Frogs and Pollywogs


A few days ago, I was attempting to take a picture of a plant that I couldn’t identify when I heard a suspicious commotion. Laughter. Lots of it. And the startled shrieks and shouts of boys who are immensely impressed with how clever they are at amusing themselves. By the time I’d shoved my phone into my back pocket and  scurried down the riverbank, one of the boys had plunged knee-deep into the water, the contours of his face sharp with the concentration of pursuit, and the other was grinning at something cupped in his hands.

“Look, Mom, we found the snake again!”

He held it out for me to see, and, yes, it was the same unfortunate water snake I posted about a few days ago. Before I could speak, my other son appeared at my side, panting and glowing with sweat and success.

“I got it back,” he smiled at his brother, spreading open his palms to reveal a stunned bullfrog.

“Okay. You put yours down after me,” the older one said, placing the small snake on the rocks. My younger one obeyed, practically dropping the frog on the snake’s head.

This would have been a perilous situation for the frog, had he not been about five times bigger than his natural predator. So, while the snake did lash out at the frog once, the action looked to be born more out of defensiveness than hunger. Still, it was a rather unfair game and one that I didn’t want to encourage. I reverted to my (to the boys) annoyingly logical, let’s-be-nice, mom voice.

“Boys, leave those poor animals alone. Look how stressed out they are!” It took several minutes of such cajoling, the boys countering that I was no fun, a wimpy girl, all sorts of arguments that just weren’t going anywhere near making me change my mind, until the creatures were finally set free.

I’m hoping that the snake’s reptilian brain has convinced him that it’s time to move on. I haven’t seen him since. There are so many bullfrogs, though, that it’s beyond my ken to distinguish the boys’ victim from amongst the several I see daily. Millions of tadpoles (or pollywogs as I liked to call them when I was younger) now swim in the long, shallow puddles left behind by the Monocacy’s receding waters, and, in the murky, lethargic pools off of the main river, mature frogs beat their drums and strum their chords amidst roots, leaves and the occasional Bounty paper towels wrapper or Sonic Styrofoam cup. I don’t think that they’re easy to catch (my overeager pups certainly don’t help with that), but I’m not the one they need to worry about.

It’s late spring on the Monocacy, the predators are out, and they’re hungry for fun.

Spring Breakdown

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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.



The Trash of Which I Do Not Speak (or Photograph)

Happy Birthday, Girl!

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.

Let’s Pretend


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.


Still Life in Plastic Bottles

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:

Boats for Mice

It’s been warm and clear the past 2 days, which has allowed the recent floodwaters to recede and the debris left behind to dry in the sun.  As this happens, lots of bundles – leaves, grass and, often, trash, tightly bound by dried mud – appear on the tips of tree branches, like mittens. One boy I know likes to slide the bundles off and let them go down the river.  He imagines them as tiny boats for even tinier mice.