Out of the Fog


As yesterday’s rain clouds pushed away, a fog crept in, dampening dusk’s last glimpse of light. We stuck to the path and made our way to Riverside Park, where the Monocacy Boulevard bridge offers some shelter. When we ventured down the boat ramp, we found that the rising waters and runoff had swept along some garbage as well.


As I wasn’t wearing my waders, I was confounded in my trash collection. On my return home, however, after I picked up a discarded latex glove, a man who was posting small flags on the floodplain by the bridge emerged from the fog to comment on my work and ask whether I would like to do more for the river. Since I was feeling curious, I asked what he meant, and he revealed that he was from Stream-Link Education  (how uncanny! I just wrote about them in Connections and Clean-Up) and that the group will be gathering volunteers at Riverside Park to plant 300 trees this Saturday, December 3rd, from 9-11 a.m.

This isn’t the sort of message you expect to emerge from the fog at sunset, but I’m a little more practical than a gothic heroine anyway.

A Cold Wind

Winds gusted up to 41 miles per hour over the weekend, ushering in colder weather and, as it turns out, lots of plastic bags.

I used a large one from Pier 1 to gather up all of the others, as well as some wrappers (evidence of Halloween is still out there!) and scattered pages of newspaper. The wind also scattered some more natural debris, like this little nest of grass and cottony seeds:


It likely belonged to a mouse or some other small rodent sheltering in the tall grasses just beyond the floodplain. Last week my younger dog managed to stir one out of a hollow log along the sandy banks of the river. Although I didn’t get a very good look before it disappeared, I saw enough to know that it was a long-footed mouse.  There are several species of mice in Maryland (see Maryland’s DNR mammals page for a list). This one, I hope, was able to make a new home for itself (if a hawk didn’t get to it first).

Yesterday, as the winds were calming, I discovered the first ice on the river. It was thin and only very spotty, but still a sign that winter is coming.


I like winter, so that is something to be thankful for.

Fun with Fungus


I’ve been reluctant to address fungus in this blog, not because I don’t appreciate it but rather because I know so little about it. Classifying it is well beyond my ken. (Although I suppose I could ask my uncle, who just retired from the USDA and for years drove a van with a bumper sticker that read, “Mycology is Mushrooming.” When I say that I think of my uncle when I see fungus, I mean it in only the best way.) Sometimes, though, I just can’t resist making a foray into another field. Because, let’s face it, fungus can be fun.

This week I encountered some puffballs growing on a felled log. They are the funny little fungi that squirt out greenish spores when you touch them. My boys love to squish them and watch the “smoke” disperse into the air, and, honestly, so do I.

After some research, I discovered that these fungi are called Pear-shaped Puffballs, or Lycoperdon pyriforme. I used various resources to confirm my identification, but perhaps the most helpful was the Maryland Biodiversity Project website (see http://marylandbiodiversity.com/viewSpecies.php?species=5036), which is concerned with cataloging all the living things in Maryland. I wouldn’t say that my puffballs were pear-shaped, but I’m not going to get into any body-shaming here. They puffed as well as any other puffball I’ve encountered.

Go have some fun with fungus!

Trash that Mocks

This is one of those days when I have more ideas than I can possibly fit into one coherent post. Do I write about the red-tailed hawk that I knew was there before I saw or heard it because of the quantity and variety of birds that were in a tizzy as I made my way down to the wetlands? Or the man with the Save the Chesapeake license plates who threw a cigarette butt out his window as he drove down Monocacy Boulevard? Or maybe ponder the seasonal nature of trash?

Well, there, I’ve written about all of those things without really writing anything at all. So let’s move on. To pumpkins.


About a week ago, I came across this discarded pumpkin at the edge of the woods. Its paint made clear that it was a Halloween leftover, but I assumed that it was a whole pumpkin until I came upon it a few days later, when it looked like this:


Someone (or something) had flipped it over to reveal its Jack-o-lantern face, more frightening in its decay, I’m sure, than in its candlelit prime. But, in me, it inspired more questions than fear. Namely: what is it that makes something trash? Is it simply something discarded, or is there some judgement behind the word? If something is trash must it be something that has been devalued or deemed worthless? If we tell someone that their work is trash, typically we are not saying that it has been placed in the garbage but that it is “bad.” Is this a fair judgement on trash?

Can trash be “good”? Well, yes, for instance, some “trash” can be made into something else, like scrap metal into another machine or even a piece of art. But that requires taking the trash out of the trash, transforming it into not-trash, which implies that it was never really trash in the first place. Then, for instance, there is this pumpkin, which, besides its paint, is natural and compostable. It first can feed the wildlife that we can see, like squirrels and these ants:


Then it can feed the wildlife that we can’t see, like fungus, bacteria and microbes. It will ultimately break down and return to the earth. So, it is “good” correct?  Discarded but not devalued?

If it is “good” trash, do I leave it? Or does the paint render it less desirable? Or do I move it to a proper composting bin? What is the right thing to do when you run into a painted jack-o-lantern in the forest and no one sees you?

