Zinnias

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Zinnias. They’re not native to Maryland, preferring the hot, dry locales of the southwest and Mexico, but I love to plant them in my garden. In the early spring, I buy a few seed packets, pull my own baggies of last year’s seeds out of storage, and spread them over bare soil that will be dry and hard by August. I rake the dirt over them a bit (maybe), sprinkle some water on top, and leave them. As the tulip and daffodil leaves begin to shrivel, the zinnias begin to sprout, and when the butterfly weed has begun to wane, the zinnias grow taller, and as the coneflowers think of fading, the zinnias bloom. I plant a variety of low-growing zinnias so close together that they create busy bouquets

as well as the more classic, tall varieties, some so tall that I need to stand on tiptoes to photograph, which bloom in a plethora of color and a profusion of petals.

They’re a favorite of bees and butterflies,

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but it’s the resident hummingbirds that draw the most attention, zooming between our honeysuckles and vegetable garden out back — ceding the sunflowers to the goldfinches for the most part — and the zinnias out front. One morning our old labrador, Poppy, startled one when she stepped outside for her morning constitutional. It zipped away momentarily but soon returned to consider this bear-shaped, heavy-breathing mammal. Poppy, either sensing its superiority or hoping that it might want to play, promptly rolled over for it. The hummingbird simply ignored her and tended to the flowers, but, really, what else could it do?

Huh. Now that’s a book waiting to be written.

Have Trash, Will Travel

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These first few weeks of summer have killed my writing habit but not my tendency to gather more ideas than I can ever address in the time that I have. A change in routine can do that, especially when traveling is involved.

This year, when summer break arrived, I ran away to England with my newly-graduated niece. The trip was inspired by a chance encounter with an old friend on PBS’ Nova. Margarita and I started graduate school together twenty years ago as budding classical archaeologists, but, whereas I left the field shortly after getting my master’s degree (and traveling with her to her native Ukraine), she continued her studies and now researches ancient textiles at Cambridge University. We hadn’t seen each other in 14 years, since meeting in Orvieto, Italy the summer before I adopted my first son, and when I commented on this, curled up beside my boys on our pet-hair covered couch, my husband immediately (and quietly) set about making plans to remedy the situation. When he revealed his plans to send me to England  alone (yes, I know I’m lucky), I suggested I take my niece, Edith, with me as a travel partner since she would be graduating from high school and had a special connection to Margarita herself. When I learned that Edith was born, Margarita and I were in Yalta doing an archaeological survey with our friends, who insisted on drinking no small amount of vodka in celebration. (By some miracle, I didn’t get sick). Edith was happy to go and to suggest some additions to our itinerary. So it happens that last week I traveled through London, Cambridge, York, and Haworth, and thus walked along the rivers Thames, Cam, Ouse, and the Bronte Falls.

 

 

Besides attending plays and visiting museums and friends, we did some hiking on the moors of Haworth, just beyond the Bronte Parsonage Museum, which made me feel as if I was very far from the Monocacy River but still very much myself. I had to stop to photograph flowers, could not help but consider the curious light created by transient clouds, and scanned the ground for things that didn’t belong.

 

For the most part, I found myself avoiding sheep patties and noting bits of wool caught in fences and low shrubs. I had an urge to gather it, but it was Edith who finally did, pulling and twisting it into a rough yarn.

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The walk toward Top Withins was quiet, and even the famous Bronte Falls were untroubled by trash. When Edith fell into the water, we took her broken phone and our damp tissues with us. (I assured her that it would make a great story one day, despite the lost pictures). Having read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights countless times, I was glad to roam the heather-lined trails without stepping on a candy bar wrapper or water bottle to ruin the effect.

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I didn’t have quite as much luck on the beaches of the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia, which I visited with my boys almost immediately after my return from England. We make an annual pilgrimage to Chincoteague, a small island town in Virginia famous for its wild ponies who swim across the channel from the barrier island of Assateague the last week in July. While we usually rent a small cottage for a week, we were restrained to a weekend this year and an even smaller motel room, where we stayed with lots of midges and our two dogs. We also usually stay later in the summer — certainly not over a holiday weekend — and so were surprised by how crowded the island was. As the years have progressed, so has development, which has also transformed the lazy, quiet island, so easily traversed by bicycle, into a traffic-heavy, bustling resort. The beaches, though on a refuge only reached by a single bridge, were filled to the brim. We chose to go in the evening, when the sun was not so strong and most families had decamped for the day.  The seagulls hustled over the sand in search of crumbs and other edible trash, clever enough to detect just when a crowd was leaving and hang about patiently as towels were shaken out and umbrellas shut before making their move. The overflowing garbage bins were proof that most people tried to clean up after themselves, but as the sun set I noticed the light reflecting off of more than one plastic bottle.

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Still, the last three weeks have been a good reminder of how often beauty and humanity manage to coexist, even in the most adversarial of political climates. And that’s not just a figment of my imagination.

