Addiction on the Monocacy

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I climbed through the pile of debris, a great mass of limbless logs, sticks, mud, and leaves driven together in a recent flood, in order to grab the Frappuccino bottle for my trash bag. It was only at the last moment, as I replaced my phone in the back pocket of my jeans, that I noticed the snake. It was still, watching me closely, apparently convinced (and rightly so) that it hadn’t yet been seen. Not wanting to startle it, I made a show of noisily stepping back and around to pick up the bottle from the other side, and it took the opportunity to slither under a branch, deeper into the jumbled mound.

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As I continued picking my way around the river, I stepped a little more carefully, as much to avoid falling through camouflaged holes as to avoid stepping on an unassuming reptile, and I encountered more trash than I had in many weeks. This isn’t altogether uncommon after a stretch of rainy weather, which both prevents me from my work and drives more trash into the rising waters of the Monocacy as it rushes downstream. I was actually grateful to find an empty cement bucket to carry the excess garbage from my three overfilled plastic bags.

Later, as I shifted the bucket and bags to my left hand to reach for a cigarette wrapper caught in the upper branch of a fallen tree, my thoughts rambled in their disjointed way from beer cans to plants, soda bottles, and snakes, and I realized that my trash-collection was yielding a veritable garden of vices. But, as I thought of these vices — drinking, smoking, gambling — I decided, no, I won’t call these vices — that term expresses a degree of moral judgment that I don’t feel — but addictions. They’re there, these addictions, all of them, their evidence littering the river, whether chemical (beer cans, cigar wrappers, and soda bottles/alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine) or habitual (lotto cards, styrofoam, and plastic bags/gambling, technology, and food).

Nationally and locally, addiction is a major topic of concern. Abuse of opioids, and fentanyl in particular, has become an epidemic, reaching crisis levels in Frederick County, where, according to the Frederick News-Post, “despite the increasing prevalence of overdose-reversal drugs, opioid overdoses and deaths both nearly tripled in 2016 compared to 2015” and “another 43 overdoses — four of them fatal — were reported by the end of the first two months of 2017” (April 27, 2017). In February, a pedestrian not far from “my” island on the Monocacy found a body washed up along one of its banks.  An April 13, 2017 article in the Frederick-News-Post reported that, while the young man, Matthew Thomas Delash, died from drowning and hyopthermia, “intoxication from fentanyl and N-ethylpentylone were also complicating factors.” His family wrote an honest, heartfelt obituary for him, expressing the pain and power of addiction as they sought to acknowledge the true person, a generous son and a friend, behind it. When I first heard about this man’s death, I wasn’t sure whether to include it in this, my loose account of life on the Monocacy River. He and his life were not trash, and it is a hard thing that he was lost in the waters of such a beautifully ugly place as this urban river can be. But to ignore his death is even more of an impossibility. He, like the rest of us who live along its winding banks, is a part of the river and its story.

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Alien Invasions

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While many plants are just now budding and flowering and sprouting leaves, there are others that have retained some degree of color all of this mild winter long. Besides the obvious evergreens like holly, juniper, and pine, one of the most prominent of these plants on the floodplains of the Monocacy, and throughout Frederick, is the Japanese Honeysuckle, or Lonicera japonica.  It’s a non-native vine that attracted gardeners with its delicate flowers and heady aroma and then, with the fast-growing tenacity common to all invasive species, escaped its tidy beds and uncoiled itself across the wild landscape, binding trees and suffocating the native groundcover. I’ve been taking photos of this intruder, intending to dedicate some part of a blog post to it, so it seemed a great opportunity (or at least prompt) when yesterday a Facebook post from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources informed me that it’s National Invasive Species Awareness Week. I’ve written about invasive species several times before, often to complain about their less-than-desirable attributes, like itchiness, or poisonousness, and I keep a running list of them in my Wildflowers of the Monocacy page by noting the word “alien” behind its common name. You can find a more exhaustive list of these aliens here, at the site of the Maryland Invasive Species Council (MISC).

Unlike the usual trash I can just pick up and stuff in a bag, invasive species cannot be eradicated in a moment. A few days ago, when I took my father into the mountains of the Frederick Municipal Forest to find a trout pond, he found himself distracted by all of the Japanese Honeysuckle that had insinuated itself into the underbrush. Despite his poor balance and aching joints, he began trying to disentangle it. After a great deal of work (and a little pain inflicted by the brier patch the honeysuckle had infiltrated), we did manage to pull some of it up by the roots. It seemed a sorry effort when we stepped back to see all that remained. But I can be stubborn, too.

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Connections and Clean-Up

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The Monocacy River, which is the largest tributary of the more famous Potomac River (it flows by George Washington’s home, Mt. Vernon), has several tributaries of its own. One of these is Israel Creek, which is part of the lower Monocacy watershed. For the most part, Israel Creek winds its way through farms and pastures, collecting runoff on its way to the Monocacy. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, in an effort to combat the erosion that encourages this runoff, has organized a planting of 1,000 trees along the banks of Israel Creek where it passes through a cattle farm in Woodsboro, Maryland. It is calling for volunteers to help with the planting tomorrow at 9:00 a.m. For more information, read the Frederick News-Post article, “Hands Needed to Protect Creek in Woodsboro,” and to sign up, go to:  http://www.cbf.org/events/other/md/restoration-events.

