In the Air

Lately, as I sort through the photos in my laptop’s library, I find more of my son’s work than my own. Now outfitted with a much better camera, he takes dozens of photos every time we go planespotting (which is nearly every weekend these days), bouncing between Dulles, BWI, and Reagan National airports. I read or ruminate or listen as he and his friend discuss the finer points of every aircraft that passes over us. As time has progressed, I’ve been gratified to hear their arguments expand to include the merits of different camera settings or even the benefits of varying points of view and composition. It feels as if they’re learning something about more than aviation. Maybe that’s why I was especially pleased to find that my son has broadened his subjects to include the birds that he sees while his eyes are to the sky, particularly the gulls that hang out near Reagan National Airport. What was even better was noticing how alike his compositions are, despite the disparity between steel and feathers.

A profile:

 

A slight lift with a view head-on:

 

Entering the lens:

 

Preparing for landing:

 

Among my own few photos, I found evidence that something else is in the air: spring.

0311181701a.jpg

Ice on the Monocacy

20161216_162519.jpg

While the winter solstice is a few days away, its spirit arrived last week, when temperatures plummeted and sleet and ice covered the ground in a white and crunchy coating. The winding tendrils of summer’s itchy hop plants have withered and drawn back from the encroaching freeze, revealing bottles, cans, and wrappers formerly hidden by the tenacious invasive’s spreading leaves. As my boys set shards of ice and small stones skidding across the Monocacy’s ice, I gather the debris, not only for the satisfaction of cleaning, but also to keep myself warm. This time of year, I always wonder at the small animals who do without hats and gloves and fleece-lined boots, like the little nuthatches, sparrows, house finches and wrens that play in the brush, or the small group of bluebirds I spotted in the trees. It makes me feel almost ashamed of my eagerness to return home to heat, light, and a big mug of tea.

20161216_161838.jpg

 

Four Feet on the Monocacy

20161113_132905.jpg

Yesterday was a good day for sitting by the river. It was warm, and I had my binoculars, lots of trash bags, and only my younger son with me. The older was in the mountains with his father and our younger dog (who, as it turns out, was dodging hunter’s bullets), and, when I took out the leash before our walk, our old labrador had cracked open her eyes, sighed and given me the most rueful expression a dog could muster. I took pity and, with one boy and no dogs, found enough peace to sit down with my binoculars and look for birds.

It’s a time of transition. The noisy red-winged blackbirds have left the marshes, replaced by finches and sparrows and other lesser-seen migrants feasting on the seeds of spent grasses and wildflowers. My favorite juncos have reappeared on my deck, looking for the seed I had kept tossed across it last winter and spring. Just for them (and the cardinals, finches and increasingly vocal squirrels), I resumed the custom last week. Every day now, it feels as if I’m having old friends over at the house.

On the river yesterday, I saw chickadees, nuthatches, juncos, goldfinches, chipping sparrows, house finches, robins, cardinals, crows, a kingfisher and a red-tailed hawk. In other words, nothing new or remarkable enough to be of interest to my younger son, who was contenting himself with styling swords and spears out of branches. Then, just as I was giving up my search (because this is always the way and is so narratively handy), I saw something large moving on the opposite bank of the river. Thinking that it might be a wild turkey, I grabbed my binoculars, only to realize, as it further emerged from the trees, that it was a fox.

20161113_133334.jpg

As it happens, I am uncommonly fond of foxes, a fact for which, I am ashamed to say, Disney must either be blamed or credited. When I was a girl, I fell in love with the animated Robin Hood of Walt Disney, who, as you may remember, was drawn as a handsome, well-spoken, red fox. Likely this early crush was only exacerbated by Wes Anderson’s stop-action adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, which is chock-full of lovely foxes (including the title character, voiced by George Clooney). Of course, they’re beautiful, interesting creatures all on their own (if you’re not raising chickens). Lots of nature photographers and videographers have caught them adeptly diving for mice in the snow or slinking about with their long tails held low and keen eyes high. So, of course, I was overjoyed when I saw this fox prowling along the shores of the Monocacy.

After I satisfied my own hungry eyes, I quietly alerted my younger son, who took the binoculars and held on to them until the fox disappeared into the distance. While he watched, he hushed me when I tried to speak or move and was clearly as mesmerized as I was. Even after the fox was gone, we both just smiled at each other as if we shared some special secret. Or at least I thought so.

Until my son looked at me seriously and said, “Now I’m gonna have the song What Does the Fox Say? stuck in my head the rest of the day.”

Sublimity, meet the Internet.