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.

Faces in the Wood

Especially when it’s windy, as it has been the last few days, the woods can feel alive. I think I hear a door creak, only to turn and realize that it’s two trees rubbing against each other. Or a rustling in the leaves beside me suggests footsteps, but it’s only a fallen branch. Occasionally, of course, there really are deer watching me or squirrels racing through the brush, but usually I’m alone, surrounded by the tall, silent sentinels of the forest. Perhaps that’s why it’s eerie when they do seem to come alive. I suppose, to some, faces on trees are whimsical (hence those kits that can be bought in gardening catalogs), but in fiction they are just as likely to be foreboding. So what am I to think of this?

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To me, that tree looks a little angry. Perhaps I would be, too, if a woodpecker — likely the prehistoric-looking pileated, no less — had been pounding on me. In another part of the woods, I found some sort of mythical beast, too nondescript for a hydra, but fantastic all the same. It’s not hard to remember being five when I encounter such things.

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But, as when I was small, I have only to step into the light and remind myself of who I am. It’s like a variation on a favorite rhyme: “I see the tree, and the tree sees me.”

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A Brown Study

Despite a day or two of cold and a recent dusting, this has been a decidedly warm and un-white winter. And spring is coming quickly; already I’ve heard the territorial whirr of a red-winged blackbird, and violets and celandines are sprouting beneath last year’s crispy leaves. It’s likely, then, that this winter will remain the winter that really wasn’t. I could mourn this (and, honestly, I do), but I can also make do with what the river and woods will give me: a rainbow done in shades of brown.

Recently, in the heart of the “island,” I made what has become one of my favorite discoveries: a fallen tree, debarked, drilled upon, and worn away by weather, animals, and fungus. It is like a massive canvas, revealing masterpieces frame by frame.

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They are mostly Impressionist pieces, I think, or perhaps Expressionist. I can see Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” or Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” to name two more famous works. Another fallen trunk I found assumed an altogether different color and texture, slightly more Cubist, perhaps, a tree trunk reassembled:

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Then, we can move on to something equally textured and also, thanks to the mud left by recent rains, brown. Also decidedly Modern. Our trash:

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“Bicycle Seat”

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“Beer Can”

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“Styrofoam Cup”

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“Self Portrait with Plastic Bottle”

Light in January

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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?

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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?

Scraps

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.

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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.

 

A Cold Wind

Winds gusted up to 41 miles per hour over the weekend, ushering in colder weather and, as it turns out, lots of plastic bags.

I used a large one from Pier 1 to gather up all of the others, as well as some wrappers (evidence of Halloween is still out there!) and scattered pages of newspaper. The wind also scattered some more natural debris, like this little nest of grass and cottony seeds:

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It likely belonged to a mouse or some other small rodent sheltering in the tall grasses just beyond the floodplain. Last week my younger dog managed to stir one out of a hollow log along the sandy banks of the river. Although I didn’t get a very good look before it disappeared, I saw enough to know that it was a long-footed mouse.  There are several species of mice in Maryland (see Maryland’s DNR mammals page for a list). This one, I hope, was able to make a new home for itself (if a hawk didn’t get to it first).

Yesterday, as the winds were calming, I discovered the first ice on the river. It was thin and only very spotty, but still a sign that winter is coming.

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I like winter, so that is something to be thankful for.

A Model Dog

When I’m taking pictures for my blog, I generally make a point of moving the camera so that my images don’t include my old labrador companion, Poppy. Since she makes a point of shadowing me, no matter how her bones ache, excluding her isn’t a simple matter. Yesterday was no different: I paused for a picture, and, while I fiddled with the composition and perspective, she walked into the frame. Again,

and again,

and again.

It’s hard to be too upset, though, when, first of all, she’s sweet and adorable, and, second, she often improves the pictures, imbuing them with life and interest that landscape alone sometimes can’t. Even if it is a brilliant fall day, which it was.

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Besides, she’s been known to help me with the trash every now and then. Yesterday she carried a McDonald’s coffee cup all the way back to the main walking path for me…and there wasn’t even anything in it for her to eat. (She is a labrador, after all, and her motives and motivations are usually pretty simple and obvious.)

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She really is a very good dog.

 

Art Trash/Trash Art

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Kit-Kat in Black and White

When first beginning my blog, I hoped to capture some beauty in the trash I find. Occasionally I entertain myself with close studies that approach (yes, merely approach) the artistic in composition or contrast, but most of the time trash really is just a blight on the natural landscape. An unwelcome interruption. Still, I photograph what I find. Even if I’m not making any artistic contributions to the world, I am at least leaving a sort of sociological record. (Can you see the future dissertation title: “Bud Light and Flavored Cigars: A Study of the American Consumer in the early 21st Century”?)

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7-Eleven, Coffee in the Leaves

 

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Annie’s and Minute Maid on the Shore

 

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What I Like About You: Japanese Hops and Coca Cola

 

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Coffee and a Yogurt