I remember running around barefoot for most of the day in summer. My heels and toes were tender in the early days of June, but by July I could walk the pebble path on the side of my house without flinching. The pads of my feet still remember the sunburned heat of old asphalt and the grainy planes of concrete sidewalks. Even now I can feel the unpolished wires of a chain link fence pressing into my toes. The lawn of crabgrass and clover felt cool and pleasantly scratchy, the bare earth we used for bases dry and unyielding. The water in the creek was warm and silty, its bottom a squishy muck interrupted by sharp and slippery rocks.
My brother cut his foot on a piece of glass in the creek — the trail of blood he left on his hobble home stained the sidewalk for what seemed like weeks that rainless summer — and he needed stitches and crutches to mend. (Oh, how jealous I was!) That should have made me cautious as a child, but it’s only managed to do so now that I’m adult, worried for my sons’ vulnerable skin. Now we live in an age of water shoes and quick-drying, strappy sandals. But, honestly, the invasive itchy plants keep the boys and I in boots most of the time.
Occasionally, I venture onto the paths of the Monocacy in flip-flops. On the way home, aware of the bites and stings of mites, insects and poisonous plants, I regret my choice and realize, once again, how far away I am from the sun-shocked nine-year-old girl who roamed a small corner of Frederick with her tribe of neighborhood kids. But, the scars on my knees remind me, not too far away.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Last August, it was Barbie. This June, it’s Cinderella. I found her after wading through a growing jumble of invasive japanese hops on “the island.” My son was throwing stones into the water on the opposite side of the river, where the trees are tall and plentiful enough to offer relief against the heat that has overtaken us the last few days. On “the island,” I sweated, dust and gnats and plant juices clinging to my damp legs, and collected my stash of garbage.
As I photographed Cinderella, turning her over to catch her at different angles, recording her placement on the disturbed earth, I began to feel as if I was in some twisted parody of a police procedural. Later, when I mentioned this to my husband, he conjured his best Lenny from Law and Order and quipped, “Well, it looks like she won’t be getting back before midnight.”
As a girl I was obsessed with Cinderella, especially the Disney version, with the ice-blue dress and nipped waist. I had a small book accompanied by the seventies version of an audiobook, a record recording of a magical-voiced woman reading the words to the story, interspersed with a cue to turn the pages. Curiously, although the book cover depicted the classic Disney Cinderella, the interior illustrations were in an entirely different style, more slapdash, and her fairy godmother blessed her with an entirely different dress as well: white and pink, with cap sleeves, and a massive hoop skirt festooned with what looked like crinkly pastel-colored garland. It was this dress — not Disney’s — that inspired the endless drawings of princesses I doodled between the ages of four and six.
Later, in my early feminist stage, I felt ashamed of my younger preoccupations with princesses and Barbies. I took some solace in the fact that my Barbie play usually involved operatic sagas that ended with Barbie friendless and homeless, begging on a street corner in rags. Even my princess obsession eventually evolved into an interest in mythology and, much, much later, a manuscript for a distracted fantasy novel. But I can’t deny that this early focus on external beauty certainly had some influence on my how I regarded my own appearance (that is, poorly). I didn’t escape my teenage years unscathed.
Nonetheless, I think of Cinderella fondly. It was a shame to find her abandoned in the dirt. But I threw her out anyway.
Last week my boys and I tagged along when a professional conference took my husband out to Denver, Colorado. We persuaded him to ditch the meeting a few times, once to tour an old mine in Breckenridge and another to see the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, but one day we were completely on our own and, after visiting the United States Mint in Denver, had a few afternoon hours to fill. When a waitress heard me debating some alternatives with my boys (and I, as usual, realizing that they would agree on nothing in the city), she registered my rising panic with the keen eye of a veteran mother, disappeared into a back room, and returned with a pen and a hotel map.
“Okay,” she said, as she slapped the paper on the table. “Do you have a car?”
Yes, in fact, I did. The rental place had given us a behemoth that I was barely able to park. I was so reluctant to use the thing, I almost denied it, but sense (or lack thereof, I’m not quite sure) demanded the truth and so I nodded my head.
“Well, then,” she uncapped the pen and began drawing lines out of Denver, rattling off names and places familiar from earlier internet searches, like Dinosaur Ridge and Red Rocks, but finally she paused and said, “But do you want to know my favorite place?”
