Tires. Lots of Tires. In the water, on land, buried in mud, stuffed with leaves, lacerated, worn, big, heavy, and all dumped at the river. I have no idea how to deal with them. If I can dig them out, they’re still too unruly to walk home, especially through a neighborhood with distracted kids. And, even if I do get them home, I have no way to dispose of them. Since Frederick City has no bulk trash pick-up, I either have to hire a dumpster or rent a truck to haul the tires to the dump myself. Maybe this is why the tires are here in the first place. Maybe it explains a lot of the trash I find at the Monocacy. Taxes aren’t particularly low in Frederick City, and it seems to me illogical and uninspired not to use some of them for a public service that might well serve the environment as well as the city’s people. So, here’s a message, Frederick: Bring back bulk trash pick-up.
Last summer, an intrepid group planted a number of saplings along a grassy shoreline of the Monocacy River, in an effort, I am sure, to restore the wooded habitat that development had destroyed. They bolstered these young trees with stakes and corrugated plastic, likely to protect them from foraging White-tailed Deer (of which there is a herd of over twelve that roams my small part of the river), and rabbits (who eat my native shr-, oh, never mind, I’ll start sounding like Elmer Fudd). It’s equally possible, however, that they were hoping to strengthen them against flood waters, which wash over this plain at least two to three times a year. Sadly, I’ve found the corrugated plastic hanging from branches a half mile down the river. Still, as you can see, there are lots of trees left, and their leaves are just beginning to bud in the March sun.
My sons happen to have multiple (a.k.a. “an alphabet soup of”) diagnoses – educational, developmental, psychological, and otherwise. Like many mothers, I feel as if I fail at the parenting thing on an almost daily basis, and, as a mother of differently-wired boys, the more common markers of success that might reassure me, like grades, physical health, and friendships, simply don’t exist. My boys can’t participate in the ordinary activities of other children in the neighborhood, like organized sports, clubs, camps or even day care, but I have found that this need not be altogether a bad thing. For they have time, and exploring the outdoors, getting muddy, splashing in the water, building worlds out of sticks and leaves, handling toads and snakes and crayfish, is something that they can do. In fact, they are at their best in the wilderness, “down at the river.”
While they can’t fly through math problems or books, they can identify birds, engineer a dam, and read animal tracks. One son can’t concentrate enough to write more than a single sentence at a time, but he’ll spend hours fashioning imaginary machines and stories to go along with them. My other son will growl and snap at me at home, but when he sees a bird he knows I like as we walk through the woods, he grins broadly and practically jumps up and down in excitement to let me know. I savor these moments. Honestly. I mentally become as sappy and starry-eyed as a heroine in an old-fashioned book for girls. I feel hope for my boys, that they’ll be able to find their place, that they’ll remember their small, beautiful discoveries and be able to carry them with them, like talismans, as they face the prejudice, criticism and ignorance of the wider adult world.
Together, over their spring break, we cleaned up after what had clearly been a drunken bonfire party on the river’s “island.” I didn’t have enough room in my garbage bag for the number of Bud Light cans the revelers had left behind. My boys, while they admired the evidence of the fire, were disgusted by the rest of the scene. And, just for a moment, I thought that maybe I wasn’t doing such a bad job with them after all.
Yesterday, my labrador retriever turned 13 years old. She’s lumpy and bumpy, the ACL she had repaired years ago is clearly aching with arthritis, and she’s deaf and even a little smelling-impaired, but she still wags her tail when she sees her leash, insists on car rides to the woods, and pulls me like a dogsled when she sees a body of water. She and my other dog, a nervous 4-year-old rescue of unknown lineage, accompany me on most of my walks along the Monocacy. I take bags specifically for their messes, which I pick up and, despite the smell, carry with me for miles until I reach my trash can at home. It can get a little disgusting some days, but it’s worth it not to leave their piles to filthy the river or someone’s shoes, or even just mar the view. Besides, I’ve decided that if anyone is idiotic enough to attack me, I could swing the bags in their face and they’d likely decide I wasn’t worth their trouble.
While I am happy to pick up my own dogs’ messes, I’ve decided that I absolutely will not pick up the messes of anyone else’s. I know that I should, and feel guilty when I pass by the melting piles of it, but I just won’t. So, you won’t hear about this particular kind of waste, or see a picture of it, in or out of a bag, in this blog. It exists, of course; I’m just pretending it doesn’t so that I don’t activate my gag reflex on a daily basis.
