“Obscure, plain and little…”

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My memorial painting of Anastasia, with her sister, Sugar. JSS

A few weeks ago, we lost the smallest member of our family, the timid but trusting albino rat, Anastasia. She doesn’t have much to do with trash or the Monocacy River, and I realized about a month ago that I was dwelling on my pets, and maybe even death, perhaps a little too much for my stated goals for this blog, but, with the passage of time, I’ve begun to see that to let her death go unmentioned is almost a form of dishonesty. Small as she was, we all miss her warm, little body, the strong, quick beating of her heart, and her ruby-red, curious eyes.

Of all the pets I’ve kept (and, oh, there were many in my childhood), rats have elicited the most vehement and divisive responses: either “Gross! Those tails!” or “Oh! Aren’t they the best pets!” I was devoted to mice as I grew up, and lived with gerbils, hamsters, a guinea pig and a rabbit, but never got a rat until my boys persuaded me, much too easily, a few years ago. First we had a pair of dumbo rat boys, Aloysius and Percy, who lived their short three years with patient zeal — a requirement for living with a pair of young human boys. Then, although my husband swore he would never countenance another rat living under roof, we rescued two rat girls who were destined to be snake food. Anastasia was the smaller of these two. Sugar, the other, is now lonely and squishy, choosing to cuddle rather than run off to find adventure when we let her out to play. All of our rats have had their own personalities, foibles, and weaknesses, and it is difficult to imagine that their ancestors were the terrifying vermin of the Middle Ages or to remember that their cousins remain the pests of modern cities.

Perhaps they belong in this blog more than I first though. Rats: Eaters of trash.  Spreaders of disease. Least liked member of the rodent world The Monocacy: Consumer of waste. Flowing with pollutants. Least appreciated of rivers. But beautiful in their own ways, with wonders in their depths, personalities to plumb, just waiting to be known and understood.

Rest well, Anastasia. I knew you. And I am glad for that.

 

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.

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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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.

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.

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.

 

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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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 Peace

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I like snow. While our first fall of the year didn’t amount to much, I made the most of it. My old labrador’s response pretty much sums up my initial excitement:

A  little later in the day, after rounding up my fellow explorers, I found a flock of Canada Geese loitering on the river. Usually we see them flying overhead in formation, raucously honking, bringing in the cool blue haze of a winter dusk, but last Friday afternoon they were merely drifting, skirting the light ice along the river’s edge. Eventually a small flotilla ventured over as if to investigate us, which made me wonder whether they were used to living in ponds where people fed them, but when I approached they backed off. (Which is just as well, considering I had one dog on leash who just loves water birds).

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The snow ushered in the stiff, still cold of mid-winter that settles onto me an almost inexplicable peace.As I walk, I smile at the flock of black vultures hunched in a gnarled, bare tree. I quietly watch a herd of six white-tailed deer cross the trail in front of me, leaving behind them a mess of hoof-prints in the snow. I wait for the red-tailed hawk standing sentry over the floodplain to soar from its post. It can be tempting to run from the cold, dashing from car to front door, but it’s so rewarding to hunker down and live in it for a moment.