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.

Four Feet on the Monocacy

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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.

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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.

A Model Dog

When I’m taking pictures for my blog, I generally make a point of moving the camera so that my images don’t include my old labrador companion, Poppy. Since she makes a point of shadowing me, no matter how her bones ache, excluding her isn’t a simple matter. Yesterday was no different: I paused for a picture, and, while I fiddled with the composition and perspective, she walked into the frame. Again,

and again,

and again.

It’s hard to be too upset, though, when, first of all, she’s sweet and adorable, and, second, she often improves the pictures, imbuing them with life and interest that landscape alone sometimes can’t. Even if it is a brilliant fall day, which it was.

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Besides, she’s been known to help me with the trash every now and then. Yesterday she carried a McDonald’s coffee cup all the way back to the main walking path for me…and there wasn’t even anything in it for her to eat. (She is a labrador, after all, and her motives and motivations are usually pretty simple and obvious.)

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She really is a very good dog.

 

A Bag on the Water

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The waters of the Monocacy slow to near stillness mid-summer, when the moisture in the air feels equal to that in the river. At the end of a narrow dirt path, hemmed in by the stinging nettle, poison hemlock and japanese hops that the boys call “itchy plants,” you can find a deep, wide expanse of water that is more pond than stream. My old labrador likes to stop here for a drink (which I don’t advise unless, like her, you have a stomach made of steel). Yesterday, we both looked across to see a plastic bag floating on the surface of the lethargic water. It was impossible to reach from our side of the riverbank, but I did pick up a few fishing supplies. Float on.

(No) Pets on the Monocacy

Painted Turtles, big and small American Toads, baby crayfish, Eastern Snapping Turtles: if my boys can see them, they can get their hands on them. So can I, of course, but most of the time I’m pleading for their release, because, one, we don’t need another pet and, two, wild things need to live in the wild. I was acquisitive of animals as a child, too, which is why I know that healthy wild things seldom thrive once put in a tank or a cage. The frogs and toads get away only to be found months later petrified at the back of a closet. The turtles eat your hamburger but look so morose that eventually you just have to put them back where you found them. And the crayfish? Either something in the fish tank eats them, or they eat something in the fish tank. I’m happy to say that I never took a Snapping Turtle home. My brothers were once attacked by one in a lily pond, and that settled the issue.

A few weeks ago, my boys caught a baby rabbit that was living in one of my flower beds. It was small, clearly just out of the nest, and rather stupid about just allowing itself to be handled. (Well, maybe more naive than stupid). I had the boys release it across the street, but it reappeared in the backyard a short time later, and, without telling me, my oldest put it in the cage with his two friendly pet rats, Sugar and Anastasia. Thrilled to see the maiden rats treat the rabbit as if it was their own long lost child, my son called me up from the garage, which I was cleaning, to his room to see a “surprise.” This is what I found:

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Yes, indeed, that is Anastasia grooming the rabbit. As you can imagine, it was very difficult to convince the boys that this situation, while adorable, was not actually good for the health of any of the animals involved. In the end, however, it wasn’t the boys that gave me trouble. They agreed to release the baby rabbit across the street again, but the baby rabbit had other ideas. Within minutes of being let go, it hopped right into the garage, where I was still cleaning, and up to the back door.

“Oh my God,” my husband said, “did it imprint on us?”

“I guess it liked being mothered,” I replied.

I am pleased to say that, no, despite the baby rabbit’s apparent desires, we don’t presently have a rabbit living with our rats.  It took several more tries, but it finally stayed away when we made sure that it noticed that we have two dogs and a cat living in our house in addition to our two affectionate rodents. It’s now living underneath a hedge two houses away.  In the wild.

Glass and Consequences

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Glass bottles, in various states of brokenness, litter the banks and waters of the Monocacy River. When they are whole, I pick them up without hesitation to place them in the recycling bin when I get home, but when they’re in pieces, which is far more usual, I undergo an internal debate that goes something like this:

-Hmm, I don’t think I can pick up that piece of glass without cutting my fingers.

-Oh, for God’s sake, of course you can pick it up safely!

-But what about the bag? It’ll cut it open, and then everything else will spill all over the place!

-Just excuses.

-Okay, fine, that bit is big enough to make it worth the risk, but what about that piece? It’s so small that the river will just carry it away and smooth it into nice river glass. Like sea glass. People collect that stuff, don’t they? It’s pretty.

-No, you idiot! If you leave it there, someone –or something- will cut themselves on it!

-But it’s biodegradable…it’ll just turn back into sand!

