A Dog’s Day

20170517_081122

Somewhere in the distance there is a rabbit. Always. More likely there are two or three, whispering in the tall grass, munching on clover, leaving traces of their scent along the borders of trails and sidewalks. They’re driving her mad. Her ears are up, her nose is trembling, muzzle tensed to form a sharp, anguished bark. I see the rabbits before she does, but she knows that they’re there. When they move, she rushes, frustrated by the restraints of her harness. She glances back at me, whines, asks why. I tell her that she wouldn’t catch them anyway, nor the deer that have their eyes on us. It’s all more than her mutt heart can bear. She’ll come home, sit on her bed, and gnaw a pencil to splinters. Next time, she’ll grumble, next time.

House Cat

2017-05-17 09.38.04

Even as I type, I can hear the the high-pitched croak of a mother starling scolding my old cat for daring to creep out onto our deck. At 17, our Ashley-cat has lost interest in hunting, and, up until about the age of 15, she never ventured out of doors (or out of our closet, for that matter) anyway. She is a strictly indoor cat by choice, and, considering her longevity, it’s hard to argue that this hasn’t been a good decision on her part. While I can’t blame the starling for vociferously protecting her babies (which are, yet again, in our chimney vent), she’s wasting energy that she could be using to fetch her children food, which they seem to need about every 5 minutes judging by the desperate racket in my living room wall.

20170515_163005
Trust me, they’re in there somewhere. And they have their feathers now.

Even if Ashley-cat had been inclined to go outdoors, we would have kept her inside. The many cats that we kept when I was growing up had full roaming privileges, going out or in as they pleased, with multiple door-openers at their service. One cat in particular, a big, blond boy with a kingly mien, preferred the outdoors and seemed to feel that he belonged to the whole neighborhood rather than simply to us. (For reasons unknown to me, as I was not yet born when he came into our home, we called him Tiffany, which made me endlessly confused about all the girls named Tiffany…I knew three of them and was convinced that all of their parents had made a mistake.) His roaming ended when he was hit by a car on the busy street in front of our house.

Upset, I did what every distraught 10-year-old girl does and wrote a letter to the editor in my local paper. In the letter (which I signed with my name and age), I chided careless drivers and requested that, if they must hit cats in the road, they stop, take the cat out of the road, and inform a local homeowner. This was all very naive, of course, and I soon received several nasty letters in the mail informing me that I was an irresponsible pet owner who was to blame for my cat’s death because I had let him outside. This enlightening experience led me to two big resolutions (in addition to self-loathing): first, I would never write a letter to the editor again, and, second, when I had my own cats, I would keep them inside.

Earlier this year, I finally broke the first resolution in order to write a letter to the editor in support of a polystyrene ban in the state of Maryland. (Kind of a no-brainer for this blogger). No one really trolls by snail-mail anymore, but I did make a point not to read any online comments.  The second resolution I became even more affirmed in when I read a book by my teenage idol, Margaret Atwood, in which she warned against the dangers of allowing cats out to hunt and kill songbirds and other native wildlife. Nonetheless, I have confess, I ultimately broke it with my older cat, Olaf, who was an escape artist and knew how to take advantage of the carelessness of two young boys and the distraction of their mother. I still miss that cat, but it was his thyroid and kidneys that compelled us to let him go, not the wheel of a car, and, despite his greatness as a mouser, he never caught anything with feathers.

20170517_084724
Yes, right there, that’s the spot. Yessssssss…

I used to worry about Ashley-cat’s fearfulness. She was surrendered to the Animal Humane Society in Golden Valley, Minnesota twice before the age of four months, when my husband and I adopted her shortly after our wedding and move out to the midwest. To seem as small as possible, she tucked herself into the back of her cage at the shelter and, at home, spent most of her time under beds, behind couches and, finally, in closets. Even now, when she ventures out, it is to stay on the deck, a man-made surface within view of the door. If I start to shut it, she comes running with wild eyes and slips back inside. She is truly a house-cat. And she plans on never, ever, ever even knowing that there’s a river nearby.

Waste

20170506_083251

Waste is not just another word for trash. It’s a place, abandoned, uninhabitable and barren; as an action, it means the destruction, withering away, and purposeless consumption of something (or someone) valuable; as an adjective, it describes something rendered useless. We have waste grounds and waste lands. We waste our time, or our money, or ourselves. When we’re sick, we waste away. At war, we lay waste.

