Rivers from the Sky

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Clearly I wrote about flooding too soon this year. Last night, my sons called me to the driveway to look up at the sky. It was awash in clouds; high cirrus behind monstrous — but still white — cumulonimbus, their rapid swelling and blossoming revealed and backlit by the setting sun. To the north, a slit of clear sky was still visible against the horizon. Wisps of cloud, mere suggestions of tornados, reached toward the earth. The day had been stifling, the air choked with humidity and heat, and we could still feel that latent energy as a small breeze began to stir. It was beautiful, but not frightening.

An hour later, the street had turned into a large creek, and hail the size of dimes and playing marbles lined the driveway. A constant stream of ice and rain fell from the clouds, which continued to settle and grow over us. My raised garden filled with muddy water, and the peonies bowed their heads against the onslaught. Since our house is built on the high ground in the neighborhood, the boys and I could watch the churning storm in relative safety, our only danger the slippery floors created by the hail and rain driven through open doors, but the streets of Frederick city overflowed, roads closed, and buildings flooded. Our phones constantly sounded with alarms and warnings. My oldest, who has always loved extreme weather (in kindergarten, he told his teacher he wanted to be a storm chaser, and all he wanted for Christmas were books and videos and posters of tornadoes), begged to be allowed to ride his bike to the river. Our faces must have spoken volumes, because he gave up the argument much more quickly than usual.

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This morning, he woke up early to check out the river, and I followed behind him shortly after. The sidewalks were scattered with leaves and frail limbs and branches, and the paved paths along the river required rubber boots and waders in spots. The informal dirt paths had turned into small streams in some places and disappeared entirely into the river in others.

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Worms writhed in the puddles, and tadpoles found temporary sidewalk homes in the overflowing waters of the vernal ponds. I hope that they’ll find their way home on their own, but the forecast suggests they may not need to for some time. Rain, rain, and more thunder and rain is expected for the rest of the week.

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But I wait. And wonder. Always wonder.

 

 

Unscheduled Departures

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My oldest son’s current obsession is aviation. Actually it’s been an interest for while: at first he simply collected die-cast airplane models and left doodles of aircraft everywhere, but then he began watching videos and reading books, insisting on multiple trips to the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museums, and begging to go on long-distance trips just to ride in the airplane. (When I traveled to England with my niece last summer, the only thing he wanted to know about was Heathrow Airport.) As we are within an hour’s drive of three different international airports (a perk of living in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. area), planes regularly fly overhead. They’re at an altitude high enough that I just think “airplane” when I see one skimming between the clouds, but my son and his similarly-minded friend can name the model and carrier, and, with an app, tell you its origin and destination. Recently, I’ve been driving them both to airports to meet up with other plane spotters, who gather to take photographs, compare life lists (they’re like serious birdwatchers), and speak in aviation techno-tongue (a new language). While I do admire the beauty of a well designed machine, spending my weekends in a field breathing in airplane fumes (did I ever mention I used to get horribly airsick?) is not my idea of leisure. It’s just parental duty. Friendships are new and fragile things for my son, and I feel bound to nurture them as I’m able. But all of this has left me with less time to meander the Monocacy, picking up trash and allowing my mind to wander with my feet.

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My dogs are my only willing companions these days, but my oldest, Poppy, has slowed down significantly this summer. While there was a time when I couldn’t do enough to exhaust her, now there are days when I pick up her leash and she just looks up at me, head between her paws, and sighs. Or we walk out the front door and she immediately slides down onto her belly, claiming the porch for her own, and refuses to come back in for hours. Other days, like this morning, she pulls herself up, wags her tail mildly as I fasten her harness, and totters to the sidewalk behind her overeager friend Rosie and me. For mysterious reasons, Poppy tends to want to walk down the center of the road, and she yearns to visit streets that have never interested her before, but at least a few times a week we make it all the way to the river path, where now the weeds and wildflowers fall in a jumble around us, jostling for the light of the last warm days of the season. And here, as I let her leash go, Poppy smiles.

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I think I do, too.

Way, Way Off the Monocacy

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.

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Complaints in process of dying.

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.

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As I continued to stop to take photos of wildflowers, the oldest pulled ahead, while the youngest usually dallied to give me company.

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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.

But I am glad to be back home on the Monocacy.

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Yellow Salsify (Tragopogon dubius) yesterday morning on the Monocacy River.

House Cat

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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.