-Oh, c’mon, you know glass is dangerous: just pick it all up!

-Okay. Sorry.

Yes, it’s true, I have a pretty mean internal voice, but that’s a topic for another time, and, at any rate, it has a point in this situation. Last year, my younger pup cut her paw on an old beer bottle. Not only did she bleed profusely all the way home (and, once we got there, all over the floor), she also managed to cut a tendon that kept one of her toe pads lying flat. Now she walks about with that toe poking up, as if she constantly needs us to wait a moment. It’s awkward, but, according to the vet, painless, and it doesn’t seem to inhibit her curiosity or spastic jump-and-zoom behavior. Still, I’d rather she not cut her foot again, and she adamantly refuses to wear shoes (yes, I’ve tried), so I really need to pick up the glass, despite how pretty it can become after being churned by a river for several years.

Oh, and, also, having better taste in beer doesn’t make you any less of a litterer.

Squirrel Tail, Slugs, and Wet Socks

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A few nights ago I dreamed about a Great Horned Owl that lifted its wings and, before my eyes, transformed into a Barred Owl before flying away from me. When I awoke, I decided that, if I believed in such things, this would no doubt have been a powerful omen.  I mean an owl and a transformation: either someone was going to die or I was going to be visited by a god (Athena, maybe?). Being a sensible realist, however, I decided that I was probably just thinking too much about birdwatching.

Omens aside, this morning was strange.  While I was eating breakfast, I heard a harsh yelp from the deck where my younger dog was surveying the property.  It was an unusual sound for her, but my husband recognized it as fear and jumped to see what was happening. Following him through the door, I noticed my dog’s flattened ears, tucked tail, and shifty lip-licking, just as my husband exclaimed, “Wait! What is that? Did she get something?”

He pointed to a puff of gray fur balanced between two slats of the deck’s railing.  When I looked more closely, it was quite clearly the last three inches of a squirrel’s tail.

“Yeah, she got something,” I said. “Or at least part of it.”

We ventured a few “good girls” to reassure our dog, who’s been tentative to the point of fear about hunting since our lackluster response to a rabbit kill. The poor, neurotic thing was so anxiously thrilled that she snapped up and gulped down the bit of fur before we could do anything about it.

I can only suppose that the stupid squirrel was on our deck and caught by the tail just as it jumped through the narrow slats to escape, and now I’m waiting to see a stub-tailed squirrel around the neighborhood, chastened but alive. He belongs in a story, like Roald Dahl’s fantastic Mr. Fox.

While I did not see the squirrel again on my morning walk with the dogs, I did find a pair of perfectly good but soaking wet socks. They were on the path by the river, accompanied by a half-full water bottle.  I stuffed both in my bag of trash without taking a picture, although I did photograph one of the many slugs clinging to the tall, wet weeds by the trail.

Owls, squirrels tails, and slugs?  Add the wet socks, and you have a modern potions recipe.

Domestic Life, Part 2

The house finches have left the nest.  Three days ago, the first fledgling boldly made its move, and by yesterday all four of them had abandoned their poop-ringed home.  Just to be sure, I left the arrangements up for one day, but now I have happily dumped their contents into the trash.  It’s time for a little color on the front porch.

May has brought a few other changes as well.  The starlings I rather hoped had gone have built their own nest in a vent on the outside of the chimney.  Being that there’s no trace of it to be found anywhere, it’s not clear how the vent cover was removed, but I wouldn’t put it past the clever immigrants to have figured it out themselves. When I’m in the living room, I can hear them through the walls, and when I’m turning the corner to the east side of the house, I see them flutter out of their hole.  While we’ve bought a replacement for the vent, my husband and I haven’t the heart to shut the nestlings in, however plentiful and messy starlings are.

The rabbits, too, are multiplying and nonchalantly chewing up lawns and gardens.  It’s the time of year when I can count more then ten of them on a simple turn around the block.  My younger pup is hyperaware of the situation, popping up her ears and lunging against her harness around nearly every corner and shrub.  The rabbits munch beneath the bird feeders in our yard as well, which really drives her mad.  Utter the word “bunny” in her presence, and she tilts her head, leaps to her toes and makes a dash for the back door.  Despite the fact that the door leads to our second-story deck, which provides plenty of notice for most hapless prey animals, our huntress managed to catch a rabbit last year. She was very confused when we didn’t look utterly thrilled and, in her grave disappointment, has resigned herself simply to chasing them out of the yard.

Last night’s storms were wonderful for my garden but flooded the river enough to make it inaccessible for trash-collecting. I guess it’s my day off.

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.

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.