My Father

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My father died last week. It still feels too recent to write anything coherently, but every now and then a panic seizes hold of me — a deep, sickening fear — that the time when he was with me is passing away too quickly, that I am losing something vital that will be impossible to retrieve if I wait too long. So I try. I sit here putting words on a screen, and I feel as if I’m wearing blinders. I see but narrowly, unable to understand what is not directly before me.

Days before my father’s hospitalization this fall, when he was still walking, albeit warily, and his dementia had not yet so confused his speech, he and I visited the Catoctin Furnace, where pig iron was discovered and then, beginning in 1776, produced by the first governor of Maryland, Thomas Johnson. We followed the trail that leads into the woods beside the reconstructed furnace, past the ruins of the old manor house, where sparrows hopped between asters and pokeweed in the autumn sun, onto a rocky, narrow path framed by heaps of ancient slag, over the treacherously open Bowstring Arch Bridge, which overlooked a pair of dogs gamboling after sticks a woman tossed into Little Hunting Creek. I stopped my father on the bridge to take a picture of him, something I rarely did. I had no idea this would be the last hike I would ever take with him. I had no idea. But it was a beautiful day. And he smiled.

It was this day I remembered when, the night before his funeral, I tried to think of something to say at his service. My brother and sisters had all finished their pieces, each beautiful in their uniqueness and approach, but my head was too filled, too noisy, too confused by images of my father’s last days. It was not until I lie in bed, not sleeping, nursing my numbness, that the woods came to me: the leaf-littered path, and the water, and my father beside me, as he had been so many times before.

And I knew what to say:

 

To Dad

 

When I step into the woods,

Onto a path through a field,

Up a trail into the mountains,

You are with me —

You always were —

A teacher,

Pointing out

the color of the stones,

The signs of animals in the underbrush,

The shape of the leaves on the trees.

It’s your language

The way you love

How you show the way.

And how nice it is,

Now,

To see how easy it will be

To feel you again,

In the wren in the thicket,

The bright zinnias in my garden,

The rolling clouds in the sky.

You thought you taught me to see

The world

But you also taught me to see

You.

So I never have to say

Goodbye,

Only,

I’ll see you later,

Again,

Soon.

–Julie

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.

Zinnias

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Zinnias. They’re not native to Maryland, preferring the hot, dry locales of the southwest and Mexico, but I love to plant them in my garden. In the early spring, I buy a few seed packets, pull my own baggies of last year’s seeds out of storage, and spread them over bare soil that will be dry and hard by August. I rake the dirt over them a bit (maybe), sprinkle some water on top, and leave them. As the tulip and daffodil leaves begin to shrivel, the zinnias begin to sprout, and when the butterfly weed has begun to wane, the zinnias grow taller, and as the coneflowers think of fading, the zinnias bloom. I plant a variety of low-growing zinnias so close together that they create busy bouquets

as well as the more classic, tall varieties, some so tall that I need to stand on tiptoes to photograph, which bloom in a plethora of color and a profusion of petals.

They’re a favorite of bees and butterflies,

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but it’s the resident hummingbirds that draw the most attention, zooming between our honeysuckles and vegetable garden out back — ceding the sunflowers to the goldfinches for the most part — and the zinnias out front. One morning our old labrador, Poppy, startled one when she stepped outside for her morning constitutional. It zipped away momentarily but soon returned to consider this bear-shaped, heavy-breathing mammal. Poppy, either sensing its superiority or hoping that it might want to play, promptly rolled over for it. The hummingbird simply ignored her and tended to the flowers, but, really, what else could it do?

Huh. Now that’s a book waiting to be written.

A Dog’s Day

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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.

A Flower Tour

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Trout Lilly (Erythronium americanum), with Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), Virginia spring-beauties ( Claytonia virginica) and Lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria)

At this time of year, I could take you on a 3-hour flower tour of my favorite Monocacy River island. While you wouldn’t see many species, I would bore you to death  amuse you with multiple views of the same flowers, particularly the Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), which nod in clusters of pink, periwinkle, and baby blue, forming a soft carpet over the cool, silty ground.  “Look!” I might say, “A bluebell with a bee!”

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Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica)

Or, “Aren’t bluebells colors perfect just before they open?”

Or, perhaps, “Oops! I let go of the leash! Rosie, get back here!”

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I get distracted by other flowers, as well.  Lesser celandines (Ranunculus ficaria), bright yellow flowers of the buttercup family, are an invasive species that thrive in the riparian environments of Maryland, and, as they appear before any other spring ephemerals, they have an advantage, which you can witness by the fact that they are in nearly every picture that I take of other flowers. For instance, they make a cheerful background for the emerging Trout lily (Erythronium americanum) in the photo that opened this post, and it is their leaves that surround the lovely moss I was photographing when Rosie, set loose by the boys, photo-bombed me. (Yes, she runs off leash much too often, but that grin was just too irresistible for me to get too angry).

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Virginia spring-beauties (Claytonia virginica), delicate white-and-pink petaled native flowers, do their best to raise their heads above all of the lesser celandine, and I crouch low, lifting their blossoms to the camera, in order to record their fairy-like loveliness.

Another flower that competes with the lesser celandine is the common blue violet (Viola sororia), which, despite its name, is white as often as it is blue.

