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.

Just Keeping Afloat

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It’s just too much sometimes. Or not enough. I’m not sure which. Either way, there are times when I feel as if I’ve been flattened, or maybe just blunted, by the minuscule concerns of daily life. Add a few extra worries — like an ill parent, maybe, or a letter to be written — and I find myself not so much flat but sinking into a small hole. A depression. Not a deep one, mind you, just a small dip requiring a little extra work to move my legs forward. I can do it myself. Just give me a moment. Yes. There I am.

So many times, I plan to address concrete issues on this blog, but I fear losing the joy of writing in facts and politics. Last week, for instance, the Monocacy Scenic River Advisory Board finally voted to recommend the adoption of the  2016-17 Monocacy River Management Plan to the Frederick and Carroll County governments. I followed these discussions with some regularity on my blog’s News page, adding a few editorial comments here and there, but, besides writing a letter in support of the plan in my own name, I essentially stayed out of the fray. Many farmers and landowners feel that the new plan, which encourages a substantial buffer along the water and delineates areas of ecological and archaeological concern, infringes on their private property rights, and they have been at times shrilly adamant in voicing their concerns. I, and many other citizens of Frederick county, have questioned the rights of individuals to decide whether or not to care for a river that belongs to the public and provides our drinking water. Of course, the arguments go much deeper than this — how much of a buffer is really required? Is the river already protected by other legislation? — and obviously a much longer article would be required to document the frustrated exchanges and to chronicle the evolution of the report. (In fact, you can find a few such articles and essays on envisionfrederickcounty.org).

But the many times I’ve started to write about this topic, rallying my facts and forming my opinions, I’ve felt myself tie up into knots, my body readying itself for an onslaught of perfectionism and the inevitable following sense of failure. It is my highly sensitive graduate student reflex. And I hate it. It’s far more pleasant to step into my stream of consciousness and record where it takes me. Rather like a stray raft down a river. (Seriously, it’s more than a metaphor: I saw one of them last week).

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It’s my blog. I can write what I want to. Yes? But I feel responsible, too, as someone who cares for the river, to address the issues that affect it. Or do I leave that to scientists and policymakers and allow myself to see the poetry of the river, in all of its messiness? There must be some balance, some way to step into the political waters without going under. Even when I’m in a shallow hole and the floodwaters are coming in. Yes. Even then.

Hot Tea…Party On!

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It was hard to tell difference between the water and the air last week; I came out of both feeling soggy and on the wrong side of refreshed. Wading through the river for a castaway water bottle was much the same as channeling through the weeds for an emptied bag of chips. But there was some pleasure in filling two bags of garbage to overflowing. I take my overblown feelings of success where I can find them.

Although what I found was not so peculiar — abandoned campfires, lost fishing gear, and discarded food and drink containers — the details were just off enough to entertain me every now and then. For instance, this situation:

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Beside this:

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My thought? Only the most refined revelers on the Monocacy drink Earl Grey tea while melting synthetic fabric over an open fire. Do you think that Bigelow might like that for an ad campaign? Or a bit of co-branding with the DNR? We could always include 3M as well because of the Post-It Notes. Were these partiers writing scraps of poetry and submitting them to the flames as offerings to the Muses? I can only imagine. Leaving the lighter in the fire is such a nice touch.

Apparently I’m feeling a little snarky. Maybe I’m still just a little sore about being fooled by this lure I found under the water nearby:

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I thought at first that I was seeing a cool larva of some sort. It didn’t take me long to realize my mistake, but it wasn’t until I pulled it up that I realized what it was supposed to be.

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A crayfish? I can still barely see it. I guess the fish didn’t buy it either.

It’s hard to think clearly when it’s hot out.

 

On Barefoot

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I remember running around barefoot for most of the day in summer. My heels and toes were tender in the early days of June, but by July I could walk the pebble path on the side of my house without flinching. The pads of my feet still remember the sunburned heat of old asphalt and the grainy planes of concrete sidewalks. Even now I can feel the unpolished wires of a chain link fence pressing into my toes. The lawn of crabgrass and clover felt cool and pleasantly scratchy, the bare earth we used for bases dry and unyielding. The water in the creek was warm and silty, its bottom a squishy muck interrupted by sharp and slippery rocks.

My brother cut his foot on a piece of glass in the creek — the trail of blood he left on his hobble home stained the sidewalk for what seemed like weeks that rainless summer — and he needed stitches and crutches to mend. (Oh, how jealous I was!) That should have made me cautious as a child, but it’s only managed to do so now that I’m adult, worried for my sons’ vulnerable skin. Now we live in an age of water shoes and quick-drying, strappy sandals. But, honestly, the invasive itchy plants keep the boys and I in boots most of the time.

Occasionally, I venture onto the paths of the Monocacy in flip-flops. On the way home, aware of the bites and stings of mites, insects and poisonous plants, I regret my choice and realize, once again, how far away I am from the sun-shocked nine-year-old girl who roamed a small corner of Frederick with her tribe of neighborhood kids. But, the scars on my knees remind me, not too far away.

“Obscure, plain and little…”

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My memorial painting of Anastasia, with her sister, Sugar. JSS

A few weeks ago, we lost the smallest member of our family, the timid but trusting albino rat, Anastasia. She doesn’t have much to do with trash or the Monocacy River, and I realized about a month ago that I was dwelling on my pets, and maybe even death, perhaps a little too much for my stated goals for this blog, but, with the passage of time, I’ve begun to see that to let her death go unmentioned is almost a form of dishonesty. Small as she was, we all miss her warm, little body, the strong, quick beating of her heart, and her ruby-red, curious eyes.

Of all the pets I’ve kept (and, oh, there were many in my childhood), rats have elicited the most vehement and divisive responses: either “Gross! Those tails!” or “Oh! Aren’t they the best pets!” I was devoted to mice as I grew up, and lived with gerbils, hamsters, a guinea pig and a rabbit, but never got a rat until my boys persuaded me, much too easily, a few years ago. First we had a pair of dumbo rat boys, Aloysius and Percy, who lived their short three years with patient zeal — a requirement for living with a pair of young human boys. Then, although my husband swore he would never countenance another rat living under roof, we rescued two rat girls who were destined to be snake food. Anastasia was the smaller of these two. Sugar, the other, is now lonely and squishy, choosing to cuddle rather than run off to find adventure when we let her out to play. All of our rats have had their own personalities, foibles, and weaknesses, and it is difficult to imagine that their ancestors were the terrifying vermin of the Middle Ages or to remember that their cousins remain the pests of modern cities.

Perhaps they belong in this blog more than I first though. Rats: Eaters of trash.  Spreaders of disease. Least liked member of the rodent world The Monocacy: Consumer of waste. Flowing with pollutants. Least appreciated of rivers. But beautiful in their own ways, with wonders in their depths, personalities to plumb, just waiting to be known and understood.

Rest well, Anastasia. I knew you. And I am glad for that.