Another Perspective

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Traffic on the Monocacy Blvd Bridge over Riverside Park.

When I’m in the woods or on the banks of the Monocacy, it’s easy to find tranquil places and to take beautiful pictures. When I take a step back, however, the perspective necessarily changes. The fact that it is an urban river becomes clear and beauty more difficult to capture. Lately my boys and I have been spending a lot of time at Riverside Park in the city of Frederick, which is a short walk from our home. It has a boat launch  (for kayaks and canoes, mostly), a soccer field and is the starting point for most of the paved trails along the river, but truly it would be difficult to find a less park-like setting.

While the Monocacy does run through the park, it is hemmed in on one side by a large parking lot and on the other by an expanse of road and warehouses. There is also a clear view of the Monocacy Boulevard bridge, which is always busy with traffic making its way to the shopping malls and housing developments along Rte. 26 (also known as Libertytown Rd.). One of the larger stores is a Walmart, which is due to close within the next week because a much larger one has been built just across the street. As yet, there is nothing scheduled to move into the soon-to-be-vacant building.

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L to R: Trees along the Monocacy, soccer field, flood retention pond, Walmart. The Blue Ridge mountains are in the background and construction refuse area in the foreground.

The (now) older Walmart is divided from the park’s playing fields by a man-made pond, which receives the runoff from the store’s parking lot. This helps to keep the river clean, of course, except for those times when the river floods and the fields, parking lot, and retention pond become one massive body of water. Usually, though, this body of water sits on its own, host to Canada geese and the occasional heron. What is more remarkable about the “pond” than the geese, however, is the massive quantity of construction materials that is piled alongside it. From the park’s parking lot, a gated gravel road leads to a flattened space where trucks and earth-movers regularly dump dirt, old asphalt, chunks of concrete, twisted rebar, and other such miscellany. Much to my chagrin, my boys like to climb on these piles, and I spend much more time than I’d like hanging about in what is, at best, a very big dirtpile, or, at worst, a dump. When I’m not gathering trash of the plastic sort, I look toward the mountains and try to wish away the warehouses, cell towers and machines obscuring my view.

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The gravel road to the retention pond, with the soccer field and trees along the Monocacy in the background.

But to wish everything away would be to wish myself away. I live in one of the developments on Rte. 26. I drive over the Monocacy Blvd. bridge. I buy groceries in a shopping mall. Frederick was settled early in this country’s history, and the Monocacy has been supporting it since its founding. The people and the river are inextricably linked. We rely on it not only for our drinking water (yes, it’s true!) but for fishing, farming and recreation. Not only should we take care of it, we must. And there can be beauty in that responsibility.

Domestic Life

In some effort to keep this blog anonymous, I have refrained from mentioning my home in any specific or explicit terms. Nonetheless, it is necessary to this project.  If nothing else, it is its nearness to the Monocacy River that makes it possible for me to make my trash-collecting expeditions on a daily basis. In some ways, though, I am ashamed of that nearness.  My home is in a new (because 15 years really is new) development that certainly contributes to the degradation of the river. Believing in restricted development and loving history, my first two homes were built at the turn of the 20th century, when walls were plaster, there was only one bathroom, and (at least in one case) insulation was horse hair.  Now I have vinyl siding and windows, three bathrooms, fiberglass insulation and covenants that require I get permission to plant a tree.  My only solace (or maybe I should say rationalization) for my home is that it was built on farmland that had already been deforested in the eighteenth century, and agricultural runoff is one of the primary polluters of the Monocacy.  Also, I don’t use poison in my yard or garden, I plant native species to help the birds, butterflies, and bees, and the neighborhood has made the parkland and trails by the river more vibrant and, therefore, I hope, more cared-for.  But, as I confessed, these really are sorry rationalizations.

Still, this year, the birds seem to have taking a liking to the house. For Christmas, I hung evergreen arrangements on my front porch.  When January came, I removed the bows and artificial holly, but left the greenery – bits of pine, juniper and fir – to keep the house encouraging over the brown and dreary winter months.  In late February, I noticed that a bird seemed to spending nights nestled in one of them.  My husband and I would look out through our front window at night to see its little gray tail poking out of the juniper, but it would flicker away, nothing but a dark, quick shadow at the corner of my eye, as soon as we opened the door. For a few weeks, it seemed to have gone, and I was about to toss the now brown arrangements, when it suddenly returned, accompanied by a rosy-headed mate (house finch…of course!), and, with frayed bits of string and withered grass, transformed its cozy roost into a nest.

Only a few days ago, four naked babies successfully hatched, and it’s proven impossible to keep my older son away from them.  He’s not uninformed enough to believe the myth that touching them will make their mother stay away, so I’ve instead lectured him about germs, and, out of my extensive reading on trauma, attachment, and brain development, have concocted a theory, which I repeat extensively, that disturbing the babies will put undue stress on both them and the parents, which, in turn, will hurt their health and development, thereby making it less likely that they’ll live long and healthy lives. It’s convoluted, but it works most of the time. At other times, though, my son son insists that he loves the babies and wants badly to take care of them. When I say that he can’t, he asks why not, and our conversation ends with, “Because you’re not a house finch.”

 

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In addition to the house finches, we have a pair of starlings that tried to build a nest in our chimney.  Far from succeeding, they actually fell through the duct work and landed in the vent beneath our gas fireplace. It took me a bit of time to realize what had happened because it’s quite usual for me to hear the rustle of feathers and squawks and calls echoing from the top of the chimney, through the flue, and into the vent.  But my dogs kept staring curiously at the fireplace, ears cocked forward like question marks, and as I watched them I saw a little yellow beak peek through one of the slats that cover the vent.  Now curious myself, I bent down, pulled off the cover, turned my phone into a flashlight, and discovered two very frightened birds huddled behind the gasworks. Unsure what to do, I left to look for some sort of container to hold them and a long object to compel them to move, when one, then the other flapped furiously out into the living room, the kitchen, and finally the large window in the foyer.  Hastily I opened the front door and waved the crab net I’d found (because Maryland = crabs) at the the birds, who wanted frantically to believe that the window was their only salvation, until they finally dropped a foot down to see that freedom was out the front door.  It’s possible that the starlings I see atop the trees in my yard are these same birds, but it’s just as likely that they were traumatized enough to move on.

So, there are these adventures.  And the collecting the trash.  And this blog.  All in this house of dubious environmental efficacy. I’m the sort who feels guilty all of the time anyway, so I’ll just do the best I can, what little I can, live in this house, and remember to be grateful. And when my homeowner’s association writes me up for keeping dead evergreen arrangements on my porch, I’ll smile, pay my fine, and put out more seed for the birds.