On Loneliness

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During my long absence from this blog, I continued to visit the river, finding some respite in its wintry dun aspect. At the start of the year, it froze over completely, and the boys startled me with their delighted insistence on stomping over the surface to prove its impenetrability. It was some comfort to me when their mocking brazenness receded with the ice, although I missed the stillness that accompanied it. We were always alone on these coldest days.

My trash collection was perfunctory, distracted as I was by emergencies and the inevitable crises and phone calls and text messages that followed them. Among the regular bottles and cans and plastic snack bags, I once found a Frozen balloon.

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What I find remarkable about this now is not the balloon itself but the day on which I found it. I must have stepped out early on this expedition because the rest of this day was taken up entirely by moving my father’s things out of his last apartment. I ended up at a storage facility, alone, locking away the last of his possessions. There was a loneliness there that I never feel at the river.

It is the loneliness that comes of things. Discarded things. Ownerless things. That one shoe by the side of the road. The tent pole caught in the brambles. The handleless cooler buried in mud.

But when I collect these things, I take away some of the loneliness. Don’t I?

 

Cars and Time’s Tricks

One of the landmarks on my regular walks along the river is an old car frame, belly-up and tires attached, half-submerged at the bottom of a steep bank. Over a year ago, when the brown turf of winter was beginning to green, I took a photo of the wreck.

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Today, stepping carefully into a flowering of touch-me-nots, I took another, wondering whether I would note any change.

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Despite the several minor floods that have occurred between then and now, it appears the only real changes are the cosmetic sorts that seasons bring: grass where there was mud, a darker, clearer hue of water, and the dappled light of a leafy canopy. As a former archaeologist, I keep hoping to witness its gradual burial, until it is entirely consumed by the earth, a curious artifact rather than a niggling eyesore.

But time works at its own pace on the earth, building and eroding in thousands and hundreds of years rather than months or days. Or, at least, it has in the past. It seems, lately, that we may not be able to rely always on what we have known or taken for granted when it comes to the shape and speed of time’s passage as it plays out in currents, storms, and the creeping of tides. For now, though, that old car is suspended in time and mud, exposed and broken, watching the seasons wash over its carcass. Slowly, to my eyes, but quickly, to others.

I find time treacherous and slippery. Some days I wish away before they’re over, but others I want to magic alongside me forever. Sending my boys to school today reminds me of this. One is in high school now, the other only two years behind, and they are changing, growing up, less willing to be part of my ramblings. They measure time in minutes and hours — it stretches out before them — and they have little patience when I stop for a moment just to look.

Especially at a rusty, abandoned old car.

Cinderella Story

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Last August, it was Barbie. This June, it’s Cinderella. I found her after wading through a growing jumble of invasive japanese hops on “the island.” My son was throwing stones into the water on the opposite side of the river, where the trees are tall and plentiful enough to offer relief against the heat that has overtaken us the last few days. On “the island,” I sweated, dust and gnats and plant juices clinging to my damp legs, and collected my stash of garbage.

As I photographed Cinderella, turning her over to catch her at different angles, recording her placement on the disturbed earth, I began to feel as if I was in some twisted parody of a police procedural. Later, when I mentioned this to my husband, he conjured his best Lenny from Law and Order and quipped, “Well, it looks like she won’t be getting back before midnight.”

As a girl I was obsessed with Cinderella, especially the Disney version, with the ice-blue dress and nipped waist. I had a small book accompanied by the seventies version of an audiobook, a record recording of a magical-voiced woman reading the words to the story, interspersed with a cue to turn the pages. Curiously, although the book cover depicted the classic Disney Cinderella, the interior illustrations were in an entirely different style, more slapdash, and her fairy godmother blessed her with an entirely different dress as well: white and pink, with cap sleeves, and a massive hoop skirt festooned with what looked like crinkly pastel-colored garland. It was this dress — not Disney’s — that inspired the endless drawings of princesses I doodled between the ages of four and six.

Later, in my early feminist stage, I felt ashamed of my younger preoccupations with princesses and Barbies. I took some solace in the fact that my Barbie play usually involved operatic sagas that ended with Barbie friendless and homeless, begging on a street corner in rags. Even my princess obsession eventually evolved into an interest in mythology and, much, much later, a manuscript for a distracted fantasy novel. But I can’t deny that this early focus on external beauty certainly had some influence on my how I regarded my own appearance (that is, poorly). I didn’t escape my teenage years unscathed.

Nonetheless, I think of Cinderella fondly. It was a shame to find her abandoned in the dirt. But I threw her out anyway.

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.

Addiction on the Monocacy

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I climbed through the pile of debris, a great mass of limbless logs, sticks, mud, and leaves driven together in a recent flood, in order to grab the Frappuccino bottle for my trash bag. It was only at the last moment, as I replaced my phone in the back pocket of my jeans, that I noticed the snake. It was still, watching me closely, apparently convinced (and rightly so) that it hadn’t yet been seen. Not wanting to startle it, I made a show of noisily stepping back and around to pick up the bottle from the other side, and it took the opportunity to slither under a branch, deeper into the jumbled mound.

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As I continued picking my way around the river, I stepped a little more carefully, as much to avoid falling through camouflaged holes as to avoid stepping on an unassuming reptile, and I encountered more trash than I had in many weeks. This isn’t altogether uncommon after a stretch of rainy weather, which both prevents me from my work and drives more trash into the rising waters of the Monocacy as it rushes downstream. I was actually grateful to find an empty cement bucket to carry the excess garbage from my three overfilled plastic bags.

