Well, not really. North America’s Common Fleabane, or erigeron philadelphicus, will not repel fleas, whether you dry it, burn it, or steep it in hot water. It is, nonetheless, a striking flower, its bold yellow disks wreathed in narrow, pale pink rays, and it is thriving by the river now. Fleabane. I just like the way it sounds. Slugs, squirrel tails, wet socks…and fleabane. Say it one more time and it might be an enchantment.
A few nights ago I dreamed about a Great Horned Owl that lifted its wings and, before my eyes, transformed into a Barred Owl before flying away from me. When I awoke, I decided that, if I believed in such things, this would no doubt have been a powerful omen. I mean an owl and a transformation: either someone was going to die or I was going to be visited by a god (Athena, maybe?). Being a sensible realist, however, I decided that I was probably just thinking too much about birdwatching.
Omens aside, this morning was strange. While I was eating breakfast, I heard a harsh yelp from the deck where my younger dog was surveying the property. It was an unusual sound for her, but my husband recognized it as fear and jumped to see what was happening. Following him through the door, I noticed my dog’s flattened ears, tucked tail, and shifty lip-licking, just as my husband exclaimed, “Wait! What is that? Did she get something?”
He pointed to a puff of gray fur balanced between two slats of the deck’s railing. When I looked more closely, it was quite clearly the last three inches of a squirrel’s tail.
“Yeah, she got something,” I said. “Or at least part of it.”
We ventured a few “good girls” to reassure our dog, who’s been tentative to the point of fear about hunting since our lackluster response to a rabbit kill. The poor, neurotic thing was so anxiously thrilled that she snapped up and gulped down the bit of fur before we could do anything about it.
I can only suppose that the stupid squirrel was on our deck and caught by the tail just as it jumped through the narrow slats to escape, and now I’m waiting to see a stub-tailed squirrel around the neighborhood, chastened but alive. He belongs in a story, like Roald Dahl’s fantastic Mr. Fox.
While I did not see the squirrel again on my morning walk with the dogs, I did find a pair of perfectly good but soaking wet socks. They were on the path by the river, accompanied by a half-full water bottle. I stuffed both in my bag of trash without taking a picture, although I did photograph one of the many slugs clinging to the tall, wet weeds by the trail.
Owls, squirrels tails, and slugs? Add the wet socks, and you have a modern potions recipe.
The story is the rain and all of the creatures who have lived in it, despite of it and because of it, for the last two weeks. There are the swallows, skilled aerialists who skim the surface of the water with breathtaking speed, the toads, who hide themselves indifferently beneath the emerging leaves of stinging nettle, the deer, munching dolefully on the flourishing wildflowers and grass, and the squirrels, who never seem to notice the weather. There are more, of course, including the boys and I and our freezing hands and wet jeans and soggy trash. We are all out there together, on the river, watching the raindrops paint circles on the water.
Mysterious, hidden places are the lifeblood of children’s literature. I think of the classic realism of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s garden in A Secret Garden, the fantastical realm of Neil Gaiman’s graveyard in The Graveyard Book, or maybe something in between like the hidden country in Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia. These places, however, are not only for children. Adults, too, have their secret spots, whether real, earthbound escapes or hidden corners of their memories or imagination.
I have a few such places in both categories. The ones in my mind, like Tallameirissa, where live generations of characters with elaborate histories and mythologies, I can always reach unless I am too troubled, but some of my real escapes, like the sun-scorched ruins of Samos, or a snow-covered overlook on the Gunflint Trail, require too much travel to be of help with any regularity. For a more daily escape, I have only to look to the quieter dirt trails along the Monocacy River. There, I have touch points that I like to revisit, usually places where I’ve seen something mundane but amazing, like a lonely trout lily, or a flattened clearing of grass where deer have slept, or the dead tree with the hole 15 feet above the ground where I once spotted a rat snake sleeping after shedding its old skin. I’ve visited the old, holy tree more than 100 times since seeing the snake, always hoping to find it again, but I never have. I’m not really sure why I feel so compelled to look so often. I suppose it must be hope itself. It has its own kind of magic.
My boys spotted a rat snake in a different tree a few days ago. Its black coils shining in the sun, it was twined around a thick branch of a tree that had fallen into the river. When the boys, far too curious to resist its magnificence, began poking it with a very long stick, it resentfully uncoiled itself and slipped into a hollow of the tree. It was so long that the tip of its tail remained tauntingly visible, but it had more patience than the boys, who decided to move on and create trouble elsewhere, in their own hidden and mysterious places, some of which, I hope, I know nothing about.
