not until I lie in bed, not sleeping, nursing my numbness, that the woods came to me: the leaf-littered path, and the water, and my father beside me, as he had been so many times before.

And I knew what to say:

 

To Dad

 

When I step into the woods,

Onto a path through a field,

Up a trail into the mountains,

You are with me —

You always were —

A teacher,

Pointing out

the color of the stones,

The signs of animals in the underbrush,

The shape of the leaves on the trees.

It’s your language

The way you love

How you show the way.

And how nice it is,

Now,

To see how easy it will be

To feel you again,

In the wren in the thicket,

The bright zinnias in my garden,

The rolling clouds in the sky.

You thought you taught me to see

The world

But you also taught me to see

You.

So I never have to say

Goodbye,

Only,

I’ll see you later,

Again,

Soon.

–Julie

A little bit of trash

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So, I do still exist…mostly sitting in a hospital room or frantically seeing to my chores at home, but, still, I’m here. I’m getting dinner on the table. Success! My boys are passing all of their classes. Yay me! The dogs are walked. Woohoo!

A few weekends ago, before my father fell ill, I took my son and two of his plane-spotting friends to Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C. We spent some time in the terminal but soon departed for the Washington Sailing Marina, which offered a more scenic view of the airport and a better perspective of the planes landing there. (Most spotters prefer Gravelly Point, another small park, but that would be much too unoriginal for these teenagers). The boys spent hours out on the windy docks that reached into the Potomac River, taking photographs and arguing the merits of one aircraft versus another, while I chose to watch birds and wonder over the river that receives the Monocacy’s waters. As another urban river, the Potomac, too, had its share of trash, but it also had its share of waterfowl, like a small raft of mallard ducks and a very determined egret.

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Despite the non-potable water and floating trash, the view was undeniably diverting, from the taxiing planes at the airport on one end of the horizon, to the Washington Monument on the other.

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It’s not easy to write these days. I find I’m distracted all of the time, bullied by guilt and driven only to do things that must be done. I feel flat; finding the sort of inspiration I need in a hospital room is a bit of a challenge, after all. But I’m here.

And this is my little bit of trash on the Monocacy.

Unscheduled Departures

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My oldest son’s current obsession is aviation. Actually it’s been an interest for while: at first he simply collected die-cast airplane models and left doodles of aircraft everywhere, but then he began watching videos and reading books, insisting on multiple trips to the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museums, and begging to go on long-distance trips just to ride in the airplane. (When I traveled to England with my niece last summer, the only thing he wanted to know about was Heathrow Airport.) As we are within an hour’s drive of three different international airports (a perk of living in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. area), planes regularly fly overhead. They’re at an altitude high enough that I just think “airplane” when I see one skimming between the clouds, but my son and his similarly-minded friend can name the model and carrier, and, with an app, tell you its origin and destination. Recently, I’ve been driving them both to airports to meet up with other plane spotters, who gather to take photographs, compare life lists (they’re like serious birdwatchers), and speak in aviation techno-tongue (a new language). While I do admire the beauty of a well designed machine, spending my weekends in a field breathing in airplane fumes (did I ever mention I used to get horribly airsick?) is not my idea of leisure. It’s just parental duty. Friendships are new and fragile things for my son, and I feel bound to nurture them as I’m able. But all of this has left me with less time to meander the Monocacy, picking up trash and allowing my mind to wander with my feet.

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My dogs are my only willing companions these days, but my oldest, Poppy, has slowed down significantly this summer. While there was a time when I couldn’t do enough to exhaust her, now there are days when I pick up her leash and she just looks up at me, head between her paws, and sighs. Or we walk out the front door and she immediately slides down onto her belly, claiming the porch for her own, and refuses to come back in for hours. Other days, like this morning, she pulls herself up, wags her tail mildly as I fasten her harness, and totters to the sidewalk behind her overeager friend Rosie and me. For mysterious reasons, Poppy tends to want to walk down the center of the road, and she yearns to visit streets that have never interested her before, but at least a few times a week we make it all the way to the river path, where now the weeds and wildflowers fall in a jumble around us, jostling for the light of the last warm days of the season. And here, as I let her leash go, Poppy smiles.

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I think I do, too.

Hymenoptera in My Garden

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For those with a fear of bees (apiphobia) or wasps (spheksophobia), now is not a good time to hang out in my garden. The overgrown sedum, in particular, is crawling with pollinators, one on top of another: bumblebees, wasps, hornets, flies, and the occasional moth or butterfly (just to tone down the terror factor a notch).

