Last week’s rains filled the Monocacy to its banks, which prevented exploration for a few days, but as the water receded to more average levels, we were treated to another sort of fun: mud. Lots and lots of it. The kind that sucks off your boots and ends up in your hair. While the boys modeled it into facades that seemed to lead into the riverbanks (and which reminded us of something out of Tolkien, like the Mines of Moria, but for muskrats), I discovered a veritable treasure-trove of tracks and footprints.
They reveal the life along the river that I rarely see; the creatures that come out when I’m not there. Honestly, evidence of the white-tailed deer is everywhere, in the form of scat that my younger dog takes too much pleasure in rolling herself in (and then pouts for days over the subsequent bath), and the squirrels are rarely too shy to show themselves, either. Raccoons, however, are more secretive (being nocturnal), and herons, although visible, prefer not to let me get too close. The Monocacy is host to other animals as well: opossums (one of which made it into my house), shrews, moles, voles, mice, chipmunks, groundhogs (whose holes are another obsession for my younger dog), weasels, minks, and otters, just to name a few mammals. We’re there, too, of course, sometimes leaving a little more than footprints
At least yesterday I found a piece of trash that I could use to collect the other pieces of trash. That’s always helpful. If you look on the bright side.
I am often frustrated by the limitations of the camera on my phone, especially when the light does something near-miraculous, like turn the forest a tinny orange when the sky is the hue of a lighted bruise. It’s not just the color that I want to capture, but the feeling. Either I am on another planet or in another world, and the air is alive with its alienness. How can my limited view explain this?
The sun can play tricks, too, and turn the world upside-down. Water is its partner in this, gathering in light, amplifying it, and reflecting it back to the sky. How many worlds are there in a river that has seen so much time pass?
When I’m in the woods or on the banks of the Monocacy, it’s easy to find tranquil places and to take beautiful pictures. When I take a step back, however, the perspective necessarily changes. The fact that it is an urban river becomes clear and beauty more difficult to capture. Lately my boys and I have been spending a lot of time at Riverside Park in the city of Frederick, which is a short walk from our home. It has a boat launch (for kayaks and canoes, mostly), a soccer field and is the starting point for most of the paved trails along the river, but truly it would be difficult to find a less park-like setting.
While the Monocacy does run through the park, it is hemmed in on one side by a large parking lot and on the other by an expanse of road and warehouses. There is also a clear view of the Monocacy Boulevard bridge, which is always busy with traffic making its way to the shopping malls and housing developments along Rte. 26 (also known as Libertytown Rd.). One of the larger stores is a Walmart, which is due to close within the next week because a much larger one has been built just across the street. As yet, there is nothing scheduled to move into the soon-to-be-vacant building.
The (now) older Walmart is divided from the park’s playing fields by a man-made pond, which receives the runoff from the store’s parking lot. This helps to keep the river clean, of course, except for those times when the river floods and the fields, parking lot, and retention pond become one massive body of water. Usually, though, this body of water sits on its own, host to Canada geese and the occasional heron. What is more remarkable about the “pond” than the geese, however, is the massive quantity of construction materials that is piled alongside it. From the park’s parking lot, a gated gravel road leads to a flattened space where trucks and earth-movers regularly dump dirt, old asphalt, chunks of concrete, twisted rebar, and other such miscellany. Much to my chagrin, my boys like to climb on these piles, and I spend much more time than I’d like hanging about in what is, at best, a very big dirtpile, or, at worst, a dump. When I’m not gathering trash of the plastic sort, I look toward the mountains and try to wish away the warehouses, cell towers and machines obscuring my view.
But to wish everything away would be to wish myself away. I live in one of the developments on Rte. 26. I drive over the Monocacy Blvd. bridge. I buy groceries in a shopping mall. Frederick was settled early in this country’s history, and the Monocacy has been supporting it since its founding. The people and the river are inextricably linked. We rely on it not only for our drinking water (yes, it’s true!) but for fishing, farming and recreation. Not only should we take care of it, we must. And there can be beauty in that responsibility.