Mother’s Day has never been a favorite of mine. The simple explanation, although it is not complete, is that my mother died when I was five. This month, it will be 35 years since I last saw her, and still the loss stings. I’ve tried many times to write about her, about what it was like for me, a little girl, to try to hold her and keep her even when I finally understood that she was really and truly gone, but what I write is never quite enough. It never captures the almost comic bewilderment that went with the pain.
I’m not quite sure why, but I’ve decided to post this year’s effort, as incomplete as it is. As you might guess by my anonymity, I’m not keen on sharing myself too directly with others, but I’m also aware that my one-sided ramblings have long ago ceased to be helpful. What this has to do with collecting trash on the Monocacy River is very little, except that all of the events occurred in Frederick, around the small streams and creeks that feed the river, and the waters were flowing then as they are now. Whether that is a matter for comfort or despair is entirely up to the reader.
It begins and ends in a bright yellow room. The sun is shining in the windows, through the lifted shades, casting a warm, clear glow over everything, and I’m under my covers, in bed, still safe in the cocoon of sleep even as my eyes are opening. There is someone beside me, sitting at the edge of the bed, his weight pulling me toward him. It’s my father, and he’s speaking to me. Maybe he’s woken me up. I can’t be sure, but he’s telling me something. Something that I’ve known.
My mother is dead.
I haven’t seen her in months. I wouldn’t want to see her, I was told, she wasn’t really Mom anymore. She couldn’t speak or hear or move. She wouldn’t know me, and I wouldn’t know her. It was best I just draw pictures. So I did that. I sat with my little sister, who also wouldn’t want to see Mom, and I drew princesses, mostly, and signed my name with a backwards J, and made a picture in my mind of what Mom must look like in the hospital, still, serene, hands folded and eyes closed, surrounded by white, but alien somehow.
Kindergarten had ended, a whole summer had passed by, first grade had begun, and she was still in the hospital. I was already forgetting her face and voice, and what really happened the last time I saw her. I remember her backing out the front door of our house, leaning over me to say goodbye, but in fact she had probably dropped me off at the babysitter’s small rented farmhouse across the street. The woman was the mother of a classmate of mine, a boy I did not like but who liked me. Her face was harsh and her words sharp. I was at her house when my grandmother came to get me that day in May, she dressed properly in slacks, loafers and crisp shirt, the babysitter disheveled as usual, and I watched them speaking from the safety of an old swing set. I knew there was something wrong, but I can’t remember her or anyone else explaining it to me. My mother had had a heart attack and she was in the hospital. By July my father told me that she wasn’t coming back. He told me that at the park downtown, across the street from my grandparents’ house, while I hung out by yet another swing set with my little sister.
So, yes, all of that had happened, but now it was for real. Mom died last night.
I think that I understand. I think that my little sister understands. But, when we go downstairs and peek in the family room, where the T.V. is on, I see my two brothers and my older sister, who is crying, and I ask her, “Are you crying because of Mom?” It’s a sad day, but the sun is shining, and the whole world glows. How is this possible? She nods her head.
I still think I understand.
I’m actually distressed by the amount of “new” birds I’m seeing this spring. When I set out to do a backyard bird list for my small stretch of the Monocacy River (see the Birds of the Monocacy page), I promised to record the appearance of a bird only when I was absolutely sure that I had identified it correctly. I imagined that there would be a quick burst of activity in the beginning as I noted the most common birds (robins, crows, house sparrows, etc.), followed by only sporadic additions. As it happens, I was entirely wrong. My bird sightings have been constant and frequent, almost unbelievably so. When I see three new birds in a day, when I find more than one type of swallow in a week, when I notice a bird that I’ve never seen before, I begin to doubt myself. It’s impossible, isn’t it? Won’t real birders say that I must be mistaken? That I’m just hoping that I’ve seen these different birds?
While I was internally berating myself like this one day, even considering pretending not to have seen the green heron perched in the tree a few yards back, I realized that there was a perfectly good explanation for why I was suddenly seeing all of these birds. Namely, I was suddenly seeing all of these birds. Hadn’t I, in the past, seen a small bird out of the corner of my eye and simply thought, “Oh, small bird”? Or maybe I hadn’t see the small bird at all, because I was looking down, or ahead, or at some picture in my mind. And it’s not really about seeing at all, is it? It’s about looking. That bird is small, it’s brown, its tail is short and tipped up, it has white stripes by its eyes, it hangs out in the bushes. Oh, it’s a wren! What kind of wren? How small is it, really, how clear are its markings, what is its song? Oh, it’s a Carolina wren!
