Revelation and Rambling

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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

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It even makes trash look good:

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(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.)

An Icy Ides

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On my walk to the river this morning, I stepped off of the main path in order to avoid meeting anyone; it was an altogether unnecessary move. Yesterday eight inches of wet, heavy snow fell, which closed the schools and brought all sorts of revelers and shovelers outdoors, but last night the temperatures plunged and winds whipped up, which is always enough to drive people back indoors in this part of the world. As I walked, my boots barely broke through the surface of the snow, which had frozen overnight, and the only other tracks I encountered were those of the deer who had bounded off a few minutes before.

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The sun was a weak light through flurry-bearing clouds, more of January than March. A week ago, I was taking pictures of Virginia spring-beauties, celandine, and bluebells, but today the most notable flora was wind-blown grass lying flattened across a dune of snow.

For me, there is beauty in both views.

Rodents of Unusual Skill

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A couple of weeks ago, I diverged from my regular rounds along the Monocacy and came upon a young tree trunk that looked as if it had been hewn by a wood-carver.

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I took note and walked a little farther along to find another tree that had been similarly cut. Now strongly suspicious, I stepped a little closer to the steep riverbank, scanned the waters, and found what I expected: a dam.

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Such logjams are not uncommon. They occur naturally after flood waters push down and collect fallen trees, branches, leaves and other debris (i.e. trash) against obstructions in the river, such as boulders, bridges, or small islands. I had a feeling that in this case I was seeing the work of another river dweller, one of earth’s largest rodents, the North American Beaver (Castor canadensis). Just to be sure, I revisited the area yesterday and found that even more trees had been felled.

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While I would very much like to meet the beavers, I’ve a feeling that they’d prefer to avoid me (I live in Maryland, after all, not Narnia), so I had to make due with knowing that they were nearby and looking about their home. Unfortunately, the light was horrible, flat and almost numbing, so I had to play a little with the paltry light meter on my phone when I tried to photograph these industrious beavers’ environment. None of the results are accurate.

Besides frustrating myself with my limited camera, I managed to gather an overflowing bagful of trash, some of it unusual (the foam from a bike seat!). I don’t usually get noticed, but today a man observed me and remarked that I had an impossible job. “Just a little bit every day,” I answered. He just kept walking.

Alien Invasions

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While many plants are just now budding and flowering and sprouting leaves, there are others that have retained some degree of color all of this mild winter long. Besides the obvious evergreens like holly, juniper, and pine, one of the most prominent of these plants on the floodplains of the Monocacy, and throughout Frederick, is the Japanese Honeysuckle, or Lonicera japonica.  It’s a non-native vine that attracted gardeners with its delicate flowers and heady aroma and then, with the fast-growing tenacity common to all invasive species, escaped its tidy beds and uncoiled itself across the wild landscape, binding trees and suffocating the native groundcover. I’ve been taking photos of this intruder, intending to dedicate some part of a blog post to it, so it seemed a great opportunity (or at least prompt) when yesterday a Facebook post from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources informed me that it’s National Invasive Species Awareness Week. I’ve written about invasive species several times before, often to complain about their less-than-desirable attributes, like itchiness, or poisonousness, and I keep a running list of them in my Wildflowers of the Monocacy page by noting the word “alien” behind its common name. You can find a more exhaustive list of these aliens here, at the site of the Maryland Invasive Species Council (MISC).

Unlike the usual trash I can just pick up and stuff in a bag, invasive species cannot be eradicated in a moment. A few days ago, when I took my father into the mountains of the Frederick Municipal Forest to find a trout pond, he found himself distracted by all of the Japanese Honeysuckle that had insinuated itself into the underbrush. Despite his poor balance and aching joints, he began trying to disentangle it. After a great deal of work (and a little pain inflicted by the brier patch the honeysuckle had infiltrated), we did manage to pull some of it up by the roots. It seemed a sorry effort when we stepped back to see all that remained. But I can be stubborn, too.

