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.
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?
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.
These first few weeks of summer have killed my writing habit but not my tendency to gather more ideas than I can ever address in the time that I have. A change in routine can do that, especially when traveling is involved.
This year, when summer break arrived, I ran away to England with my newly-graduated niece. The trip was inspired by a chance encounter with an old friend on PBS’ Nova. Margarita and I started graduate school together twenty years ago as budding classical archaeologists, but, whereas I left the field shortly after getting my master’s degree (and traveling with her to her native Ukraine), she continued her studies and now researches ancient textiles at Cambridge University. We hadn’t seen each other in 14 years, since meeting in Orvieto, Italy the summer before I adopted my first son, and when I commented on this, curled up beside my boys on our pet-hair covered couch, my husband immediately (and quietly) set about making plans to remedy the situation. When he revealed his plans to send me to England alone (yes, I know I’m lucky), I suggested I take my niece, Edith, with me as a travel partner since she would be graduating from high school and had a special connection to Margarita herself. When I learned that Edith was born, Margarita and I were in Yalta doing an archaeological survey with our friends, who insisted on drinking no small amount of vodka in celebration. (By some miracle, I didn’t get sick). Edith was happy to go and to suggest some additions to our itinerary. So it happens that last week I traveled through London, Cambridge, York, and Haworth, and thus walked along the rivers Thames, Cam, Ouse, and the Bronte Falls.
Besides attending plays and visiting museums and friends, we did some hiking on the moors of Haworth, just beyond the Bronte Parsonage Museum, which made me feel as if I was very far from the Monocacy River but still very much myself. I had to stop to photograph flowers, could not help but consider the curious light created by transient clouds, and scanned the ground for things that didn’t belong.
For the most part, I found myself avoiding sheep patties and noting bits of wool caught in fences and low shrubs. I had an urge to gather it, but it was Edith who finally did, pulling and twisting it into a rough yarn.
The walk toward Top Withins was quiet, and even the famous Bronte Falls were untroubled by trash. When Edith fell into the water, we took her broken phone and our damp tissues with us. (I assured her that it would make a great story one day, despite the lost pictures). Having read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights countless times, I was glad to roam the heather-lined trails without stepping on a candy bar wrapper or water bottle to ruin the effect.
I didn’t have quite as much luck on the beaches of the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia, which I visited with my boys almost immediately after my return from England. We make an annual pilgrimage to Chincoteague, a small island town in Virginia famous for its wild ponies who swim across the channel from the barrier island of Assateague the last week in July. While we usually rent a small cottage for a week, we were restrained to a weekend this year and an even smaller motel room, where we stayed with lots of midges and our two dogs. We also usually stay later in the summer — certainly not over a holiday weekend — and so were surprised by how crowded the island was. As the years have progressed, so has development, which has also transformed the lazy, quiet island, so easily traversed by bicycle, into a traffic-heavy, bustling resort. The beaches, though on a refuge only reached by a single bridge, were filled to the brim. We chose to go in the evening, when the sun was not so strong and most families had decamped for the day. The seagulls hustled over the sand in search of crumbs and other edible trash, clever enough to detect just when a crowd was leaving and hang about patiently as towels were shaken out and umbrellas shut before making their move. The overflowing garbage bins were proof that most people tried to clean up after themselves, but as the sun set I noticed the light reflecting off of more than one plastic bottle.
Still, the last three weeks have been a good reminder of how often beauty and humanity manage to coexist, even in the most adversarial of political climates. And that’s not just a figment of my imagination.
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.
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.
As I continued to stop to take photos of wildflowers, the oldest pulled ahead, while the youngest usually dallied to give me company.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
While many plants are just now budding and flowering and sprouting leaves, there are others that have retained some degree of color all of this mild winter long. Besides the obvious evergreens like holly, juniper, and pine, one of the most prominent of these plants on the floodplains of the Monocacy, and throughout Frederick, is the Japanese Honeysuckle, or Lonicera japonica. It’s a non-native vine that attracted gardeners with its delicate flowers and heady aroma and then, with the fast-growing tenacity common to all invasive species, escaped its tidy beds and uncoiled itself across the wild landscape, binding trees and suffocating the native groundcover. I’ve been taking photos of this intruder, intending to dedicate some part of a blog post to it, so it seemed a great opportunity (or at least prompt) when yesterday a Facebook post from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources informed me that it’s National Invasive Species Awareness Week. I’ve written about invasive species several times before, often to complain about their less-than-desirable attributes, like itchiness, or poisonousness, and I keep a running list of them in my Wildflowers of the Monocacy page by noting the word “alien” behind its common name. You can find a more exhaustive list of these aliens here, at the site of the Maryland Invasive Species Council (MISC).
Unlike the usual trash I can just pick up and stuff in a bag, invasive species cannot be eradicated in a moment. A few days ago, when I took my father into the mountains of the Frederick Municipal Forest to find a trout pond, he found himself distracted by all of the Japanese Honeysuckle that had insinuated itself into the underbrush. Despite his poor balance and aching joints, he began trying to disentangle it. After a great deal of work (and a little pain inflicted by the brier patch the honeysuckle had infiltrated), we did manage to pull some of it up by the roots. It seemed a sorry effort when we stepped back to see all that remained. But I can be stubborn, too.
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.
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.”
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.