I remember when I first really understood drawing. I had always drawn. I was a highly complimented drawer, in fact, but when I was about eleven, I realized that there was something missing from my drawings. They didn’t look real. They were only flat representations of real things. I was stuck in this place for a long time, until one day in art class, my new teacher said, “Look at what you’re drawing. Don’t draw what you think should be there. Draw what is there.” Look at the lines, look at the shadow, look at the color. The sky isn’t simply blue or gray. It’s violet and olive and all sorts of shades in between. So is that rock and that leaf and that flower and your skin. Her words were magic. They were like a spell that opened my eyes and transformed what I saw, permanently changing the way I drew and painted.
Look. See what is there. Don’t think in shoulds. You’ll be amazed at what you find.
“I guess you haven’t gotten to the river lately,” my son’s doctor said to me this morning. My younger son, doing his best impression of a weary adult, sighed, rolled his eyes, and replied, “No, we’ve been there every day.” I smiled ands shrugged. “Yep,” I said, “Every day.”
Although I claimed yesterday as a day off, in the end, it wasn’t. When the boys got home from school, my older son was eager to see how high the water had risen, and, despite some complaining from his younger brother about how we wouldn’t really be able to do anything, we set out with our bikes and bags. We found that the Monocacy had risen high enough to fill even its secondary streams up to their highest banks. Passage to the island was impossible, our usual dam and bridges submerged 6 feet under rushing, brown water. Newly fallen trees, too, blocked our passage, gathering in their dark limbs the leaves, seeds and small sticks that will become the little mouse boats my son gathers once the water recedes and the sun dries the mud.
Every flood reshapes the river. I can see why my oldest is so eager to see it after the rain. The “hideout” will be the same in general outline, but so different in particulars. The force of the high waters will undo what he has done, what he has built, and so will offer the chance to do something new. He sees opportunity, a world wiped clean. His brother, on the other hand, sees the destruction of his efforts, misses what was, and feels discouraged about having to start over again. This conflict of ideas is as constant as the rain lately.
For me, the flood waters will leave behind, on the shores I have so diligently cleaned, trash from miles upstream. There are two ways to look at this: I can be frustrated that I have to start all over again, or I can be pleased that I have new work. Today I choose to be pleased.
The house finches have left the nest. Three days ago, the first fledgling boldly made its move, and by yesterday all four of them had abandoned their poop-ringed home. Just to be sure, I left the arrangements up for one day, but now I have happily dumped their contents into the trash. It’s time for a little color on the front porch.
May has brought a few other changes as well. The starlings I rather hoped had gone have built their own nest in a vent on the outside of the chimney. Being that there’s no trace of it to be found anywhere, it’s not clear how the vent cover was removed, but I wouldn’t put it past the clever immigrants to have figured it out themselves. When I’m in the living room, I can hear them through the walls, and when I’m turning the corner to the east side of the house, I see them flutter out of their hole. While we’ve bought a replacement for the vent, my husband and I haven’t the heart to shut the nestlings in, however plentiful and messy starlings are.
The rabbits, too, are multiplying and nonchalantly chewing up lawns and gardens. It’s the time of year when I can count more then ten of them on a simple turn around the block. My younger pup is hyperaware of the situation, popping up her ears and lunging against her harness around nearly every corner and shrub. The rabbits munch beneath the bird feeders in our yard as well, which really drives her mad. Utter the word “bunny” in her presence, and she tilts her head, leaps to her toes and makes a dash for the back door. Despite the fact that the door leads to our second-story deck, which provides plenty of notice for most hapless prey animals, our huntress managed to catch a rabbit last year. She was very confused when we didn’t look utterly thrilled and, in her grave disappointment, has resigned herself simply to chasing them out of the yard.
Last night’s storms were wonderful for my garden but flooded the river enough to make it inaccessible for trash-collecting. I guess it’s my day off.
The succession of cloudy days is stuffing my brain with cotton. I walk under the moist, flat sky feeling closed in a jar, like an insect my boys have caught for further examination, and the holes punched in the lid just aren’t quite enough. Words and ideas come slowly, if at all, through the dirty, white murk, and they arrive muffled, blunted, sucked of color. It’s hard enough to think under these circumstances, let alone write.
On days like these I lose myself in the pages of field guides, focusing on something concrete and defined, searching for a name, a drawing, of a tree I noticed or a flower I’ve seen. It should be a simple task. The leaves: how many, are they toothed, sessile, whorled, alternate? The flowers: how many petals, are they regular, in umbels, rayed? Colors, too, should matter, they should help, but they can mislead, and incomplete memories trip me up. I take pictures to help, sometimes I press samples, once or twice I’ve even tasted the plants I’m researching.
It’s all because of this trash-collecting. I’m looking down so much, I can’t help but notice what else is on the ground, and wonder. What is this thorny plant that has shredded this plastic bag? What is that huge plant covering that bottle? Wait, that’s kind of pretty! But it’s just one more thing I really shouldn’t be doing when I have so many other things that I must do.
Concentrate, girl, concentrate!