One of the wildflower guides that I use describes the location in which some plants grow as “waste places,” while another refers to the same type of terrain as “disturbed.” Both names evoke a sense of wrongness and unease. Biologically, ecologically, environmentally, this feeling of wrongness is absolutely correct. The  plants that grow in these places are “alien,” “non-native,” and even “invasive.” Why would I want to have anything to do with a wasted, disturbed space full of aliens, like these?

20170504_163608
Milk-vetch
20170504_163643
Cranesbill
20170504_163931
Storksbill
20170504_163117
Mayweed

 

I’m not sure. (But maybe it’s because of these very same aliens, or, as I like to call them, wasteflowers). At any rate, I go, and make the best of the disturbance and waste, which, as a human, I am responsible for in the first place. I clean what I can, appreciate what I can, and hope for the best. We cannot undo everything that we’ve created and destroyed, but that doesn’t mean we should waste it, either.

 

UPDATE: For a comprehensive guide to invasive (not simply non-native) plants of the mid-atlantic see this guide by the National Park Service:

https://www.nps.gov/plants/alien/pubs/midatlantic/midatlantic.pdf

 

Addiction on the Monocacy

20170430_105055

I climbed through the pile of debris, a great mass of limbless logs, sticks, mud, and leaves driven together in a recent flood, in order to grab the Frappuccino bottle for my trash bag. It was only at the last moment, as I replaced my phone in the back pocket of my jeans, that I noticed the snake. It was still, watching me closely, apparently convinced (and rightly so) that it hadn’t yet been seen. Not wanting to startle it, I made a show of noisily stepping back and around to pick up the bottle from the other side, and it took the opportunity to slither under a branch, deeper into the jumbled mound.

20170430_105340

As I continued picking my way around the river, I stepped a little more carefully, as much to avoid falling through camouflaged holes as to avoid stepping on an unassuming reptile, and I encountered more trash than I had in many weeks. This isn’t altogether uncommon after a stretch of rainy weather, which both prevents me from my work and drives more trash into the rising waters of the Monocacy as it rushes downstream. I was actually grateful to find an empty cement bucket to carry the excess garbage from my three overfilled plastic bags.

Later, as I shifted the bucket and bags to my left hand to reach for a cigarette wrapper caught in the upper branch of a fallen tree, my thoughts rambled in their disjointed way from beer cans to plants, soda bottles, and snakes, and I realized that my trash-collection was yielding a veritable garden of vices. But, as I thought of these vices — drinking, smoking, gambling — I decided, no, I won’t call these vices — that term expresses a degree of moral judgment that I don’t feel — but addictions. They’re there, these addictions, all of them, their evidence littering the river, whether chemical (beer cans, cigar wrappers, and soda bottles/alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine) or habitual (lotto cards, styrofoam, and plastic bags/gambling, technology, and food).

Nationally and locally, addiction is a major topic of concern. Abuse of opioids, and fentanyl in particular, has become an epidemic, reaching crisis levels in Frederick County, where, according to the Frederick News-Post, “despite the increasing prevalence of overdose-reversal drugs, opioid overdoses and deaths both nearly tripled in 2016 compared to 2015” and “another 43 overdoses — four of them fatal — were reported by the end of the first two months of 2017” (April 27, 2017). In February, a pedestrian not far from “my” island on the Monocacy found a body washed up along one of its banks.  An April 13, 2017 article in the Frederick-News-Post reported that, while the young man, Matthew Thomas Delash, died from drowning and hyopthermia, “intoxication from fentanyl and N-ethylpentylone were also complicating factors.” His family wrote an honest, heartfelt obituary for him, expressing the pain and power of addiction as they sought to acknowledge the true person, a generous son and a friend, behind it. When I first heard about this man’s death, I wasn’t sure whether to include it in this, my loose account of life on the Monocacy River. He and his life were not trash, and it is a hard thing that he was lost in the waters of such a beautifully ugly place as this urban river can be. But to ignore his death is even more of an impossibility. He, like the rest of us who live along its winding banks, is a part of the river and its story.

20170430_111339

Taking Shelter

20170420_171702

The boys’ shelter has survived the change of seasons, evolving from a barren, winter structure into a hidden hermitage, surrounded and softened by the island forest’s leafy undergrowth. While in the past I’ve found evidence of white-tailed deer visiting the shelter, and once even discovered the remains of a pizza party (not the deer that time, I’m assuming), last week I only found this lonely Horned Passalus Beetle (Odontotaenius disjunctus), which objected very noisily (or stridulated, for the entomologically-inclined) when my oldest son picked it up for further investigation.