Sorting through my photographs, I realized that there are several that I set aside for a particular post but then, for whatever reason, never used. Although it conflicts with my need for some sort of focus for all of my writing, in an effort not to completely lose sight of my intentions for these pictures, I’ve decided to set them all out today, with notes, like a disorganized scrapbook page. (I have tried scrapbooking before, and it just isn’t in me; neither is keeping an immaculate house. Truly I am a failure as a homemaker.) But, of course, having written this paragraph, I’ve assigned a theme. Why do I do that?
These photographs were to be about line, texture, and symmetry. The old wasp’s nest also reminded me of the huge hornet’s nest that hung inside the ‘Walking Stick’ shrub in my backyard when I was little. I ran right into it during a game of SPUD and suffered the consequences. I never developed a fear of stinging insects, though, perhaps in part because my father took the nest down that winter and allowed my brothers to hang it in their bedroom from the central light fixture. Also, I’m clearly not allergic to them.
I found this and spent the rest of the day with R.E.M. songs streaming through my brain.
Peek-a-boo trash: before and after. I nearly missed this Starbucks cup when the only thing visible was the green straw.
And, of course, I’m still running into the problem, months later, with other sorts of trash. (Yes, Bud Light, again).
My mixed-breed, young Rosie, is obsessed with sticking her head in holes. (Mostly made by groundhogs, I think). I’m a little afraid that one day she’ll pop back up with a bite on her nose. My friend’s dog once got bit by a squirrel, and the poor thing bled profusely. The dog was fine, but the car never really recovered from the trip to the vet.
Okay, so now I’m fighting the urge to write a summary paragraph. Mission almost accomplished.
I like snow. While our first fall of the year didn’t amount to much, I made the most of it. My old labrador’s response pretty much sums up my initial excitement:
A little later in the day, after rounding up my fellow explorers, I found a flock of Canada Geese loitering on the river. Usually we see them flying overhead in formation, raucously honking, bringing in the cool blue haze of a winter dusk, but last Friday afternoon they were merely drifting, skirting the light ice along the river’s edge. Eventually a small flotilla ventured over as if to investigate us, which made me wonder whether they were used to living in ponds where people fed them, but when I approached they backed off. (Which is just as well, considering I had one dog on leash who just loves water birds).
The snow ushered in the stiff, still cold of mid-winter that settles onto me an almost inexplicable peace.As I walk, I smile at the flock of black vultures hunched in a gnarled, bare tree. I quietly watch a herd of six white-tailed deer cross the trail in front of me, leaving behind them a mess of hoof-prints in the snow. I wait for the red-tailed hawk standing sentry over the floodplain to soar from its post. It can be tempting to run from the cold, dashing from car to front door, but it’s so rewarding to hunker down and live in it for a moment.
As I’ve mentioned before, birds of prey are cool, and particularly noticeable in the winter, when they perch atop the barren branches of leafless trees. Most often I see red-tailed hawks, their voices as sharp and breathtaking as their angular profiles. Many other predatory birds make their home along the river, some scanning the waters for fish and others prowling the banks for snakes, rodents, and even other birds. So, while I think that they’re cool, there’s a rather large population of living things who most certainly do not.
I rarely see these birds make their kills, but it’s not uncommon for me to find the evidence of them, most often a clutch of feathers and nothing more. They do, however, leave something else behind: the “pellets” of undigested fur and bone that they regurgitate about 10 to 12 hours after their meals. While middle school biology classes seem to dissect only the pellets of owls, all birds of prey produce them, so I’m unsure who produced the one that I found last week, which, on cursory examination with a stick, contained the remains of a shrew.
As a caretaker of many rodents – from the trio of mice I kept when I was eleven (Nicholas, Timothy, and Sebastian, because such little gentlemen deserved long and formal names) to our family’s current pair of white rats (the ladies Sugar and Anastasia, themselves temporary caretakers of other rodents; I’m sure that you can guess which one I named) – I have compassion for all of these souls who ended their lives as meals. But I have equal compassion for the birds, who need to eat to survive, feed their young, and go on being the cool creatures that they are.
It’s a difficult balance and heartbreaking at times, but there’s life there, asking to be seen and acknowledged and treasured in all of its terror and delicacy. I can see the void or I can see the life that void has made. Fur, bones, feathers and a beating heart.