Later, as I shifted the bucket and bags to my left hand to reach for a cigarette wrapper caught in the upper branch of a fallen tree, my thoughts rambled in their disjointed way from beer cans to plants, soda bottles, and snakes, and I realized that my trash-collection was yielding a veritable garden of vices. But, as I thought of these vices — drinking, smoking, gambling — I decided, no, I won’t call these vices — that term expresses a degree of moral judgment that I don’t feel — but addictions. They’re there, these addictions, all of them, their evidence littering the river, whether chemical (beer cans, cigar wrappers, and soda bottles/alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine) or habitual (lotto cards, styrofoam, and plastic bags/gambling, technology, and food).

Nationally and locally, addiction is a major topic of concern. Abuse of opioids, and fentanyl in particular, has become an epidemic, reaching crisis levels in Frederick County, where, according to the Frederick News-Post, “despite the increasing prevalence of overdose-reversal drugs, opioid overdoses and deaths both nearly tripled in 2016 compared to 2015” and “another 43 overdoses — four of them fatal — were reported by the end of the first two months of 2017” (April 27, 2017). In February, a pedestrian not far from “my” island on the Monocacy found a body washed up along one of its banks.  An April 13, 2017 article in the Frederick-News-Post reported that, while the young man, Matthew Thomas Delash, died from drowning and hyopthermia, “intoxication from fentanyl and N-ethylpentylone were also complicating factors.” His family wrote an honest, heartfelt obituary for him, expressing the pain and power of addiction as they sought to acknowledge the true person, a generous son and a friend, behind it. When I first heard about this man’s death, I wasn’t sure whether to include it in this, my loose account of life on the Monocacy River. He and his life were not trash, and it is a hard thing that he was lost in the waters of such a beautifully ugly place as this urban river can be. But to ignore his death is even more of an impossibility. He, like the rest of us who live along its winding banks, is a part of the river and its story.

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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.

Trashscapes

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The warmer weather that has been hounding us most of the winter surpassed itself over the long weekend, bursting into a series of summery days that resulted in a) lots of human activity and b) lots of human trash. My elbows are still recovering from the weight of the garbage bags that I had to carry home, and I have far more recyclables than my 2 bins and bi-weekly collection schedule can manage. While I usually take a sort of housekeeperly pleasure in cleaning around the river, weekends like these are overwhelming. It’s frustrating to have to leave things behind (such as a stash of cans squirrelled beneath a log) simply because I don’t have enough bags to hold it. That’s when I remember that this is a job that is never finished. Like laundry. (Actually, I found some of that, too).

Two days of collecting were particularly intensive. On the first of these, the boys and I encountered a fire circle with one log still so smoking hot that it took little more than a dry leaf to reset it aflame.

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After we hauled the log farther into the water, I set about gathering a case’s worth of beer cans, a six-pack of bottles, and other such picnicky miscellany. I couldn’t help but see the irony in having to clean up yet more Budweiser “America” beer cans, which have splashed across them the lyrics of “This Land Is Your Land,” by Woody Guthrie, a song that highlights the natural beauties of the United States. (For the song’s history, see the concise NPR story http://www.npr.org/2000/07/03/1076186/this-land-is-your-land). Yes, indeed, this land is for you and me. I wish that we could all remember that. And behave that way.

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On the second day, I found an entire campsite’s worth of garbage. Literally. A tent had fallen down an eroded bank into the water below, along with a slew of cans and food wrappers, mostly submerged in mud and impossible to extricate. As I filled up all three of the bags I had brought and two more bags that I found, I was grateful for the broken, soft-sided cooler, which served as an excellent trash receptacle after I dumped the muck that had accumulated inside of it. To reach the makeshift site, I had to ford the river twice, which, since my five-foot frame was so weighed down, required that I carry everything back in shifts.

All of this activity managed to startle a fox, who zipped past me in all of his sly regalness. He wasn’t twenty feet away, but my hands were too full to grab my camera. Perhaps it was the campsite that had attracted him in the first place. It’s hard to tell. But he didn’t appear drunk, and there was very little but alcohol left to consume. I, unfortunately, stank with beer that dribbled from the cans as I collected them, and I’m pretty sure that the odor, combined with my bag-lady appearance, is what earned me a few nervous stares from families with small children on my way home.

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A Brown Study

Despite a day or two of cold and a recent dusting, this has been a decidedly warm and un-white winter. And spring is coming quickly; already I’ve heard the territorial whirr of a red-winged blackbird, and violets and celandines are sprouting beneath last year’s crispy leaves. It’s likely, then, that this winter will remain the winter that really wasn’t. I could mourn this (and, honestly, I do), but I can also make do with what the river and woods will give me: a rainbow done in shades of brown.

Recently, in the heart of the “island,” I made what has become one of my favorite discoveries: a fallen tree, debarked, drilled upon, and worn away by weather, animals, and fungus. It is like a massive canvas, revealing masterpieces frame by frame.

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They are mostly Impressionist pieces, I think, or perhaps Expressionist. I can see Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” or Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” to name two more famous works. Another fallen trunk I found assumed an altogether different color and texture, slightly more Cubist, perhaps, a tree trunk reassembled:

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Then, we can move on to something equally textured and also, thanks to the mud left by recent rains, brown. Also decidedly Modern. Our trash:

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“Bicycle Seat”

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“Beer Can”

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“Styrofoam Cup”

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“Self Portrait with Plastic Bottle”

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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