20170420_171017

As I am a more of an etymologist than an entomologist, I advise that you visit this site if you are interested in more information about this beetle. In the meantime, I’ll just sit here,

20170420_171812

or maybe pick up these cans.

20170417_172544

Off the River

20170414_140553

In an effort to avoid a Spring Breakdown, a condition caused by two boys with too much time together, I’ve been filling the last few days with as many outings as my sons will allow. (It’s become clear that, before the break began, they formed a pact — and a not-so-silent or secret one at that — that they would never, ever agree on anything, even if it meant contradicting themselves within a matter of seconds in order to disagree.) As much as possible, I’ve kept them outdoors and within a 20-minute drive of the house (a requirement of my oldest), which has meant that we’ve stayed in Frederick County, Maryland. My youngest’s insistence on doing something we haven’t done before put further constraints on my list of possibilities, so, while I would like to say that I’ve created a great travelogue of the county, I can really only claim to have wrung out the last drops of my Fredericktonian imagination.

Catoctin Mountain Park, a National Park in Thurmont, Maryland (and home of Camp David, for the historically minded), abuts and merges with Cunningham Falls State Park, and the trail that I chose to hike with the boys, Cat Rock, is supported by both parks. Most of the trails at Catoctin Mountain Park seem to lead to impressive arrangements of boulders that overlook the valleys of Frederick and the Blue Ridge Mountains, and these rock formations are given bizarre names such as Hog Rock, Wolf Rock, and Chimney Rock, based either on their appearance or history. Whether Cat Rock was so named for the bobcats that were sighted in the area or because someone drunk on moonshine imagined the shape of a cat in the quartzite outcropping is unclear. At any rate, last week was the first time I climbed the trail to Cat Rock, and, judging by our solitude on the trail in contrast to the numerous cars in the parking lots, I believe I’m not the only one to have neglected it. The boys and I scaled the rocks on our own, daring ourselves to leap from one boulder to another, and warning each other not to stand dangerously close to the edge of breathtaking precipices. Which meant, of course, that we all stood much too close to the edge, all of the time.

20170414_140523

The next day, we took a less rigorous walk in the Frederick Municipal Forest, which, like Catoctin Mountain Park, we often visit but haven’t entirely exhausted. If you follow Mountaindale Road into the mountains (toward Gambrill State Park, but don’t follow the road of the same name!), past the reservoir, and along Fishing Creek, you’ll soon notice a tall ledge of exposed stone on the right side of the road. My oldest has been asking for months to explore the area, so on this day I finally agreed, pulling off to the left, behind the truck of a pair of hopeful fishermen. (At this time of year, there are quite a few of them, as the stream is stocked with trout at the end of March). A well-trod path and scattered pieces of garbage proved that we were not the first to be curious about the small outcropping, which provided a view of Fishing Creek as well as an ingenious spot for hide-and-seek.

20170415_143203

When we returned to the car, my oldest spotted a black rat snake basking on a log. Not yet having outgrown their desire to touch whatever they see, the boys approached, scared the snake beneath some rocks, and chased it toward the stream, where they finally succeeded in grabbing it by the tail for a few moments before letting it slide into the water. It stubbornly, and wisely, remained there until we left.

20170415_150901

While I don’t mind snakes as a rule, I’m hoping not to encounter them in the vicinity of our most recent trip, the Fred Archibald Audubon Sanctuary. Located near the small town of New Market, Maryland, off of Boyers Mill Road, the 140-acre reserve of meadow, forest, and scrub is under the care of the Audubon Society of Central Maryland. The boys and I assisted in pulling (and cutting out) some of the more obnoxious invasive species on the reserve one day last winter, and now we have volunteered to monitor the nest boxes in the front portion of the sanctuary through the summer. We are expecting to find Eastern bluebirds (one nest is complete!), wrens, and swallows, as all of these have successfully fledged in recent years. Snakes, unfortunately, have been a problem in the past for the purple martins, who have yet to arrive at their newly-fashioned, extra-snakeproofed nesting boxes.