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Trust me, they’re in there somewhere. And they have their feathers now.

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.

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Yes, right there, that’s the spot. Yessssssss…

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.

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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Off the River

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In an effort to avoid a Spring Breakdown, a condition caused by two boys with too much time together, I’ve been filling the last few days with as many outings as my sons will allow. (It’s become clear that, before the break began, they formed a pact — and a not-so-silent or secret one at that — that they would never, ever agree on anything, even if it meant contradicting themselves within a matter of seconds in order to disagree.) As much as possible, I’ve kept them outdoors and within a 20-minute drive of the house (a requirement of my oldest), which has meant that we’ve stayed in Frederick County, Maryland. My youngest’s insistence on doing something we haven’t done before put further constraints on my list of possibilities, so, while I would like to say that I’ve created a great travelogue of the county, I can really only claim to have wrung out the last drops of my Fredericktonian imagination.

Catoctin Mountain Park, a National Park in Thurmont, Maryland (and home of Camp David, for the historically minded), abuts and merges with Cunningham Falls State Park, and the trail that I chose to hike with the boys, Cat Rock, is supported by both parks. Most of the trails at Catoctin Mountain Park seem to lead to impressive arrangements of boulders that overlook the valleys of Frederick and the Blue Ridge Mountains, and these rock formations are given bizarre names such as Hog Rock, Wolf Rock, and Chimney Rock, based either on their appearance or history. Whether Cat Rock was so named for the bobcats that were sighted in the area or because someone drunk on moonshine imagined the shape of a cat in the quartzite outcropping is unclear. At any rate, last week was the first time I climbed the trail to Cat Rock, and, judging by our solitude on the trail in contrast to the numerous cars in the parking lots, I believe I’m not the only one to have neglected it. The boys and I scaled the rocks on our own, daring ourselves to leap from one boulder to another, and warning each other not to stand dangerously close to the edge of breathtaking precipices. Which meant, of course, that we all stood much too close to the edge, all of the time.

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The next day, we took a less rigorous walk in the Frederick Municipal Forest, which, like Catoctin Mountain Park, we often visit but haven’t entirely exhausted. If you follow Mountaindale Road into the mountains (toward Gambrill State Park, but don’t follow the road of the same name!), past the reservoir, and along Fishing Creek, you’ll soon notice a tall ledge of exposed stone on the right side of the road. My oldest has been asking for months to explore the area, so on this day I finally agreed, pulling off to the left, behind the truck of a pair of hopeful fishermen. (At this time of year, there are quite a few of them, as the stream is stocked with trout at the end of March). A well-trod path and scattered pieces of garbage proved that we were not the first to be curious about the small outcropping, which provided a view of Fishing Creek as well as an ingenious spot for hide-and-seek.

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When we returned to the car, my oldest spotted a black rat snake basking on a log. Not yet having outgrown their desire to touch whatever they see, the boys approached, scared the snake beneath some rocks, and chased it toward the stream, where they finally succeeded in grabbing it by the tail for a few moments before letting it slide into the water. It stubbornly, and wisely, remained there until we left.

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While I don’t mind snakes as a rule, I’m hoping not to encounter them in the vicinity of our most recent trip, the Fred Archibald Audubon Sanctuary. Located near the small town of New Market, Maryland, off of Boyers Mill Road, the 140-acre reserve of meadow, forest, and scrub is under the care of the Audubon Society of Central Maryland. The boys and I assisted in pulling (and cutting out) some of the more obnoxious invasive species on the reserve one day last winter, and now we have volunteered to monitor the nest boxes in the front portion of the sanctuary through the summer. We are expecting to find Eastern bluebirds (one nest is complete!), wrens, and swallows, as all of these have successfully fledged in recent years. Snakes, unfortunately, have been a problem in the past for the purple martins, who have yet to arrive at their newly-fashioned, extra-snakeproofed nesting boxes.

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Today, I have to confess, I went to the movies. One boy was thrilled, the other found a friend to take him in, and I daydreamed during the car chase. When we got home, I carefully opened the front door, where a pair of house finches have been intermittently constructing a nest on our spring wreath. It’s always nice to know that nature is literally just outside my door.

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?