For me, apparently, it is to ask so many questions that I stop making sense.

Four Feet on the Monocacy


Yesterday was a good day for sitting by the river. It was warm, and I had my binoculars, lots of trash bags, and only my younger son with me. The older was in the mountains with his father and our younger dog (who, as it turns out, was dodging hunter’s bullets), and, when I took out the leash before our walk, our old labrador had cracked open her eyes, sighed and given me the most rueful expression a dog could muster. I took pity and, with one boy and no dogs, found enough peace to sit down with my binoculars and look for birds.

It’s a time of transition. The noisy red-winged blackbirds have left the marshes, replaced by finches and sparrows and other lesser-seen migrants feasting on the seeds of spent grasses and wildflowers. My favorite juncos have reappeared on my deck, looking for the seed I had kept tossed across it last winter and spring. Just for them (and the cardinals, finches and increasingly vocal squirrels), I resumed the custom last week. Every day now, it feels as if I’m having old friends over at the house.

On the river yesterday, I saw chickadees, nuthatches, juncos, goldfinches, chipping sparrows, house finches, robins, cardinals, crows, a kingfisher and a red-tailed hawk. In other words, nothing new or remarkable enough to be of interest to my younger son, who was contenting himself with styling swords and spears out of branches. Then, just as I was giving up my search (because this is always the way and is so narratively handy), I saw something large moving on the opposite bank of the river. Thinking that it might be a wild turkey, I grabbed my binoculars, only to realize, as it further emerged from the trees, that it was a fox.


As it happens, I am uncommonly fond of foxes, a fact for which, I am ashamed to say, Disney must either be blamed or credited. When I was a girl, I fell in love with the animated Robin Hood of Walt Disney, who, as you may remember, was drawn as a handsome, well-spoken, red fox. Likely this early crush was only exacerbated by Wes Anderson’s stop-action adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, which is chock-full of lovely foxes (including the title character, voiced by George Clooney). Of course, they’re beautiful, interesting creatures all on their own (if you’re not raising chickens). Lots of nature photographers and videographers have caught them adeptly diving for mice in the snow or slinking about with their long tails held low and keen eyes high. So, of course, I was overjoyed when I saw this fox prowling along the shores of the Monocacy.

After I satisfied my own hungry eyes, I quietly alerted my younger son, who took the binoculars and held on to them until the fox disappeared into the distance. While he watched, he hushed me when I tried to speak or move and was clearly as mesmerized as I was. Even after the fox was gone, we both just smiled at each other as if we shared some special secret. Or at least I thought so.

Until my son looked at me seriously and said, “Now I’m gonna have the song What Does the Fox Say? stuck in my head the rest of the day.”

Sublimity, meet the Internet.

Choosing Hope


The goldenrod has gone to seed, its cheerful yellow blooms turned to heads of gray. It is as if a gentle frost has covered the fields. Or they have gone into mourning for the coming winter, when even the flowers’ seeds will drop away, and everything will be laid bare. It will look like death, but it won’t be. Winter, no matter how harsh it may appear, is only temporary. And even during winter life teems beneath the frozen earth. Take heart.

A Model Dog

When I’m taking pictures for my blog, I generally make a point of moving the camera so that my images don’t include my old labrador companion, Poppy. Since she makes a point of shadowing me, no matter how her bones ache, excluding her isn’t a simple matter. Yesterday was no different: I paused for a picture, and, while I fiddled with the composition and perspective, she walked into the frame. Again,

and again,

and again.

It’s hard to be too upset, though, when, first of all, she’s sweet and adorable, and, second, she often improves the pictures, imbuing them with life and interest that landscape alone sometimes can’t. Even if it is a brilliant fall day, which it was.


Besides, she’s been known to help me with the trash every now and then. Yesterday she carried a McDonald’s coffee cup all the way back to the main walking path for me…and there wasn’t even anything in it for her to eat. (She is a labrador, after all, and her motives and motivations are usually pretty simple and obvious.)


She really is a very good dog.


Weather, According to Caterpillars

I think most people are familiar with with the folklore concerning the Woolly Bear caterpillar: the longer the black bands, the longer and more severe the winter. To be honest, according to my lifetime of anecdotal observations, this is a totally unreliable means of predicting how snowy or cold a winter might be. Just look at these two Isabella Tiger Moth larvae (a.k.a. Woolly Bears, a.k.a. Pyrrharctiae isabellae) I found a couple of weeks ago:



They don’t exactly look the same, do they? No. And that’s the problem I encounter every year. Arguably, though, taking these two into account, I can see a slight argument for a relatively mild winter. I guess.

What really confused me when I was younger were the Woolly Bears that weren’t really Woolly Bears. For instance, this fellow, the Virginia Tiger Moth caterpillar (Spilosoma virginica), is entirely blond:


Is he trying to tell me that I should winter in California? No. Absolutely not.

Finally there are some decidedly un-woolly but incredibly interesting caterpillars that hang about in the fall. I think that this Eastern Comma caterpillar (Polygonia comma) is just perfect for Halloween, when it made its appearance:


Just don’t ask it about snow.