Violets are such reliable flowers, as likely to grow in the yard as in the forest, but Toadshade (Trillium sessile) far more elusive. Last year I saw two or three before they faded at April’s end, but this year I’ve counted at least seven, and they’ve all yet to open.

For some reason, perhaps because of their names or concurrent blooming season, I associate toadshade with trout lilies, which also seem to be more numerous this season. The toadshade, of course, would be a distant, smelly cousin, as far as the trout lily is concerned. Despite the emergence of more trout lily leaves, it may still be years before I see a bloom on some of them; trout lilies don’t bloom at all the first 4-7 years of life, when often there is only one leaf sprout instead of two leaves and a flower stalk, as we see here:

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Of course, being who I am, no tour along the Monocacy would be complete without pointing out the trash in bloom. It competes with the lesser celandine, too.

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Of Dogs and Deer

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Nope, nothing to see here, you can put that camera away now.

So, I think that my younger dog, Rosie, might be planning her escape.

As I was getting prepared for our walk a few days ago – gathering trash bags, putting on my coat, jangling leashes – instead of presenting herself at my feet, as she usually does, she rushed upstairs. A little puzzled, I snapped the harness onto my older dog, Poppy, and waited. A few moments later, Rosie reappeared, but with an old, dried up, edible “chewie” in her mouth. I said to her (because I regularly talk to my dogs, cat, and any other living thing that happens to be in my vicinity, including myself), “We’re going on a long walk, don’t you want to leave that here?” But, as I reached to take it from her, she respectfully turned her head away. “Suit yourself,” I shrugged. As my older dog loves to carry things in her mouth, the situation didn’t seem too strange, and I figured I would just put the “chewie” in my pocket when she got bored.

About a half mile later, however, at a divergence in the path to the river, Rosie turned onto the less-traveled dirt trail, found a stone, and began digging a shallow hole just beside it. When she reached her preferred depth, she dropped the “chewie” into it, snuffled, and proceeded to nose dirt, leaves and other dried plant matter over it until the hole was filled. Now, I should note the Rosie has lots of these little stashes in our back yard. Occasionally she unearths them and returns them to the house in their slightly soggy, rotten state (another good reason never to buy rawhide). This is the first time, however, that she has ever stored something off of our property.

So, yes, I’m a little suspicious. She’s a nervous dog who’s been acting just a little too nervous lately. And I know she’s done with me holding her back from all those wild animals out there, so tantalizingly close, taunting her with their heady scents. Like those white-tailed deer we came upon on the island yesterday: a whole herd of them, and I wouldn’t let go of the leash, even to take this poor video:

That’s Rosie’s bark at the beginning, when it looks as if I’m going to fall over.

I can’t blame her, really, when the deer are so clearly out of control. I found a hoofprint just inside of the boys’ shelter (which Rosie, therefore, considers hers), so who knows what they’re getting up to when we’re not around?

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Although I am guessing that, even though there was evidence that they were eating and sleeping nearby, this was not their empty pint of gelato:

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Beyond Mud Pies

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Last week’s rains filled the Monocacy to its banks, which prevented exploration for a few days, but as the water receded to more average levels, we were treated to another sort of fun: mud. Lots and lots of it. The kind that sucks off your boots and ends up in your hair. While the boys modeled it into facades that seemed to lead into the riverbanks (and which reminded us of something out of Tolkien, like the Mines of Moria, but for muskrats), I discovered a veritable treasure-trove of tracks and footprints.

 

They reveal the life along the river that I rarely see; the creatures that come out when I’m not there. Honestly, evidence of the white-tailed deer is everywhere, in the form of scat that my younger dog takes too much pleasure in rolling herself in (and then pouts for days over the subsequent bath), and the squirrels are rarely too shy to show themselves, either. Raccoons, however, are more secretive (being nocturnal), and herons, although visible, prefer not to let me get too close. The Monocacy is host to other animals as well: opossums (one of which made it into my house), shrews, moles, voles, mice, chipmunks, groundhogs (whose holes are another obsession for my younger dog), weasels, minks, and otters, just to name a few mammals. We’re there, too, of course, sometimes leaving a little more than footprints

At least yesterday I found a piece of trash that I could use to collect the other pieces of trash. That’s always helpful. If you look on the bright side.

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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 Wind

Winds gusted up to 41 miles per hour over the weekend, ushering in colder weather and, as it turns out, lots of plastic bags.

I used a large one from Pier 1 to gather up all of the others, as well as some wrappers (evidence of Halloween is still out there!) and scattered pages of newspaper. The wind also scattered some more natural debris, like this little nest of grass and cottony seeds:

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It likely belonged to a mouse or some other small rodent sheltering in the tall grasses just beyond the floodplain. Last week my younger dog managed to stir one out of a hollow log along the sandy banks of the river. Although I didn’t get a very good look before it disappeared, I saw enough to know that it was a long-footed mouse.  There are several species of mice in Maryland (see Maryland’s DNR mammals page for a list). This one, I hope, was able to make a new home for itself (if a hawk didn’t get to it first).

Yesterday, as the winds were calming, I discovered the first ice on the river. It was thin and only very spotty, but still a sign that winter is coming.

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I like winter, so that is something to be thankful for.