House Cat

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Even as I type, I can hear the the high-pitched croak of a mother starling scolding my old cat for daring to creep out onto our deck. At 17, our Ashley-cat has lost interest in hunting, and, up until about the age of 15, she never ventured out of doors (or out of our closet, for that matter) anyway. She is a strictly indoor cat by choice, and, considering her longevity, it’s hard to argue that this hasn’t been a good decision on her part. While I can’t blame the starling for vociferously protecting her babies (which are, yet again, in our chimney vent), she’s wasting energy that she could be using to fetch her children food, which they seem to need about every 5 minutes judging by the desperate racket in my living room wall.

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Trust me, they’re in there somewhere. And they have their feathers now.

Even if Ashley-cat had been inclined to go outdoors, we would have kept her inside. The many cats that we kept when I was growing up had full roaming privileges, going out or in as they pleased, with multiple door-openers at their service. One cat in particular, a big, blond boy with a kingly mien, preferred the outdoors and seemed to feel that he belonged to the whole neighborhood rather than simply to us. (For reasons unknown to me, as I was not yet born when he came into our home, we called him Tiffany, which made me endlessly confused about all the girls named Tiffany…I knew three of them and was convinced that all of their parents had made a mistake.) His roaming ended when he was hit by a car on the busy street in front of our house.

Upset, I did what every distraught 10-year-old girl does and wrote a letter to the editor in my local paper. In the letter (which I signed with my name and age), I chided careless drivers and requested that, if they must hit cats in the road, they stop, take the cat out of the road, and inform a local homeowner. This was all very naive, of course, and I soon received several nasty letters in the mail informing me that I was an irresponsible pet owner who was to blame for my cat’s death because I had let him outside. This enlightening experience led me to two big resolutions (in addition to self-loathing): first, I would never write a letter to the editor again, and, second, when I had my own cats, I would keep them inside.

Earlier this year, I finally broke the first resolution in order to write a letter to the editor in support of a polystyrene ban in the state of Maryland. (Kind of a no-brainer for this blogger). No one really trolls by snail-mail anymore, but I did make a point not to read any online comments.  The second resolution I became even more affirmed in when I read a book by my teenage idol, Margaret Atwood, in which she warned against the dangers of allowing cats out to hunt and kill songbirds and other native wildlife. Nonetheless, I have confess, I ultimately broke it with my older cat, Olaf, who was an escape artist and knew how to take advantage of the carelessness of two young boys and the distraction of their mother. I still miss that cat, but it was his thyroid and kidneys that compelled us to let him go, not the wheel of a car, and, despite his greatness as a mouser, he never caught anything with feathers.

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Yes, right there, that’s the spot. Yessssssss…

I used to worry about Ashley-cat’s fearfulness. She was surrendered to the Animal Humane Society in Golden Valley, Minnesota twice before the age of four months, when my husband and I adopted her shortly after our wedding and move out to the midwest. To seem as small as possible, she tucked herself into the back of her cage at the shelter and, at home, spent most of her time under beds, behind couches and, finally, in closets. Even now, when she ventures out, it is to stay on the deck, a man-made surface within view of the door. If I start to shut it, she comes running with wild eyes and slips back inside. She is truly a house-cat. And she plans on never, ever, ever even knowing that there’s a river nearby.

Delinquency

Thinking about anything has been like slogging through mud lately, so facing the mental gymnastics of writing has been impossible. Whether Christmas, brain chemistry or lack of sleep is to blame, I have no idea, but I’ve been hanging on with a meagre and unhealthy diet of popular fiction. It’s fun while it lasts, but leaves me hungry and unarmed for the simple tasks of daily life.

Even in this half-wakeful state, I can walk through the woods and pick up the trash. A few days in a row, I found plastic bottles filled with balls of tin foil, like this:20161209_163649.jpg

I did puzzle over them a little but wasn’t completely suspicious until I found this alongside them:

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When I googled this combination of objects, I found that, yes, I had a right to be suspicious. I immediately disposed of the objects (though the ammonia kept leaking through my bag) and carefully did not mention them to my boys, who would be all too interested in their explosive chemistry.

Fortunately, they’ve been distracted with their own, much less poisonous and more peaceful, project: the building of a shelter made of fallen branches. It is the perfect size for two boys, one adult, or a couple of curious dogs (and I know this because we’ve tested all such combinations). My oldest even used a bit of my trash to decorate its facade.

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Because you can do more than one thing with an empty bottle.

