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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Taking Shelter

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The boys’ shelter has survived the change of seasons, evolving from a barren, winter structure into a hidden hermitage, surrounded and softened by the island forest’s leafy undergrowth. While in the past I’ve found evidence of white-tailed deer visiting the shelter, and once even discovered the remains of a pizza party (not the deer that time, I’m assuming), last week I only found this lonely Horned Passalus Beetle (Odontotaenius disjunctus), which objected very noisily (or stridulated, for the entomologically-inclined) when my oldest son picked it up for further investigation.

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As I am a more of an etymologist than an entomologist, I advise that you visit this site if you are interested in more information about this beetle. In the meantime, I’ll just sit here,

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or maybe pick up these cans.

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On Seeing Everything

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As a trash collecting hobbyist, it is difficult to look away from unpleasantness. It is difficult, in fact, to look away from anything at all, as I am always looking at everything. My only way, then, of not seeing unpleasantness is not to write about it. And I am guilty of that.

Whether because of the early loss of my mother or the natural human aversion to reminders of mortality, I am affected for days after encountering the body of an animal, particularly if it is young. For years, I said a prayer for every dead animal I passed on the road. Although my faith has gotten shaky, I usually still say my roadkill prayer; it seems to absolve me from some of the pain and grief that witnessing death usually invokes in me. The sight of vultures and crows over a carcass offers me even more comfort. They show a way to truly see a purpose in the animal’s death, if not in its life.

There are moments, though, when this is not quite enough. The time, for instance, when I saw a car strike a bear cub, and for weeks and months (and even years now?) could not stop imagining the bereaved mother bear somewhere in the woods on the other side of the road. Or, last year, when I found an older fawn lying in the woods along the Monocacy River, clearly dead but without any signs of trauma, and a few days later encountered another fawn of the same age, only a short distance away, looking slow and weak, its ribs showing and rear smeared with diarrhea. It stared at me for a long time, unconcerned with my curious old dog, before tottering back into the tall brush. Again I imagined a mother, but this time she was the one dead on the side of the road, and her children were lost without her. Lost children: our fears and histories seem to circle back on themselves, and our imagination never wanders too far from us.

Yesterday I found a young fox kit on the island path. It was lying on its side, its small mouth just open, its eyes just closed. It was dead, of course, but only just so. Its gray fur was downy and its body soft as I lifted it, checking for signs of life and death. The head lolled, its neck broken, and a tincture of moist blood stained its right ear. There was nothing I could do but move it from the path to the forest floor, where it could decompose in relative peace, shaded and surrounded by the bluebells, celandine and violets that have transformed the Monocacy into a wonderland. I covered it with a few damp leaves and noticed a trout lily blooming nearby.

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I know that death is vital to life. Predators kill and prey feed, diseases weaken, the strong survive and reproduce. I get all of that. I appreciate it. With an intellectual and scientist’s objective eye, I can say, “This is Good.” But sometimes my soul is just a little too sensitive for this world.

A Flower Tour

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Trout Lilly (Erythronium americanum), with Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), Virginia spring-beauties ( Claytonia virginica) and Lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria)

At this time of year, I could take you on a 3-hour flower tour of my favorite Monocacy River island. While you wouldn’t see many species, I would bore you to death  amuse you with multiple views of the same flowers, particularly the Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), which nod in clusters of pink, periwinkle, and baby blue, forming a soft carpet over the cool, silty ground.  “Look!” I might say, “A bluebell with a bee!”

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Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica)

Or, “Aren’t bluebells colors perfect just before they open?”

Or, perhaps, “Oops! I let go of the leash! Rosie, get back here!”

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I get distracted by other flowers, as well.  Lesser celandines (Ranunculus ficaria), bright yellow flowers of the buttercup family, are an invasive species that thrive in the riparian environments of Maryland, and, as they appear before any other spring ephemerals, they have an advantage, which you can witness by the fact that they are in nearly every picture that I take of other flowers. For instance, they make a cheerful background for the emerging Trout lily (Erythronium americanum) in the photo that opened this post, and it is their leaves that surround the lovely moss I was photographing when Rosie, set loose by the boys, photo-bombed me. (Yes, she runs off leash much too often, but that grin was just too irresistible for me to get too angry).

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Virginia spring-beauties (Claytonia virginica), delicate white-and-pink petaled native flowers, do their best to raise their heads above all of the lesser celandine, and I crouch low, lifting their blossoms to the camera, in order to record their fairy-like loveliness.

Another flower that competes with the lesser celandine is the common blue violet (Viola sororia), which, despite its name, is white as often as it is blue.