Cooler Reflections

20161010_160806.jpg

I’m sitting on the thick branch of a fallen tree, perched just above the waters of the Monocacy and hidden by dangling bunches of ripe pokeberries. The berries are poisonous to us but good food for the birds, who already have consumed about half of the deep purple fruits, leaving the empty magenta stems as simple ornaments.

20161010_161201.jpg

There is a pair of chickadees in a nearby tree, their voices more obvious than their tiny feathered forms. They hang from the japanese hop vines, eating their ripe seeds. If I sit still long enough, I’ll see more birds, like the downy woodpecker that just stopped to inspect the maple tree on my right.

It’s perfect sit-and-watch weather, cool and clear and mostly free of the annoying flying insects that plague late summer days. Of course. It’s fall now, but early in the season, when most everything is still clothed in green and the crickets sing at night. Butterflies and moths are making their final rounds among the goldenrod, asters and sneezeweed, and wooly caterpillars are appearing on walking paths.

20161009_151034.jpg

At home I’m harvesting the last of my tomatoes and collecting seeds from my zinnias for next year’s spring planting. I hear people speak of spring as the season of hope, but in some ways fall is even more so. Despite everything.

The Bird up the River

20160607_165916.jpg

Yesterday I volunteered at my son’s school picnic, which was held at a park some ways up the river. The day itself was nice, sunny and breezy, not at all humid, and even cool in the shade. The morning was going well, my son seeming to play happily with his friends while I monitored a life-size version of Angry Birds, the highlight of which, surprisingly, was not flinging painted balls from a large slingshot,  but rebuilding the fortress of cardboard boxes that the balls knocked down. I got bonked on the head a few times, but this was nothing to what was happening inside of my head. As I looked on, the world was becoming blurred at the edges and overexposed, overlaid in pulsing splotches of shimmering color. I drank water, smiled at the other volunteers, laughed at the kids, but my sense of otherworldliness grew as the slow hours progressed.

In the afternoon, after a lunch of pizza and oranges, I noticed my son sitting apart from the other kids. At his mute but earnest request (a pair of hazel eyes can speak volumes), I’d been keeping my distance, but, even from 200 yards away, I could see by his drooping shoulders that something was wrong. When I got close, I could see that he was crying, and, after a practiced silence and casual inquiry, I discovered that the group of boys he usually relied upon had “banished” him from their circle the rest of the year because he had spoken meanly to them “just once!” For a group of children entering middle school, such behavior is perhaps to be expected, and not just among girls, as people so stereotypically suppose. My son and his friends seem to have spats regularly; one night he has “no friends” and the next he’s talking about what funny things his best buddy said that day.

As typical as this may be, however, it is even more complicated for my son, who suffers from poor impulse control and even worse social skills because of things that happened to him even before he was born. Through no fault of his own, his behavior can seem bullying when he’s trying to be funny, and he cannot read subtle social cues. For instance, he’s quite sure you want him in your game even though you smirked and rolled your eyes when he joined in. My son’s temper is short – he blows his top at small things and spirals into an ugly vortex of nasty name-calling – but a few minutes later he can’t remember what he said. When you accuse him of saying something rude or pulling your arm and he denies it, you think he’s lying, and, technically, he is, but he honestly believes he’s telling the truth. As a parent, I know all this, I’ve studied it and wrestled it with it, and it is still difficult for me.  How, then, can I expect another child to understand? Or, honestly, even another adult? Despite the books, articles and pointed conversations I’ve distributed in my son’s wake, among all of the teachers and staff and adults he sees, understanding and acceptance are slow to follow.

Of course I didn’t say all of this to my son or to the boys who hurt him. I did, however, let them know that they had hurt him and that, whatever he had said, hurting him back wasn’t the best way to deal with it. Eventually they made some tentative movements at reconciliation, but not before my impaired vision was joined by an all-encompassing headache that made me feel as if my mind had detached itself from my body.

And there was over an hour left of the picnic.

With everything going on, it’s amazing that I noticed the flash of orange darting from tree to tree, and a miracle that I didn’t write it off as something that I was imagining. In fact, as I slowly approached the sycamore across the way, I told myself that it was impossible, that it couldn’t be what I thought it was, what I was hoping it was. Once underneath the tree, I looked up, scanning the branches, and, just when I was sure that whatever it was had moved on or had never been, I saw a  bird light onto one of the lower limbs. And – I had been right – there it was – an actual Baltimore Oriole! It was the first one I’ve ever seen in real life, despite its status as Maryland state bird and mascot of our beloved major league baseball team. And it was every bit as bold and bright orange as texts had always assured me.