There are those who will argue that there shouldn’t be any dogs on nature trails. The untended messes are part of these protesters’ arguments, but they also object to the dogs’ invisible marking, which scares off other wildlife. Dog-lovers, on the other hand, argue that their companions compel people who might otherwise just sit on their couch binge-watching TV shows to go out into nature and, as they learn to appreciate it, decide to take action to protect it. As a traditional peacekeeping middle child, I say let’s have it both ways, maintaining natural areas where dogs are not allowed and other areas where they are encouraged by making available waste bags and plenty of trash cans to their responsible owners.
Anyway, I hate preaching. And I hate picking up poop. And I’m not talking about any of this ever again.
Along with wildflowers, early spring brings wild onions, which will continue to flourish through most of the summer. Whenever I see them, I remember an elaborate game my brothers and sisters and I used to play in our backyard. It was called “Shipwreck,” and, more than a game, it was a melodramatic improvisation in which we had to pretend that we’d been stranded on a desert island and needed to find a way to survive. It worked best on sunny summer days, when heat and thirst made method actors of us.
The game was simple. After “crashing” our airplane built of picnic benches and and rusty backyard furniture, we tumbled onto our lawn, usually into the large patch of dirt we used as home base in our other games. My oldest sister was the organized one, who roused us into realizing our pathetic fate. She ordered us to find shelter, almost inevitably the tunnel formed by the spirea along the fence, and a place to sleep, generally the furniture cushions, which, after baking in the sun, had a warm, comforting mildewy smell. For food, we foraged in our battered lawn, where we could always find some mature wild onions. My sister would collect them and hang them from the bars of our swing set, as if drying them might make them more edible. The game could go on like this infinitely, because, as I recall, we never actually got saved. We just stopped playing.
Thankfully, my sister never actually made us eat the onions. My younger son, on the other hand, used to eat them all of the time, when his older brother told him that he was Felicia the horse and that wild onions were his proper food. He also ate a lot of grass. While he doesn’t do this anymore, he still eats a profane amount of vegetables. We’re making our garden bigger this year.
In addition to the onions, I found some lovely marsh-marigolds (caltha palustris), growing by the same temporary pond where I heard the spring peepers a few days ago. The fresh green leaves and delicate yellow flowers are striking against the dark of the marsh. Especially now that the shredded red plastic cup is gone.
So, if you don’t treat your lawn, your neighbors will give you the stink-eye, but you’ll also have some lovely wildflowers. The first of the season are blooming now, while grass is the dingy green of late winter. Above, on the left, we have Bittercress (cardamine, either Pennsylvania, which is native, or Hairy, which is invasive) and, on the right, Persian Speedwell (veronica persica). You can find a a few paragraphs about these early wildflowers in Bryan MacKay’s A Year Across Maryland: A Week-by-Week Guide to Discovering Nature in the Chesapeake Region (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013, pp. 62-63), which is a wonderful book for anyone who likes to tramp around the Old Line State. While he doesn’t specifically address the Monocacy River, he often discusses the Potomac, which the Monocacy feeds.
In the 6th grade, in response to my art teacher’s assignment, I drew a series of Sunkist cans in pencil. I still have these sketches somewhere, probably in a bin of memorabilia in my basement, along with my accumulation of diaries, letters and photo albums. Today, as I flipped bottle after bottle into my bag, I recalled those Sunkist drawings, and wondered whether I should add to them. I’ve already got a great retro title: “Soft Drink Still Life: Still Awesome After 30 Years.” There would need to be a little updating, of course, like replacing the Sunkist can with a Vitamin Water bottle. I got two of those today, in addition to the regular water bottles (mostly store-brand, but there was a large Evian one, too, because litter is a phenomenon that knows no socioeconomic boundaries). Just in case inspiration strikes, I took a picture of them all before dropping them in the recycling bin.
UPDATE 10/28/16: I found the 6th grade drawings! And then promptly recycled them. This hobby of mine has encouraged me not to accumulate so much…stuff. I did photograph them for posterity, though:
For convenience’s sake, I use a smartphone to take my pictures, which means that their quality is not very good, and, since my phone is the most basic model, I have no ability whatsoever to take a close-up unless I can get within a few feet of my subject. This makes nature photography pretty much impossible, particularly if my subject is a skittish deer or a bird perched at the very top of a tree. Nonetheless, I do try to capture an image every now and then, when I just can’t help myself, like today, when I heard the spring peepers for the very first time. They’re here somewhere, very loudly trying to find this spring’s hook-up:
Another loudmouth this time of year is the Red-winged Blackbird, which lords over the same wetland habitat along the Monocacy’s floodplain. I like listening to the Red-wings’ song, ranging from a harsh buzz to a liquidly trill, when they arrive in early March. When I was a girl, I confused them with Orioles because of their flash of orange. Can you see the one singing at the top of the tree?
