Slug

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I’d never seen such a collection before. Driven by the rising floodwaters to the tallest, tippiest blades of grass, the slugs clung together for life. As the water they hovered over was above my waders, there wasn’t much I could do for them. It’s possible they kept their gluey bodies out of the river, but as it only kept rising for hours after I left them, I rather doubt it.

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I know little about slugs, but a bit of research suggests that these might be examples of arion subfuscusThey’re certainly plentiful and by far the slug I most commonly find along the Monocacy. I have a feeling that these recent floods won’t keep their numbers down for long.

Another group of animals displaced by the water are the white-tailed deer, who have been forced from the woods into the meadows just outside of the floodplain. I would say that they’re inconvenienced except that they hardly seem to care when a human walks by, even when holding on to an overzealous dog at the end of a leash.

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“Do we have to move?” they seem to ask. “Really?”

At any rate, they’re better off than the slugs. The waters have receded for the most part, even though yesterday’s miraculous sun disappeared behind rain clouds again today. If this post seems dull, it’s because I am as well after all of these gray days. If I were inclined to make horrible puns, I might even say I’m a bit sluggish. (But even writing that felt wrong).

 

 

Rivers from the Sky

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Clearly I wrote about flooding too soon this year. Last night, my sons called me to the driveway to look up at the sky. It was awash in clouds; high cirrus behind monstrous — but still white — cumulonimbus, their rapid swelling and blossoming revealed and backlit by the setting sun. To the north, a slit of clear sky was still visible against the horizon. Wisps of cloud, mere suggestions of tornados, reached toward the earth. The day had been stifling, the air choked with humidity and heat, and we could still feel that latent energy as a small breeze began to stir. It was beautiful, but not frightening.

An hour later, the street had turned into a large creek, and hail the size of dimes and playing marbles lined the driveway. A constant stream of ice and rain fell from the clouds, which continued to settle and grow over us. My raised garden filled with muddy water, and the peonies bowed their heads against the onslaught. Since our house is built on the high ground in the neighborhood, the boys and I could watch the churning storm in relative safety, our only danger the slippery floors created by the hail and rain driven through open doors, but the streets of Frederick city overflowed, roads closed, and buildings flooded. Our phones constantly sounded with alarms and warnings. My oldest, who has always loved extreme weather (in kindergarten, he told his teacher he wanted to be a storm chaser, and all he wanted for Christmas were books and videos and posters of tornadoes), begged to be allowed to ride his bike to the river. Our faces must have spoken volumes, because he gave up the argument much more quickly than usual.

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This morning, he woke up early to check out the river, and I followed behind him shortly after. The sidewalks were scattered with leaves and frail limbs and branches, and the paved paths along the river required rubber boots and waders in spots. The informal dirt paths had turned into small streams in some places and disappeared entirely into the river in others.

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Worms writhed in the puddles, and tadpoles found temporary sidewalk homes in the overflowing waters of the vernal ponds. I hope that they’ll find their way home on their own, but the forecast suggests they may not need to for some time. Rain, rain, and more thunder and rain is expected for the rest of the week.

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But I wait. And wonder. Always wonder.

 

 

I’m Not Alone

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  1. 5 white-tailed deer, in 3 different locations
  2. 1 pileated woodpecker
  3. 1 groundhog
  4. 1 rabbit
  5. 5 squirrels (maybe more)
  6. 2 opossums
  7. 2 Canada geese
  8. 11 Mallard ducks (10 of them ducklings)
  9. 1 barred owl
  10. Too many songbirds to keep track of (mentally)

My walks lately are emotional affairs, vacillating between sublime wonder and heart-pressing sorrow in a matter of a few steps. I can’t help but feel pleasure in the unassuming beauty of the river, but the memories of earlier seasons, so easily evoked in a quiet mind, lay over it the blue tint of loss and grief. Especially as the days warm, I feel myself fighting against the passage of time, even as I smile at the new life it brings.

On the sunny days of this late, cold, wet spring the shores of the river glimmer in green, and elusive vernal ponds formed near its banks appear like secret oases beneath the trees. When I come upon them, I follow the deer paths to their edge and try to find frogs and turtles. Today I instead startled a mallard with her prodigious brood of ten ducklings, who skimmed across the water with astounding speed when they saw me step out of the woods. They’re clearly unrelated to the Frederick ducks of Baker Pond, who, despite the signs saying otherwise, see humans as a potential source of bread crumbs and other such duck junk food. I tried to take a picture of them, but, between the limitations of my camera phone and their determination to get away from me as quickly as possible, I got nothing but a photo of the pond.

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I left them in peace, pursuing the main trail to the river, only to fluster a white-tailed deer, who paused mid-stride when she saw me walking up the path. I paused, then, too, to allow her to cross ahead of me, but she decided that this behavior was much too threatening on my part, and retreated back into the trees. Shrugging, I stepped off of the path in the opposite direction, following a switchback down toward the river, where a pair of Canada geese, after one look at me, launched into the water with agitated bickering and began paddling in indecisive circles.

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Guessing that there was a nest nearby, I left the waterside and returned to the high trail. It was only a few minutes before I came upon another bird, whose large head and bright red crest immediately identified him as a pileated woodpecker. He was on the ground, throwing large chunks of dead wood off a log so soft with rot it hardly required pecking. It took him some time to notice me, but, even once he did, he only flew a few feet to another pile of wood, calling out a laughing song that always makes me feel as if I’m in a jungle. This time, as a pair of barred owls began hooting in the distance, the feeling was even stronger. But the peter-peter-peters of a tufted titmouse managed to keep me firmly in my mid-Atlantic reality.

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Beyond this there was a part of the path that I hadn’t traveled since walking there with my father, last December, on one of the last days when such a walk was possible for him. It is a part of the path just beside my neighborhood with the easiest access to the Monocacy from the assisted living facility where my father lived the last 2 months of his life. While we were there, bundled against a gray day, I pointed out to him where Israel Creek flowed into the river and showed him the rocks where the boys liked to play, and we wondered a little about the birds we saw and the geology of this part of Maryland. He couldn’t always say what he meant, but he was himself, and I understood. It wasn’t long before we turned around, afraid that he wasn’t warm enough or strong enough to go much farther. I still imagined that we would come back again in the spring, when it was more pleasant and there would be more to see.

This morning, I feared walking on that path again. Not so much because I was afraid of what I might feel or remember but because I was afraid of treading over yet another place where my last memory was with him, alive. I suppose some part of me believed — or wanted to believe — that he could somehow remain alive right there forever, as long as I never wrote another memory over it.

But I walked on. It is spring. And I told him we would come back in the spring.

The curious thing is that just when I reached the part of the path where I had stopped to speak with my dad, the part of the path that would seem the hardest to pass, I ended up so distracted that I didn’t think of it at all until it was already behind me. Because, of all the curious things, out of the corner of my eye, partially obscured by a pile of tree limbs and twigs, I saw two white forms shuffling about. At first I thought they might be small dogs, and then maybe young pigs, but as I got a better look I realized that they were two full-grown opossums, out in the morning sun. They’re not terribly quick things, so they thought a little before rambling off back down the hill into the woods, away from me. I was honestly tickled because I hadn’t seen a live adult possum in the wild since a family vacation years ago. And I had never seen one in daylight. And here were two! My father would have loved it.

I loved it.

 

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.