In the Other Details

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, animals can camouflage themselves and render themselves easily missed by my pathetic human eyes, but, as it turns out, so can some trash. A brown plastic bag half-buried in dark earth is barely more visible than a toad amongst leaves, and a faded can of strawberry Fanta covered in long, dead grass hides itself as easily as a moth against the bark of a tree. Other bits of garbage are fortunately more obvious, even if it’s a green Heinekin bottle under long blades of similarly green grass and stinging nettles. I see you, brilliant blue Bud Light label, and you, you bag of ranch-flavored sunflower seeds. (To which I say: is that really necessary?)

I also see the curious looks I get from the more regular trail-walkers when they catch me knee-deep in garlic mustard taking a picture of a beer bottle. With my unkempt hair, old rubber boots, and muddy jeans, I’m certain that I look more bag lady than responsible mother. Once or twice I’ve tucked my phone in my pocket and pretended to be birdwatching just to save my reputation. (Because birdwatchers are such exemplary people? I don’t know.) I guess I should hold my head high and just tell them I’m a trash-collector who writes a blog. I just haven’t gotten there yet.

Domestic Life, Part 2

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.

Your Servant

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Choices, circumstances, and the general vagaries of life have led me to my current occupation, the title of which seems to change according to time or point of view.  What I would have called a “housewife” growing up, is now, for the most part, a stay-at-home-mom (SAHM), but other terms I’ve heard used include domestic engineer (blah), domestic diva (ick), or homemaker (eh). In any case, the job comes with no pay or social security benefits, lots of judgement and guilt, and repetitive tasks.  Of course I’m very lucky to be able to stay at home and rely on someone else’s income.  It’s a privilege to be available to help at my sons’ schools, take them to their appointments, and field the emotional crises that their needs dictate.  It is wonderful to be able to adapt my schedule for my husband’s honestly difficult and stressful job.  My troubles are that of a middle-class white woman living in America, which renders them the least troublesome of all troubles in most of the rest of the world.  I am intelligent enough and unselfish enough to see that. But sometimes I do want more. Not more things. Just more. And it’s out there.

Collecting the Monocacy’s trash and writing this blog is part of the more.  What’s ironic, however, is how much the task can resemble my occupation.  After all, what am I doing, really, but cleaning up after people?  Usually the debris is so random and spread apart that the cleaning is rendered impersonal and therefore can assume an abstract expression of environmentalism.  There are times, though, when I just feel like some stranger’s beleaguered mother.  There is, for instance, an area on the “island” that a group of people use for a campfire every weekend.  When I’m doing my rounds on Sunday or Monday, I find, in addition to their ashes (which are dangerously close to a massive pile of dried wood, leaves and other kindling-like materials), beer cans, food wrappers, and miscellaneous garbage. A photo collage would do the scene justice:

In case you’re wondering, yes, that is a silly putty egg.  There was a deodorant cap, too, for the person who, I suppose, while sucking down his beer, noticed his pits stank.

But I’m not judging.  Oh, well, of course I am.  And isn’t that where this problem started?  I feel judged and so I judge, and we’re all a little more unhappy even though we imagine we’re the opposite? There are days when I feel tremendous joy and gratitude, when I understand how very lucky I am. And then there are days when I feel as if I’ll never get to the top of the trash heap (or is it the bottom?  I’ve gotten lost in this metaphor). Either way, I’m here, and so is the trash.  And so is the river.

Domestic Life

In some effort to keep this blog anonymous, I have refrained from mentioning my home in any specific or explicit terms. Nonetheless, it is necessary to this project.  If nothing else, it is its nearness to the Monocacy River that makes it possible for me to make my trash-collecting expeditions on a daily basis. In some ways, though, I am ashamed of that nearness.  My home is in a new (because 15 years really is new) development that certainly contributes to the degradation of the river. Believing in restricted development and loving history, my first two homes were built at the turn of the 20th century, when walls were plaster, there was only one bathroom, and (at least in one case) insulation was horse hair.  Now I have vinyl siding and windows, three bathrooms, fiberglass insulation and covenants that require I get permission to plant a tree.  My only solace (or maybe I should say rationalization) for my home is that it was built on farmland that had already been deforested in the eighteenth century, and agricultural runoff is one of the primary polluters of the Monocacy.  Also, I don’t use poison in my yard or garden, I plant native species to help the birds, butterflies, and bees, and the neighborhood has made the parkland and trails by the river more vibrant and, therefore, I hope, more cared-for.  But, as I confessed, these really are sorry rationalizations.

Still, this year, the birds seem to have taking a liking to the house. For Christmas, I hung evergreen arrangements on my front porch.  When January came, I removed the bows and artificial holly, but left the greenery – bits of pine, juniper and fir – to keep the house encouraging over the brown and dreary winter months.  In late February, I noticed that a bird seemed to spending nights nestled in one of them.  My husband and I would look out through our front window at night to see its little gray tail poking out of the juniper, but it would flicker away, nothing but a dark, quick shadow at the corner of my eye, as soon as we opened the door. For a few weeks, it seemed to have gone, and I was about to toss the now brown arrangements, when it suddenly returned, accompanied by a rosy-headed mate (house finch…of course!), and, with frayed bits of string and withered grass, transformed its cozy roost into a nest.