Violets are such reliable flowers, as likely to grow in the yard as in the forest, but Toadshade (Trillium sessile) far more elusive. Last year I saw two or three before they faded at April’s end, but this year I’ve counted at least seven, and they’ve all yet to open.

For some reason, perhaps because of their names or concurrent blooming season, I associate toadshade with trout lilies, which also seem to be more numerous this season. The toadshade, of course, would be a distant, smelly cousin, as far as the trout lily is concerned. Despite the emergence of more trout lily leaves, it may still be years before I see a bloom on some of them; trout lilies don’t bloom at all the first 4-7 years of life, when often there is only one leaf sprout instead of two leaves and a flower stalk, as we see here:

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Of course, being who I am, no tour along the Monocacy would be complete without pointing out the trash in bloom. It competes with the lesser celandine, too.

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The Talk on the Monocacy

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Excerpt from a conversation between two boys, 11 and 13, and their mother:

Setting: “The hideout” at the Monocacy River

Boy, age 13: Guess what I found in the woods, Mom?

Mom: Uh, what?

Boy, age 13: A box of condoms!

(Boy, age 13, grins. Boy, age 11, looks unsure but laughs anyway)

Mom: Do you know what those are for?

Boy, age 13, (rolls eyes): Yes! I’ve had health class for 3 years.

(Boy, age 11, conspicuously quiet but still grinning)

Mom to Boy, age 11: Do you know?

Boy, age 11 (with sarcasm): Uh, yeah.

Mom: What are they for?

Boy, age 11: Like, getting drunk or something.

(Boy, age 13, starts laughing)

Mom: Would you like to explain, Boy, age 13?

Boy, age 13 (turning red): No! Not now!

Mom (imagining later explanation): Would you like me to explain, Boy, age 11? If Boy, age 13, won’t now, I can.

Boy, age 11: Yes, um, no, um, I don’t know…

Mom: It has to do with S-E….

(Both boys interrupt)

Boy, age 11: No, no, no!

Boy, age 13: It’s something the boy puts on his penis for sex!

Mom (discreetly laughing to self): Okay, where is this box?

 

Revelation and Rambling

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This week has been a revelation. The melting snow has pushed the Monocacy just a little over its usual borders. It flowed from streams, trickled from sunny banks, and washed in from streets and drains. As the swelling river turned a muddy brown, the land returned to a green slightly brighter than when we’d last seen it, before the snow fell.

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For most of the week, I was exiled from “the island” by the river’s rising waters, left to gaze longingly at the carpet of green, where I knew early spring flowers were blooming. It’s the most wondrous time of year for the place, when it seems most clean and bright and promising (I’ve been known to call it “Fairyland”). But my side of the river isn’t without its own curiosities.

Again and again this winter, I’ve meant to write about the Canada Geese that travel over us in noisy flocks at dusk. It’s a particularly wintry phenomenon that I associate with clear skies and bracing cold. It seemed only fitting, then, that on winter’s last day, I watched about a hundred of them take off from the soccer field at Riverside Park.

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As they flew over the Monocacy Boulevard bridge, I noticed a Red-shouldered Hawk perched on a taller tree in the forest retention area (which got some much-needed attention only last December).

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It’s just a smudge in the distance in the picture that I took of it, and the geese merely specks, but with my naked eye it cut a regal silhouette, and I got a glimpse of its burnished chest when it glided from its perch, crossed low over the path in front of me, and headed into a stand of trees on “the island,” well out of my reach. Despite knowing that it was unlikely that I’d spot the hawk again, I hurried to the edge of the river and searched in the direction I thought it had gone. As expected, I didn’t find the bird, but I did see a tall, white American sycamore, which reminded me that I was supposed to take a picture of my favorite sycamore (because, yes, I have one) for the Maryland Biodiversity Project’s American Sycamore Facebook Blitz (because, yes, they had one). I was too late for the blitz, but I set off down the path the next day to photograph “my” tree anyway.

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Isn’t it beautiful? It’s branches like gnarled, work-weary hands, reaching for the sky?

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It even makes trash look good:

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(Needless to say, among the things revealed by the melting snow was quite a bit of trash, and I couldn’t help but think that the juxtaposition of these two things meant that someone had a pretty wild night followed by a pretty rough morning:

Or maybe it was just a few ill-conceived hours.)

An Icy Ides

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On my walk to the river this morning, I stepped off of the main path in order to avoid meeting anyone; it was an altogether unnecessary move. Yesterday eight inches of wet, heavy snow fell, which closed the schools and brought all sorts of revelers and shovelers outdoors, but last night the temperatures plunged and winds whipped up, which is always enough to drive people back indoors in this part of the world. As I walked, my boots barely broke through the surface of the snow, which had frozen overnight, and the only other tracks I encountered were those of the deer who had bounded off a few minutes before.