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Begin Again

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There is a special time in early spring (or late winter, as it so happens) when this year’s young sprouts meet last year’s faded ghosts. The dry, burst seed pods of dogbane and the gray-headed husks of brittle goldenrod intermingle with the round, new buds of a dogwood. The delicate leaves and blue blossoms of bird’s eye speedwell break through a thick, crusty layer of leaves that last year crowned the branches of nearby hickories, oaks, and maples. Yesterday: meet today. Or is it the other way around? To me, it is a reminder that time is not a straight line, that there are few clean endings or beginnings, and that what is behind us is never really left behind.

 

Trashscapes

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The warmer weather that has been hounding us most of the winter surpassed itself over the long weekend, bursting into a series of summery days that resulted in a) lots of human activity and b) lots of human trash. My elbows are still recovering from the weight of the garbage bags that I had to carry home, and I have far more recyclables than my 2 bins and bi-weekly collection schedule can manage. While I usually take a sort of housekeeperly pleasure in cleaning around the river, weekends like these are overwhelming. It’s frustrating to have to leave things behind (such as a stash of cans squirrelled beneath a log) simply because I don’t have enough bags to hold it. That’s when I remember that this is a job that is never finished. Like laundry. (Actually, I found some of that, too).

Two days of collecting were particularly intensive. On the first of these, the boys and I encountered a fire circle with one log still so smoking hot that it took little more than a dry leaf to reset it aflame.

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After we hauled the log farther into the water, I set about gathering a case’s worth of beer cans, a six-pack of bottles, and other such picnicky miscellany. I couldn’t help but see the irony in having to clean up yet more Budweiser “America” beer cans, which have splashed across them the lyrics of “This Land Is Your Land,” by Woody Guthrie, a song that highlights the natural beauties of the United States. (For the song’s history, see the concise NPR story http://www.npr.org/2000/07/03/1076186/this-land-is-your-land). Yes, indeed, this land is for you and me. I wish that we could all remember that. And behave that way.

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On the second day, I found an entire campsite’s worth of garbage. Literally. A tent had fallen down an eroded bank into the water below, along with a slew of cans and food wrappers, mostly submerged in mud and impossible to extricate. As I filled up all three of the bags I had brought and two more bags that I found, I was grateful for the broken, soft-sided cooler, which served as an excellent trash receptacle after I dumped the muck that had accumulated inside of it. To reach the makeshift site, I had to ford the river twice, which, since my five-foot frame was so weighed down, required that I carry everything back in shifts.

All of this activity managed to startle a fox, who zipped past me in all of his sly regalness. He wasn’t twenty feet away, but my hands were too full to grab my camera. Perhaps it was the campsite that had attracted him in the first place. It’s hard to tell. But he didn’t appear drunk, and there was very little but alcohol left to consume. I, unfortunately, stank with beer that dribbled from the cans as I collected them, and I’m pretty sure that the odor, combined with my bag-lady appearance, is what earned me a few nervous stares from families with small children on my way home.

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Faces in the Wood

Especially when it’s windy, as it has been the last few days, the woods can feel alive. I think I hear a door creak, only to turn and realize that it’s two trees rubbing against each other. Or a rustling in the leaves beside me suggests footsteps, but it’s only a fallen branch. Occasionally, of course, there really are deer watching me or squirrels racing through the brush, but usually I’m alone, surrounded by the tall, silent sentinels of the forest. Perhaps that’s why it’s eerie when they do seem to come alive. I suppose, to some, faces on trees are whimsical (hence those kits that can be bought in gardening catalogs), but in fiction they are just as likely to be foreboding. So what am I to think of this?

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To me, that tree looks a little angry. Perhaps I would be, too, if a woodpecker — likely the prehistoric-looking pileated, no less — had been pounding on me. In another part of the woods, I found some sort of mythical beast, too nondescript for a hydra, but fantastic all the same. It’s not hard to remember being five when I encounter such things.

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But, as when I was small, I have only to step into the light and remind myself of who I am. It’s like a variation on a favorite rhyme: “I see the tree, and the tree sees me.”

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A Brown Study

Despite a day or two of cold and a recent dusting, this has been a decidedly warm and un-white winter. And spring is coming quickly; already I’ve heard the territorial whirr of a red-winged blackbird, and violets and celandines are sprouting beneath last year’s crispy leaves. It’s likely, then, that this winter will remain the winter that really wasn’t. I could mourn this (and, honestly, I do), but I can also make do with what the river and woods will give me: a rainbow done in shades of brown.