Yeah, I didn’t think so.
Although springtime distracted me today, I did manage to collect a few plastic bottles. I’ve considered inventorying these by brand or type of drink (water, soda, juice), but, unless someone makes a special request, I’ve decided that this would be rather pointless. So, for now, I just recycle them.
Our stretch of warmth has continued, and the evenings are lengthening, which has meant that my walks aren’t so solitary anymore. I should be glad that we’ve reached the magical 65-degree mark that pulls everyone from their homes, but I’m enough of an introvert (and self-suspected misanthropist) that I’m actually more anxious and annoyed. So, back to the trash.
Yesterday, my very first pick-up was large enough to fill my entire trash bag and force me into early retirement. It’s just as well, because, as you can see in the first photo, the sun was setting by the time I finally wrangled the boys out the door. There was only time enough to visit what the boys call “the hideout,”which isn’t really very hidden at all. It’s just off a public trail, but so far below it that it can feel secluded. The climb down to it becomes more treacherous after each flood, as the water erodes away the soft earth held together only by the roots of imperiled trees. It is these roots that we must use to reach the hideout, and they make such uneven steps that I daily expect someone to twist an ankle. At the bottom is a stream, separated from the main river by a small “island” of trees. The stream remains connected to the main river unless there is a drought, but the water flow is never tremendous. Unless there is a flood, I can wade across it in my green rubber boots, which is what I needed to do last night to retrieve my one large piece of garbage.
Under the roots of a decaying tree, half-submerged in the water, was a tangle of sticks, leaves and something else, white and, from what I could tell, plastic. (See the second photo, above). As I approached, I noticed tiny minnows shifting beneath the water, illuminated by the slanting light of the setting sun. My green boots sank in the mud and my movements, stirring up the muck of winter, quickly obscured them. To avoid falling into the slightly deeper water near the white plastic thingy, I used a stick to dislodge it from its nest of leaves and twigs. It was heavier than I imagined, but I managed to toss it onto the rocky peninsula that extended from the riverbank, where I shook it out to reveal what we see in the third photo, a big old bag of Purina horse feed, weighed down by the gallons of mud it acquired on its trip down the Monocacy River.
After draining it as much as I could, I stuffed it in my trash bag, where it sat drying while I engaged in a few light-saber duels with my youngest. His stick was less rotten than mine, so he won. I tried to persuade him that he should cheer me up by carrying the trash bag home, but he wasn’t buying that argument. My arm still hurts.
The Great Blue Heron is among the most regular of the birds I see along the Monocacy. Regular, but not common. The birds are tall, elegant and brilliantly marked and feathered. Their size still takes me by surprise, especially when I’ve startled them into flight and they appear suddenly beside me, strikingly prehistoric looking. In them, I can see the relationship between birds and dinosaurs. Just look at these heron footprints I found a few days ago, and for comparison’s sake, imagine your handprints in the mud alongside them. Those footprints are bigger.
Unfortunately, I’ve encountered one of these fabulous birds caught in fishing line that had gotten tangled in a tree. It was, understandably, upset and not a little intimidating. But, fortunately for the bird (and, for me, who would’ve been plagued by guilt), a daring man decided to stop, hazard his own skin, and cut it free. Fishing line (as seen in the photo above, attached to the interior of a beer can) is another thing that I find quite regularly along the Monocacy. During the summer, the river is a popular destination for fishermen (and women, not that I’ve had any luck, which is another story) to dip their rods in the murky water. Often they leave behind the styrofoam cups that held their bait and the cans, bottles and wrappers from their picnic lunches. Those bits of trash are annoying, but the fishing line is dangerous.
The good news is that it’s a piece of trash I don’t have to pick up and take home with me. The city of Frederick has set up little stations to recycle the line at most locations where fishing is a usual pastime. That includes parks along the Monocacy, including Riverside Park under the Monocacy Avenue Bridge, which is the most accessible in the city.