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The sun was a weak light through flurry-bearing clouds, more of January than March. A week ago, I was taking pictures of Virginia spring-beauties, celandine, and bluebells, but today the most notable flora was wind-blown grass lying flattened across a dune of snow.

For me, there is beauty in both views.

Rodents of Unusual Skill

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A couple of weeks ago, I diverged from my regular rounds along the Monocacy and came upon a young tree trunk that looked as if it had been hewn by a wood-carver.

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I took note and walked a little farther along to find another tree that had been similarly cut. Now strongly suspicious, I stepped a little closer to the steep riverbank, scanned the waters, and found what I expected: a dam.

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Such logjams are not uncommon. They occur naturally after flood waters push down and collect fallen trees, branches, leaves and other debris (i.e. trash) against obstructions in the river, such as boulders, bridges, or small islands. I had a feeling that in this case I was seeing the work of another river dweller, one of earth’s largest rodents, the North American Beaver (Castor canadensis). Just to be sure, I revisited the area yesterday and found that even more trees had been felled.

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While I would very much like to meet the beavers, I’ve a feeling that they’d prefer to avoid me (I live in Maryland, after all, not Narnia), so I had to make due with knowing that they were nearby and looking about their home. Unfortunately, the light was horrible, flat and almost numbing, so I had to play a little with the paltry light meter on my phone when I tried to photograph these industrious beavers’ environment. None of the results are accurate.

Besides frustrating myself with my limited camera, I managed to gather an overflowing bagful of trash, some of it unusual (the foam from a bike seat!). I don’t usually get noticed, but today a man observed me and remarked that I had an impossible job. “Just a little bit every day,” I answered. He just kept walking.

Begin Again

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There is a special time in early spring (or late winter, as it so happens) when this year’s young sprouts meet last year’s faded ghosts. The dry, burst seed pods of dogbane and the gray-headed husks of brittle goldenrod intermingle with the round, new buds of a dogwood. The delicate leaves and blue blossoms of bird’s eye speedwell break through a thick, crusty layer of leaves that last year crowned the branches of nearby hickories, oaks, and maples. Yesterday: meet today. Or is it the other way around? To me, it is a reminder that time is not a straight line, that there are few clean endings or beginnings, and that what is behind us is never really left behind.

 

Trashscapes

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The warmer weather that has been hounding us most of the winter surpassed itself over the long weekend, bursting into a series of summery days that resulted in a) lots of human activity and b) lots of human trash. My elbows are still recovering from the weight of the garbage bags that I had to carry home, and I have far more recyclables than my 2 bins and bi-weekly collection schedule can manage. While I usually take a sort of housekeeperly pleasure in cleaning around the river, weekends like these are overwhelming. It’s frustrating to have to leave things behind (such as a stash of cans squirrelled beneath a log) simply because I don’t have enough bags to hold it. That’s when I remember that this is a job that is never finished. Like laundry. (Actually, I found some of that, too).

Two days of collecting were particularly intensive. On the first of these, the boys and I encountered a fire circle with one log still so smoking hot that it took little more than a dry leaf to reset it aflame.

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After we hauled the log farther into the water, I set about gathering a case’s worth of beer cans, a six-pack of bottles, and other such picnicky miscellany. I couldn’t help but see the irony in having to clean up yet more Budweiser “America” beer cans, which have splashed across them the lyrics of “This Land Is Your Land,” by Woody Guthrie, a song that highlights the natural beauties of the United States. (For the song’s history, see the concise NPR story http://www.npr.org/2000/07/03/1076186/this-land-is-your-land). Yes, indeed, this land is for you and me. I wish that we could all remember that. And behave that way.

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On the second day, I found an entire campsite’s worth of garbage. Literally. A tent had fallen down an eroded bank into the water below, along with a slew of cans and food wrappers, mostly submerged in mud and impossible to extricate. As I filled up all three of the bags I had brought and two more bags that I found, I was grateful for the broken, soft-sided cooler, which served as an excellent trash receptacle after I dumped the muck that had accumulated inside of it. To reach the makeshift site, I had to ford the river twice, which, since my five-foot frame was so weighed down, required that I carry everything back in shifts.

All of this activity managed to startle a fox, who zipped past me in all of his sly regalness. He wasn’t twenty feet away, but my hands were too full to grab my camera. Perhaps it was the campsite that had attracted him in the first place. It’s hard to tell. But he didn’t appear drunk, and there was very little but alcohol left to consume. I, unfortunately, stank with beer that dribbled from the cans as I collected them, and I’m pretty sure that the odor, combined with my bag-lady appearance, is what earned me a few nervous stares from families with small children on my way home.

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