Update: SLE (Stream-Link Education) maintains such riparian plantings every fall. See http://www.streamlinkeducation.org for more information.

 

What Squirrels Make Me Remember

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A very busy squirrel left this shredded walnut shell on the path today. It’s a natural piece of trash, very commonly found as summer turns to fall.

8 years ago this September, I was in Mykolayiv, Ukraine, visiting an orphanage. I had been to Ukraine before, as an archaeologist, but this was a more personal, less academic trip. Whenever I come upon shredded walnut shells this time of year, I remember a particular day at the orphanage, when the children, all four or younger, delighted in bringing me these tough, green softballs to open. In my journal, I wrote:

We walked around the grounds until we came upon a walnut tree ready for harvesting. Iv. [a 3 year-old boy] instantly began picking walnuts off the tree and begging me, “Akoi! Akoi!”  I stepped on them until their green rinds fell away and then broke them open, sometimes with a rock, sometimes with my foot, and shelled out the meat with my fingernails. Iv. ate every tiny bit. When another groupa walked by with their nanny, he had me open walnuts for them. It was like a little party. 

By the end of the day, my fingertips were stained green and my nailbeds were sore, but the simple happiness of that episode is still vivid in my memory.

Earlier in my blog, I wrote a little about Ukraine’s troubles (see The Worst Kind of Trash). Despite the lack of media coverage, Ukraine is still struggling, particularly in the east (for an exceptional story on Ukraine’s current political struggles, see the September 5, 2016 article by Joshua Yaffa: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/09/05/reforming-ukraine-after-maidan).  It’s easy to get bogged down in the murk of geopolitical struggles, but there’s nothing murky about a smile and a hard-won walnut.

American River, American Beer

 

Or not.

Judging by the trash I gather, Budweiser (and, even more often, Bud Light) is by far the most popular beer consumed along the modest stretch of the Monocacy River that I patrol. The cans are dressed patriotically this summer, the traditional “Budweiser” even sporting the new name “America” through the November election. (You heard about that, right?) The cans even feature the lyrics of “The Star Spangled Banner,” which has special significance in this part of the world, where the author of the lyrics, Francis Scott Key, worked and is buried. (In a curious non sequitor, the local mall and minor league baseball team are named in his honor). Never mind that this all-American beer is now owned by the Belgian company AG Inbev. Free trade, mergers and the vagaries of Capitalism: you can’t get more American than that.

High School Stars

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Warning: I am about to write something completely off-topic.

A few days ago, the local paper ran a front-page story about the sudden death of a 30-year-old former local high school football star. No, let me correct that: it wrote about anything but the death of a 30-year-old former local high school football star. I would be positive and say that it wrote about his life, but that would also be untrue. The lengthy story concentrated only on what an amazing, focused athlete he was as a teenager; how he was so good and so serious that his friends didn’t like to involve him in pick-up games; how he gave up every other sport for football; how he had the world at his feet and colleges banging down his door; how he casually and confidently chose to go to the University of Maryland…until he injured his spinal column at the end of his freshman year, transferred to Penn State, never played again, and “life did not get easier.” After this statement, the writer returns to extolling the young man’s athleticism in high school for several more paragraphs, before dropping this quote from one of his old high school buddies: “We haven’t really hung out much or talked to him much…There wasn’t much in common here lately. We didn’t really want to associate with him, unfortunately.”

The cause of this young man’s death is never mentioned, and so I cannot with certainty say why he died. But there are dark hints that lead to some sad possibilities. He had a bad football injury, most certainly painful, and was never able to play football again. Afterwards, his “life did not get easier.” His friends ceased hanging out with him and “didn’t really want to associate with him.” He died suddenly of a cause not reported. When I read between these lines, I see hints toward depression, personality change (think: concussions), and, very likely, addiction. I also see a lost opportunity for a real story.

I understand that, for the sake of his family and friends, relating the (apparent) grimness of his recent years and the (painful? sad? tragic?) details of his death is something that, as a sympathetic writer, you might be reluctant to do. You want to remember the good times. But, to put his death on the front page and and to devote almost 30 paragraphs solely to his years as an amazing high school football player seems entirely disrespectful of the majority of his life. Was he truly only valued for those 2 or 3 years of athletic greatness? Did he fall off the face of the earth after football? The article notes that his Facebook page mentions working for a local tree service and country club. Did he have no friends from these places to quote? What has he been doing for the last 10 years? Was it of no value? Was he of no value?

I am afraid that he might have felt that way. I hope not. I hope he found life afterwards. I hope that he didn’t become addicted to painkillers. I hope that he didn’t become depressed and choose to self-medicate. I hope that he found something to live for outside of football. I hope that he found other interests and friends. I hope that he didn’t think that the best years of his life were over. I hope that he died in a way that had nothing to do with his “tough times” after leaving football. I hope.

It’s strange how angry this article has left me…for him, his family, his loved ones, for all those injured athletes who have had to face life after their sport.  All of these men and women are more than what they can do on a field, or how fast they can run, or how hard they can kick. Let’s be respectful of that. Let’s remember that. Let’s remind them of that.

We are not to be defined by one ability, by one time in our life, by one tragedy that changed things. We are all so much more.