20170413_143003

Today, I have to confess, I went to the movies. One boy was thrilled, the other found a friend to take him in, and I daydreamed during the car chase. When we got home, I carefully opened the front door, where a pair of house finches have been intermittently constructing a nest on our spring wreath. It’s always nice to know that nature is literally just outside my door.

On Seeing Everything

20170411_171456

As a trash collecting hobbyist, it is difficult to look away from unpleasantness. It is difficult, in fact, to look away from anything at all, as I am always looking at everything. My only way, then, of not seeing unpleasantness is not to write about it. And I am guilty of that.

Whether because of the early loss of my mother or the natural human aversion to reminders of mortality, I am affected for days after encountering the body of an animal, particularly if it is young. For years, I said a prayer for every dead animal I passed on the road. Although my faith has gotten shaky, I usually still say my roadkill prayer; it seems to absolve me from some of the pain and grief that witnessing death usually invokes in me. The sight of vultures and crows over a carcass offers me even more comfort. They show a way to truly see a purpose in the animal’s death, if not in its life.

There are moments, though, when this is not quite enough. The time, for instance, when I saw a car strike a bear cub, and for weeks and months (and even years now?) could not stop imagining the bereaved mother bear somewhere in the woods on the other side of the road. Or, last year, when I found an older fawn lying in the woods along the Monocacy River, clearly dead but without any signs of trauma, and a few days later encountered another fawn of the same age, only a short distance away, looking slow and weak, its ribs showing and rear smeared with diarrhea. It stared at me for a long time, unconcerned with my curious old dog, before tottering back into the tall brush. Again I imagined a mother, but this time she was the one dead on the side of the road, and her children were lost without her. Lost children: our fears and histories seem to circle back on themselves, and our imagination never wanders too far from us.

Yesterday I found a young fox kit on the island path. It was lying on its side, its small mouth just open, its eyes just closed. It was dead, of course, but only just so. Its gray fur was downy and its body soft as I lifted it, checking for signs of life and death. The head lolled, its neck broken, and a tincture of moist blood stained its right ear. There was nothing I could do but move it from the path to the forest floor, where it could decompose in relative peace, shaded and surrounded by the bluebells, celandine and violets that have transformed the Monocacy into a wonderland. I covered it with a few damp leaves and noticed a trout lily blooming nearby.

20170411_170731

I know that death is vital to life. Predators kill and prey feed, diseases weaken, the strong survive and reproduce. I get all of that. I appreciate it. With an intellectual and scientist’s objective eye, I can say, “This is Good.” But sometimes my soul is just a little too sensitive for this world.

A Flower Tour

20170403_173223
Trout Lilly (Erythronium americanum), with Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), Virginia spring-beauties ( Claytonia virginica) and Lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria)

At this time of year, I could take you on a 3-hour flower tour of my favorite Monocacy River island. While you wouldn’t see many species, I would bore you to death  amuse you with multiple views of the same flowers, particularly the Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), which nod in clusters of pink, periwinkle, and baby blue, forming a soft carpet over the cool, silty ground.  “Look!” I might say, “A bluebell with a bee!”

20170329_160347
Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica)

Or, “Aren’t bluebells colors perfect just before they open?”

Or, perhaps, “Oops! I let go of the leash! Rosie, get back here!”

20170403_171830

I get distracted by other flowers, as well.  Lesser celandines (Ranunculus ficaria), bright yellow flowers of the buttercup family, are an invasive species that thrive in the riparian environments of Maryland, and, as they appear before any other spring ephemerals, they have an advantage, which you can witness by the fact that they are in nearly every picture that I take of other flowers. For instance, they make a cheerful background for the emerging Trout lily (Erythronium americanum) in the photo that opened this post, and it is their leaves that surround the lovely moss I was photographing when Rosie, set loose by the boys, photo-bombed me. (Yes, she runs off leash much too often, but that grin was just too irresistible for me to get too angry).

20170329_165106

Virginia spring-beauties (Claytonia virginica), delicate white-and-pink petaled native flowers, do their best to raise their heads above all of the lesser celandine, and I crouch low, lifting their blossoms to the camera, in order to record their fairy-like loveliness.

Another flower that competes with the lesser celandine is the common blue violet (Viola sororia), which, despite its name, is white as often as it is blue.

Violets are such reliable flowers, as likely to grow in the yard as in the forest, but Toadshade (Trillium sessile) far more elusive. Last year I saw two or three before they faded at April’s end, but this year I’ve counted at least seven, and they’ve all yet to open.