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The sedum is called “Autumn Joy.” I guess I forgot to ask, “Whose joy?” Not my husband’s, certainly, but maybe these guys’?

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In another flower bed just a few feet away, I noticed a large concentration of wasps investigating my tiger lilies.

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At first, I wasn’t sure what could be so interesting about these bare stems, the blooms having vanished almost two months ago now. When I went in for a closer inspection, however, I found hundreds of tiny insects beneath the leaves.

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These purple spotted lily aphids (macrosiphum lilii), destructive little pests, apparently make a fine meal for the visiting hymenoptera. So, while I don’t generally make it a point to encourage wasps to gather near my deck, I’ve decided to make an exception and let them feast for as long as they like. Because it’s nice when the garden takes care of itself.

Out front, I found another insect predator grappling with its insect prey. Generally, I see cicada killers (sphecius speciosus) hovering near their holes in the hardened mud by the river, but the droning buzz of cicadas had drawn this one into my front yard, where, despite its generous size, it was struggling to lift a cicada and transport it back to its nest.

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My boys and I watched for a few minutes, (giving me time to feel a little sad because I happen to like cicadas and have written about them before) then went back to our work in the driveway. I even forgot about it until a sparrow flitted past my view carrying something large in its beak. When it landed on my front walk, I saw it drop a cicada, which it began to devour quite happily. Bird trumps insect. This time, anyway.

 

Cars and Time’s Tricks

One of the landmarks on my regular walks along the river is an old car frame, belly-up and tires attached, half-submerged at the bottom of a steep bank. Over a year ago, when the brown turf of winter was beginning to green, I took a photo of the wreck.

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Today, stepping carefully into a flowering of touch-me-nots, I took another, wondering whether I would note any change.

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Despite the several minor floods that have occurred between then and now, it appears the only real changes are the cosmetic sorts that seasons bring: grass where there was mud, a darker, clearer hue of water, and the dappled light of a leafy canopy. As a former archaeologist, I keep hoping to witness its gradual burial, until it is entirely consumed by the earth, a curious artifact rather than a niggling eyesore.

But time works at its own pace on the earth, building and eroding in thousands and hundreds of years rather than months or days. Or, at least, it has in the past. It seems, lately, that we may not be able to rely always on what we have known or taken for granted when it comes to the shape and speed of time’s passage as it plays out in currents, storms, and the creeping of tides. For now, though, that old car is suspended in time and mud, exposed and broken, watching the seasons wash over its carcass. Slowly, to my eyes, but quickly, to others.

I find time treacherous and slippery. Some days I wish away before they’re over, but others I want to magic alongside me forever. Sending my boys to school today reminds me of this. One is in high school now, the other only two years behind, and they are changing, growing up, less willing to be part of my ramblings. They measure time in minutes and hours — it stretches out before them — and they have little patience when I stop for a moment just to look.

Especially at a rusty, abandoned old car.

Zinnias

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Zinnias. They’re not native to Maryland, preferring the hot, dry locales of the southwest and Mexico, but I love to plant them in my garden. In the early spring, I buy a few seed packets, pull my own baggies of last year’s seeds out of storage, and spread them over bare soil that will be dry and hard by August. I rake the dirt over them a bit (maybe), sprinkle some water on top, and leave them. As the tulip and daffodil leaves begin to shrivel, the zinnias begin to sprout, and when the butterfly weed has begun to wane, the zinnias grow taller, and as the coneflowers think of fading, the zinnias bloom. I plant a variety of low-growing zinnias so close together that they create busy bouquets

as well as the more classic, tall varieties, some so tall that I need to stand on tiptoes to photograph, which bloom in a plethora of color and a profusion of petals.

They’re a favorite of bees and butterflies,

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but it’s the resident hummingbirds that draw the most attention, zooming between our honeysuckles and vegetable garden out back — ceding the sunflowers to the goldfinches for the most part — and the zinnias out front. One morning our old labrador, Poppy, startled one when she stepped outside for her morning constitutional. It zipped away momentarily but soon returned to consider this bear-shaped, heavy-breathing mammal. Poppy, either sensing its superiority or hoping that it might want to play, promptly rolled over for it. The hummingbird simply ignored her and tended to the flowers, but, really, what else could it do?

Huh. Now that’s a book waiting to be written.