“Sure,” I said.
“Does it have rocks and cliffs?” my oldest asked.
“The bowling alley?” my youngest suggested.
“Here,” the waitress circled a light green splotch with her blue pen. “Roxborough State Park.”
While I would like to say that we all immediately agreed and loaded into the rental tank with snacks, backpacks, and sunblock, in fact we dithered and debated all the way back to the hotel room, into the lobby, and finally down to the parking garage, where, with a broken sack and a few bottles of water, I simply declared (or, more accurately, commanded, with a strong edge of irritation), “We’re going to the state park!”
Driving out of Denver proved a long slog through traffic, which didn’t help the tempers of my backseat drivers, who resorted to calling each other names that should have shocked me until we finally got a glimpse beyond the foothills and into the Rocky Mountains, the white-capped massiveness of which finally rendered them speechless…for a few seconds. Despite the disappointment of seeing new development almost to the very entrance of Roxborough State Park and some initial confusion about how to pay our entry fee, I was in a hopeful mood when I finally parked near the visitor center. Both boys threatened to bail before we’d begun hiking — the youngest because they had no live animals in the visitor center itself, and the oldest because he didn’t immediately see any high cliffs with lots of rocks — but when I started, they followed, and as our trail began to climb, their complaints weakened.
In fact, when I caught back up to them after stopping to take some pictures of wildflowers, they were actually beginning to seem interested and perhaps even a little bit in awe. At a crossroads in the trail, they chose to follow Carpenter Peak, and the vistas opened wide.
As I continued to stop to take photos of wildflowers, the oldest pulled ahead, while the youngest usually dallied to give me company.
I appreciated it, not least because there was a sign at the beginning of the trail warning us to be aware of mountain lions. Both of the boys tried to amuse me by imagining them in ridiculous places. I reassured them by letting them know that we were unlikely to see them coming. Then I took more pictures.
Perhaps it was just the altitude, but the boys and I returned to our mastodon of a car in an almost giddy state that even a reprimand for rock-throwing (he really can’t seem to help it) couldn’t entirely destroy. It lasted through the seat-kicking, insult-throwing car ride home, into the I-can’t-find-anything-to-eat-on-this-huge-menu dinner, and even into the cover-stealing night. I think I can even feel it a little now.
Somewhere in the distance there is a rabbit. Always. More likely there are two or three, whispering in the tall grass, munching on clover, leaving traces of their scent along the borders of trails and sidewalks. They’re driving her mad. Her ears are up, her nose is trembling, muzzle tensed to form a sharp, anguished bark. I see the rabbits before she does, but she knows that they’re there. When they move, she rushes, frustrated by the restraints of her harness. She glances back at me, whines, asks why. I tell her that she wouldn’t catch them anyway, nor the deer that have their eyes on us. It’s all more than her mutt heart can bear. She’ll come home, sit on her bed, and gnaw a pencil to splinters. Next time, she’ll grumble, next time.
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.
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.
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.
Waste is not just another word for trash. It’s a place, abandoned, uninhabitable and barren; as an action, it means the destruction, withering away, and purposeless consumption of something (or someone) valuable; as an adjective, it describes something rendered useless. We have waste grounds and waste lands. We waste our time, or our money, or ourselves. When we’re sick, we waste away. At war, we lay waste.
One of the wildflower guides that I use describes the location in which some plants grow as “waste places,” while another refers to the same type of terrain as “disturbed.” Both names evoke a sense of wrongness and unease. Biologically, ecologically, environmentally, this feeling of wrongness is absolutely correct. The plants that grow in these places are “alien,” “non-native,” and even “invasive.” Why would I want to have anything to do with a wasted, disturbed space full of aliens, like these?
I’m not sure. (But maybe it’s because of these very same aliens, or, as I like to call them, wasteflowers). At any rate, I go, and make the best of the disturbance and waste, which, as a human, I am responsible for in the first place. I clean what I can, appreciate what I can, and hope for the best. We cannot undo everything that we’ve created and destroyed, but that doesn’t mean we should waste it, either.
UPDATE: For a comprehensive guide to invasive (not simply non-native) plants of the mid-atlantic see this guide by the National Park Service:
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.
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.
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.
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,