Recently, in the heart of the “island,” I made what has become one of my favorite discoveries: a fallen tree, debarked, drilled upon, and worn away by weather, animals, and fungus. It is like a massive canvas, revealing masterpieces frame by frame.

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They are mostly Impressionist pieces, I think, or perhaps Expressionist. I can see Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” or Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” to name two more famous works. Another fallen trunk I found assumed an altogether different color and texture, slightly more Cubist, perhaps, a tree trunk reassembled:

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Then, we can move on to something equally textured and also, thanks to the mud left by recent rains, brown. Also decidedly Modern. Our trash:

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“Bicycle Seat”

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“Beer Can”

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“Styrofoam Cup”

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“Self Portrait with Plastic Bottle”

Of Dogs and Deer

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Nope, nothing to see here, you can put that camera away now.

So, I think that my younger dog, Rosie, might be planning her escape.

As I was getting prepared for our walk a few days ago – gathering trash bags, putting on my coat, jangling leashes – instead of presenting herself at my feet, as she usually does, she rushed upstairs. A little puzzled, I snapped the harness onto my older dog, Poppy, and waited. A few moments later, Rosie reappeared, but with an old, dried up, edible “chewie” in her mouth. I said to her (because I regularly talk to my dogs, cat, and any other living thing that happens to be in my vicinity, including myself), “We’re going on a long walk, don’t you want to leave that here?” But, as I reached to take it from her, she respectfully turned her head away. “Suit yourself,” I shrugged. As my older dog loves to carry things in her mouth, the situation didn’t seem too strange, and I figured I would just put the “chewie” in my pocket when she got bored.

About a half mile later, however, at a divergence in the path to the river, Rosie turned onto the less-traveled dirt trail, found a stone, and began digging a shallow hole just beside it. When she reached her preferred depth, she dropped the “chewie” into it, snuffled, and proceeded to nose dirt, leaves and other dried plant matter over it until the hole was filled. Now, I should note the Rosie has lots of these little stashes in our back yard. Occasionally she unearths them and returns them to the house in their slightly soggy, rotten state (another good reason never to buy rawhide). This is the first time, however, that she has ever stored something off of our property.

So, yes, I’m a little suspicious. She’s a nervous dog who’s been acting just a little too nervous lately. And I know she’s done with me holding her back from all those wild animals out there, so tantalizingly close, taunting her with their heady scents. Like those white-tailed deer we came upon on the island yesterday: a whole herd of them, and I wouldn’t let go of the leash, even to take this poor video:

That’s Rosie’s bark at the beginning, when it looks as if I’m going to fall over.

I can’t blame her, really, when the deer are so clearly out of control. I found a hoofprint just inside of the boys’ shelter (which Rosie, therefore, considers hers), so who knows what they’re getting up to when we’re not around?

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Although I am guessing that, even though there was evidence that they were eating and sleeping nearby, this was not their empty pint of gelato:

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Beyond Mud Pies

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Last week’s rains filled the Monocacy to its banks, which prevented exploration for a few days, but as the water receded to more average levels, we were treated to another sort of fun: mud. Lots and lots of it. The kind that sucks off your boots and ends up in your hair. While the boys modeled it into facades that seemed to lead into the riverbanks (and which reminded us of something out of Tolkien, like the Mines of Moria, but for muskrats), I discovered a veritable treasure-trove of tracks and footprints.

 

They reveal the life along the river that I rarely see; the creatures that come out when I’m not there. Honestly, evidence of the white-tailed deer is everywhere, in the form of scat that my younger dog takes too much pleasure in rolling herself in (and then pouts for days over the subsequent bath), and the squirrels are rarely too shy to show themselves, either. Raccoons, however, are more secretive (being nocturnal), and herons, although visible, prefer not to let me get too close. The Monocacy is host to other animals as well: opossums (one of which made it into my house), shrews, moles, voles, mice, chipmunks, groundhogs (whose holes are another obsession for my younger dog), weasels, minks, and otters, just to name a few mammals. We’re there, too, of course, sometimes leaving a little more than footprints

At least yesterday I found a piece of trash that I could use to collect the other pieces of trash. That’s always helpful. If you look on the bright side.

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