It was a small thing in a long day, but there’s a poem by Emily Dickinson that I often return to and that this Oriole so completely illustrates:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

A Bridge Over

20160415_162939.jpg

There are so many irresistible, pop-culture puns on bridges, and all of them are awful and overused, therefore I will not finish the title of this blog with a nod to Simon and Garfunkel. I refuse.  Because you can finish it yourself.

I’ve done a pretty poor job lately of pointing out the beauty in the ugliness of the Monocacy River, as I originally promised to do in my “About” introduction.  Really, there’s just too much conventional beauty this time of year to focus on the unconventional, or, at least, it can seem so when you when you shut your ears and imagine away what doesn’t suit.  In fact, as an urban river, the Monocacy can be a loud, brown, smelly place, particularly where I walk every day.  For instance, as I took this picture yesterday, I was inundated not just by birdsong, as the peaceful photograph suggests, but by the windy roar of cars passing over the bridge to a nearby highway, the distant grumble of a jet on its way to Dulles, and the industrial drumming of a helicopter landing at the local airport. (A fun fact: sometimes the helicopters I hear are carrying the president to Camp David). Also, there was a distinctly fishy smell emanating from the bank below, not to mention the sulfuric funk traditional to standing water mixed with rotting organic material.

I could drift into poetic enthusiasm about the joy of witnessing a kingfisher dive into the river and emerge successfully with a minnow in its beak, or how the setting sun sparkled on the miniature tributaries in the muddy shallows, or how a swallowtail slipped through the trees in mute conversation with the goldfinches and cardinals, but there is another truth. The kingfisher’s bickering chatter competed with belching diesel trucks, the water was choked with muck (and a random metal grate), and the swallowtail flitted over cellophane and alien species choking out native wildflowers. If I am a reliable narrator, which truth do I share with you?

The first photo?

Or this?

20160415_161646.jpg

Or this?

20160415_161826.jpg

 

The Thing with Feathers

20160123_110241.jpg
Juncos and friends braving the blizzard of 2016

When I was a little girl and people asked what animal I would like to be, which, for some reason, they did quite often, I would always answer, “A swan.” Likely I was influenced by fairy tale drawings (what was a castle, after all, without a swan swimming in its lake, preferably at sunset?) and at least a little by E.B. White’s The Trumpet of the Swan and Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling. The swan, to me, was the epitome of beauty and elegance, with a potential for a brilliant future, and, of course, it could swim or fly with equal grace.

When I grew a little older, I began to find the swan and bit too ostentatious, and, by the time I was a teenager, desiring total anonymity and feeling very small and frightened, I decided that I would rather be a mouse. Sometime in my thirties, although people had stopped asking, I decided again that I would like to be a bird, but not a swan. Instead, I would like to be a small bird, a common bird, one that is much stronger and and more interesting than people assume.  Maybe a chickadee, like those I watched endure Minnesota winters with cheerful fortitude, fluffed up among pine branches in their small black caps, or a junco, like a little gentleman in a gray tuxedo, so dapper and sprightly, even in the midst of a blizzard. I’m not sure, but I do admire them. And I wish that I could fly.

Because of my affinity for birds, I watch for them, and observe them, and, on a separate page on this blog, record them.  Today was a particularly good day for spotting birds at the Monocacy.  Besides the usual Robins, Red-wings, and Cardinals, I saw an American Goldfinch, an Eastern Bluebird, a few Tree Swallows, a pair of Canada Geese (accompanied, for some reason, by a bachelor Mallard), a Red-tailed Hawk, some noisy Crows, and a wading bird and woodpecker that were just too far away for sure identification.  Honestly, I was so distracted that I left quite a bit of trash on the ground. But, unlike the birds, it’s not going anywhere, and neither am I.  For now.

Just put the trash down and…

20160404_094342.jpg

It’s been a bit cold lately, but, despite historic winds, also vividly clear and sunny.  When I went for a walk this morning it was in the 40’s, which didn’t stop any of the wildlife from going about their spring business.  In a marsh a pair of Canada geese were blaring their horns at each other, barely succeeding in drowning out the insistent territorial buzzes of the red-wing blackbirds; a groundhog cautiously popped his head out of a hole on an embankment; an audacious mockingbird cycled repeatedly through his vast songbook from the top of a sycamore tree; and more than one cottontail noisily fled from me through the underbrush.  There was, however, at least one creature hiding from the unseasonable temperatures.  Beneath a a scrap of thick, back plastic, I found a wee beastie coiled up in a loose spiral: a baby garter snake too cold even to be bothered by me.  After taking a picture (which required that I bend down only inches away from him), I recovered the poor cold-blooded baby with the plastic.  Because today it was more humane not to pick up the trash.