For some reason, perhaps because of their names or concurrent blooming season, I associate toadshade with trout lilies, which also seem to be more numerous this season. The toadshade, of course, would be a distant, smelly cousin, as far as the trout lily is concerned. Despite the emergence of more trout lily leaves, it may still be years before I see a bloom on some of them; trout lilies don’t bloom at all the first 4-7 years of life, when often there is only one leaf sprout instead of two leaves and a flower stalk, as we see here:

20170403_173821

Of course, being who I am, no tour along the Monocacy would be complete without pointing out the trash in bloom. It competes with the lesser celandine, too.

20170329_160649

The Talk on the Monocacy

20170126_162937.jpg

Excerpt from a conversation between two boys, 11 and 13, and their mother:

Setting: “The hideout” at the Monocacy River

Boy, age 13: Guess what I found in the woods, Mom?

Mom: Uh, what?

Boy, age 13: A box of condoms!

(Boy, age 13, grins. Boy, age 11, looks unsure but laughs anyway)

Mom: Do you know what those are for?

Boy, age 13, (rolls eyes): Yes! I’ve had health class for 3 years.

(Boy, age 11, conspicuously quiet but still grinning)

Mom to Boy, age 11: Do you know?

Boy, age 11 (with sarcasm): Uh, yeah.

Mom: What are they for?

Boy, age 11: Like, getting drunk or something.

(Boy, age 13, starts laughing)

Mom: Would you like to explain, Boy, age 13?

Boy, age 13 (turning red): No! Not now!

Mom (imagining later explanation): Would you like me to explain, Boy, age 11? If Boy, age 13, won’t now, I can.

Boy, age 11: Yes, um, no, um, I don’t know…

Mom: It has to do with S-E….

(Both boys interrupt)

Boy, age 11: No, no, no!

Boy, age 13: It’s something the boy puts on his penis for sex!

Mom (discreetly laughing to self): Okay, where is this box?

 

Revelation and Rambling

20170316_164711.jpg

This week has been a revelation. The melting snow has pushed the Monocacy just a little over its usual borders. It flowed from streams, trickled from sunny banks, and washed in from streets and drains. As the swelling river turned a muddy brown, the land returned to a green slightly brighter than when we’d last seen it, before the snow fell.

20170320_164148.jpg

For most of the week, I was exiled from “the island” by the river’s rising waters, left to gaze longingly at the carpet of green, where I knew early spring flowers were blooming. It’s the most wondrous time of year for the place, when it seems most clean and bright and promising (I’ve been known to call it “Fairyland”). But my side of the river isn’t without its own curiosities.

Again and again this winter, I’ve meant to write about the Canada Geese that travel over us in noisy flocks at dusk. It’s a particularly wintry phenomenon that I associate with clear skies and bracing cold. It seemed only fitting, then, that on winter’s last day, I watched about a hundred of them take off from the soccer field at Riverside Park.

20170320_163808.jpg

As they flew over the Monocacy Boulevard bridge, I noticed a Red-shouldered Hawk perched on a taller tree in the forest retention area (which got some much-needed attention only last December).

20170320_163955.jpg

It’s just a smudge in the distance in the picture that I took of it, and the geese merely specks, but with my naked eye it cut a regal silhouette, and I got a glimpse of its burnished chest when it glided from its perch, crossed low over the path in front of me, and headed into a stand of trees on “the island,” well out of my reach. Despite knowing that it was unlikely that I’d spot the hawk again, I hurried to the edge of the river and searched in the direction I thought it had gone. As expected, I didn’t find the bird, but I did see a tall, white American sycamore, which reminded me that I was supposed to take a picture of my favorite sycamore (because, yes, I have one) for the Maryland Biodiversity Project’s American Sycamore Facebook Blitz (because, yes, they had one). I was too late for the blitz, but I set off down the path the next day to photograph “my” tree anyway.

20170319_145435.jpg

Isn’t it beautiful? It’s branches like gnarled, work-weary hands, reaching for the sky?

20170319_145609.jpg

It even makes trash look good:

20170319_145702.jpg

(Needless to say, among the things revealed by the melting snow was quite a bit of trash, and I couldn’t help but think that the juxtaposition of these two things meant that someone had a pretty wild night followed by a pretty rough morning:

Or maybe it was just a few ill-conceived hours.)