Only a few days ago, four naked babies successfully hatched, and it’s proven impossible to keep my older son away from them.  He’s not uninformed enough to believe the myth that touching them will make their mother stay away, so I’ve instead lectured him about germs, and, out of my extensive reading on trauma, attachment, and brain development, have concocted a theory, which I repeat extensively, that disturbing the babies will put undue stress on both them and the parents, which, in turn, will hurt their health and development, thereby making it less likely that they’ll live long and healthy lives. It’s convoluted, but it works most of the time. At other times, though, my son son insists that he loves the babies and wants badly to take care of them. When I say that he can’t, he asks why not, and our conversation ends with, “Because you’re not a house finch.”

 

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In addition to the house finches, we have a pair of starlings that tried to build a nest in our chimney.  Far from succeeding, they actually fell through the duct work and landed in the vent beneath our gas fireplace. It took me a bit of time to realize what had happened because it’s quite usual for me to hear the rustle of feathers and squawks and calls echoing from the top of the chimney, through the flue, and into the vent.  But my dogs kept staring curiously at the fireplace, ears cocked forward like question marks, and as I watched them I saw a little yellow beak peek through one of the slats that cover the vent.  Now curious myself, I bent down, pulled off the cover, turned my phone into a flashlight, and discovered two very frightened birds huddled behind the gasworks. Unsure what to do, I left to look for some sort of container to hold them and a long object to compel them to move, when one, then the other flapped furiously out into the living room, the kitchen, and finally the large window in the foyer.  Hastily I opened the front door and waved the crab net I’d found (because Maryland = crabs) at the the birds, who wanted frantically to believe that the window was their only salvation, until they finally dropped a foot down to see that freedom was out the front door.  It’s possible that the starlings I see atop the trees in my yard are these same birds, but it’s just as likely that they were traumatized enough to move on.

So, there are these adventures.  And the collecting the trash.  And this blog.  All in this house of dubious environmental efficacy. I’m the sort who feels guilty all of the time anyway, so I’ll just do the best I can, what little I can, live in this house, and remember to be grateful. And when my homeowner’s association writes me up for keeping dead evergreen arrangements on my porch, I’ll smile, pay my fine, and put out more seed for the birds.

When There Are No Pictures

Yesterday, while reconfiguring a temporary (and mostly imaginary) dam, my oldest boy discovered a snapping turtle under a rock.  Normally this would call for some panicked maternal shrieking – PUT THAT THING DOWN! – but the snapper was a baby, no bigger than my hand, and apparently too stunned to move. Nonetheless, my son, demonstrating an uncharacteristic streak of self-preservation, quickly threw the thing back in the water. “Wait!” I called out, too late, “I wanted a picture!” My son looked at me, then at the water, still rippling from the snapper’s entrance, then back at me. He didn’t have to say, “Are you crazy?  Those things bite!” His incredulous, clearly-I’m-smarter-than-you-mom teenage expression rendered such words self-evident.  Still, I felt in my pocket, grabbing for my phone, as I scuttled down the bank toward the river.  But there was no phone. No camera. Opportunity missed. Damn. I suffered the same frustration a few minutes later, when my boots left lovely prints in the carpet of bright green celandine leaves on the island, and again, only a few minutes after that, when I found the remnants of the nastiest picnic I’ve yet encountered: an empty 2-liter bottle of Strawberry Fanta accompanied by an also empty 2-pack of fruit punch flavored cigarellos. I could only imagine the hyped-up, nerveless state that such a combination of caffeine, sugar, nicotine, and artificial color and flavor would knock into a person.

In fact, I haven’t had this constant access to a camera for very long.  I got my first smart phone only a few months ago, after I lost my old flip phone somewhere at JFK airport on the way home from visiting my sister (whom I subsequently freaked out because the last thing I texted her before misplacing the phone was something like, “I think this taxi is taking me the wrong way.”) I am what you might call a late-adopter of technology.  I resisted the smart phone partly for financial reasons but also because I was afraid that it would distract me.  What I didn’t anticipate is how much I would come to depend on it. It’s wonderful because it has made this blog possible in a way that it never really was before, but it is also one more thing in this loud, artificially-flavored-and-colored modern life that serves as a barrier between me and the world of dirt and skin and breath. So, just for today, no picture.

But I’ll probably make up for it tomorrow.