 

The Standing Dead

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My son has a word for long-dead trees that still stand in the woods: the Standing Dead. The smaller ones he enjoys pushing over, both to test out his muscles and to hear the great crack and groan as they tip and finally fall to the ground. After an ice storm a few years ago, we ventured to the river and found ourselves in dangerous territory. All around us, we heard branches creaking, snapping, and crashing, and the accompanying whump and snap and kersplash as they landed in the forest and the river echoed through the chill, moist air. One such branch missed us by only a few feet. The boys, being heedless daredevils wont to cheer enthusiastically during lightning storms (especially on airplanes) and tornado warnings (which are too few in Maryland, according to them), thought that the whole thing was magnificent, and I had a hard time convincing them that it might be a good idea to go home.

Despite the floods and ice and wind storms that take out these Standing Dead (which, by the way, actually go by the scientific term “snags”), there are still plenty of them along the river.  They are important to the insects, birds and other small animals that use their cavities, dead wood, and solid structure as homes and food sources. Only yesterday, I spied a pileated woodpecker knocking on a snag for insects, and it is always fascinating to peel away the loose bark to find grubs, ants and beetles busily making lives for themselves underneath their surface.

Since explaining to my son the importance of keeping the Standing Dead standing, I have convinced him to leave them alone for the most part.  The large ones, at least, he can’t move anyway, which is fortunate because, whether festooned in vines during the summer, or bent and angled sharply against the sky in winter, these dead trees are really beautiful in their own way.

Assistants

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As one of my most faithful readers and assistants, my older son has requested, quite reasonably, that I devote an entry to his most recent efforts and special acquisition.  He is an avid bicyclist, particularly off-road, pounding his gears through mud and rocky terrain, popping his tires on honey locust thorns, and catching his chains on trailing vines and stinging nettle. He is, in short, our bike repairman’s dream. But he is also enthusiastic about this trash collecting project and was eager to find a way to help me more.  His idea: a heavy duty trailer for his bike.  It carries up to 190 lbs, and, when it’s not carting his reckless brother, it holds a very generous amount of unruly garbage.  It even moves easily through the unofficial paths on our “island,” which hide more than a few natural hazards.

My son has also asked to make the trailer a chariot for our arthritic dog, but, remembering what happened when she tried to ride in our canoe, I have declined on her behalf. (But that’s another story.  And, for that matter, another river.)

Maybe it’s time to deal with those tires.

Frogs and Pollywogs

 

A few days ago, I was attempting to take a picture of a plant that I couldn’t identify when I heard a suspicious commotion. Laughter. Lots of it. And the startled shrieks and shouts of boys who are immensely impressed with how clever they are at amusing themselves. By the time I’d shoved my phone into my back pocket and  scurried down the riverbank, one of the boys had plunged knee-deep into the water, the contours of his face sharp with the concentration of pursuit, and the other was grinning at something cupped in his hands.

“Look, Mom, we found the snake again!”

He held it out for me to see, and, yes, it was the same unfortunate water snake I posted about a few days ago. Before I could speak, my other son appeared at my side, panting and glowing with sweat and success.

“I got it back,” he smiled at his brother, spreading open his palms to reveal a stunned bullfrog.

“Okay. You put yours down after me,” the older one said, placing the small snake on the rocks. My younger one obeyed, practically dropping the frog on the snake’s head.

This would have been a perilous situation for the frog, had he not been about five times bigger than his natural predator. So, while the snake did lash out at the frog once, the action looked to be born more out of defensiveness than hunger. Still, it was a rather unfair game and one that I didn’t want to encourage. I reverted to my (to the boys) annoyingly logical, let’s-be-nice, mom voice.

“Boys, leave those poor animals alone. Look how stressed out they are!” It took several minutes of such cajoling, the boys countering that I was no fun, a wimpy girl, all sorts of arguments that just weren’t going anywhere near making me change my mind, until the creatures were finally set free.

I’m hoping that the snake’s reptilian brain has convinced him that it’s time to move on. I haven’t seen him since. There are so many bullfrogs, though, that it’s beyond my ken to distinguish the boys’ victim from amongst the several I see daily. Millions of tadpoles (or pollywogs as I liked to call them when I was younger) now swim in the long, shallow puddles left behind by the Monocacy’s receding waters, and, in the murky, lethargic pools off of the main river, mature frogs beat their drums and strum their chords amidst roots, leaves and the occasional Bounty paper towels wrapper or Sonic Styrofoam cup. I don’t think that they’re easy to catch (my overeager pups certainly don’t help with that), but I’m not the one they need to worry about.

It’s late spring on the Monocacy, the predators are out, and they’re hungry for fun.