Slug

0516181711_hdr

I’d never seen such a collection before. Driven by the rising floodwaters to the tallest, tippiest blades of grass, the slugs clung together for life. As the water they hovered over was above my waders, there wasn’t much I could do for them. It’s possible they kept their gluey bodies out of the river, but as it only kept rising for hours after I left them, I rather doubt it.

0516181711a_hdr

I know little about slugs, but a bit of research suggests that these might be examples of arion subfuscusThey’re certainly plentiful and by far the slug I most commonly find along the Monocacy. I have a feeling that these recent floods won’t keep their numbers down for long.

Another group of animals displaced by the water are the white-tailed deer, who have been forced from the woods into the meadows just outside of the floodplain. I would say that they’re inconvenienced except that they hardly seem to care when a human walks by, even when holding on to an overzealous dog at the end of a leash.

0516181608_hdr

“Do we have to move?” they seem to ask. “Really?”

At any rate, they’re better off than the slugs. The waters have receded for the most part, even though yesterday’s miraculous sun disappeared behind rain clouds again today. If this post seems dull, it’s because I am as well after all of these gray days. If I were inclined to make horrible puns, I might even say I’m a bit sluggish. (But even writing that felt wrong).

 

 

I’m Not Alone

0508180948_HDR.jpg

  1. 5 white-tailed deer, in 3 different locations
  2. 1 pileated woodpecker
  3. 1 groundhog
  4. 1 rabbit
  5. 5 squirrels (maybe more)
  6. 2 opossums
  7. 2 Canada geese
  8. 11 Mallard ducks (10 of them ducklings)
  9. 1 barred owl
  10. Too many songbirds to keep track of (mentally)

My walks lately are emotional affairs, vacillating between sublime wonder and heart-pressing sorrow in a matter of a few steps. I can’t help but feel pleasure in the unassuming beauty of the river, but the memories of earlier seasons, so easily evoked in a quiet mind, lay over it the blue tint of loss and grief. Especially as the days warm, I feel myself fighting against the passage of time, even as I smile at the new life it brings.

On the sunny days of this late, cold, wet spring the shores of the river glimmer in green, and elusive vernal ponds formed near its banks appear like secret oases beneath the trees. When I come upon them, I follow the deer paths to their edge and try to find frogs and turtles. Today I instead startled a mallard with her prodigious brood of ten ducklings, who skimmed across the water with astounding speed when they saw me step out of the woods. They’re clearly unrelated to the Frederick ducks of Baker Pond, who, despite the signs saying otherwise, see humans as a potential source of bread crumbs and other such duck junk food. I tried to take a picture of them, but, between the limitations of my camera phone and their determination to get away from me as quickly as possible, I got nothing but a photo of the pond.

0508180933_HDR.jpg

I left them in peace, pursuing the main trail to the river, only to fluster a white-tailed deer, who paused mid-stride when she saw me walking up the path. I paused, then, too, to allow her to cross ahead of me, but she decided that this behavior was much too threatening on my part, and retreated back into the trees. Shrugging, I stepped off of the path in the opposite direction, following a switchback down toward the river, where a pair of Canada geese, after one look at me, launched into the water with agitated bickering and began paddling in indecisive circles.

0508180947_HDR-1.jpg

Guessing that there was a nest nearby, I left the waterside and returned to the high trail. It was only a few minutes before I came upon another bird, whose large head and bright red crest immediately identified him as a pileated woodpecker. He was on the ground, throwing large chunks of dead wood off a log so soft with rot it hardly required pecking. It took him some time to notice me, but, even once he did, he only flew a few feet to another pile of wood, calling out a laughing song that always makes me feel as if I’m in a jungle. This time, as a pair of barred owls began hooting in the distance, the feeling was even stronger. But the peter-peter-peters of a tufted titmouse managed to keep me firmly in my mid-Atlantic reality.

0508180958a_HDR-1.jpg

Beyond this there was a part of the path that I hadn’t traveled since walking there with my father, last December, on one of the last days when such a walk was possible for him. It is a part of the path just beside my neighborhood with the easiest access to the Monocacy from the assisted living facility where my father lived the last 2 months of his life. While we were there, bundled against a gray day, I pointed out to him where Israel Creek flowed into the river and showed him the rocks where the boys liked to play, and we wondered a little about the birds we saw and the geology of this part of Maryland. He couldn’t always say what he meant, but he was himself, and I understood. It wasn’t long before we turned around, afraid that he wasn’t warm enough or strong enough to go much farther. I still imagined that we would come back again in the spring, when it was more pleasant and there would be more to see.

This morning, I feared walking on that path again. Not so much because I was afraid of what I might feel or remember but because I was afraid of treading over yet another place where my last memory was with him, alive. I suppose some part of me believed — or wanted to believe — that he could somehow remain alive right there forever, as long as I never wrote another memory over it.

But I walked on. It is spring. And I told him we would come back in the spring.

The curious thing is that just when I reached the part of the path where I had stopped to speak with my dad, the part of the path that would seem the hardest to pass, I ended up so distracted that I didn’t think of it at all until it was already behind me. Because, of all the curious things, out of the corner of my eye, partially obscured by a pile of tree limbs and twigs, I saw two white forms shuffling about. At first I thought they might be small dogs, and then maybe young pigs, but as I got a better look I realized that they were two full-grown opossums, out in the morning sun. They’re not terribly quick things, so they thought a little before rambling off back down the hill into the woods, away from me. I was honestly tickled because I hadn’t seen a live adult possum in the wild since a family vacation years ago. And I had never seen one in daylight. And here were two! My father would have loved it.

I loved it.

 

Waste

20170506_083251

Waste is not just another word for trash. It’s a place, abandoned, uninhabitable and barren; as an action, it means the destruction, withering away, and purposeless consumption of something (or someone) valuable; as an adjective, it describes something rendered useless. We have waste grounds and waste lands. We waste our time, or our money, or ourselves. When we’re sick, we waste away. At war, we lay waste.

One of the wildflower guides that I use describes the location in which some plants grow as “waste places,” while another refers to the same type of terrain as “disturbed.” Both names evoke a sense of wrongness and unease. Biologically, ecologically, environmentally, this feeling of wrongness is absolutely correct. The  plants that grow in these places are “alien,” “non-native,” and even “invasive.” Why would I want to have anything to do with a wasted, disturbed space full of aliens, like these?

20170504_163608
Milk-vetch
20170504_163643
Cranesbill
20170504_163931
Storksbill
20170504_163117
Mayweed

 

I’m not sure. (But maybe it’s because of these very same aliens, or, as I like to call them, wasteflowers). At any rate, I go, and make the best of the disturbance and waste, which, as a human, I am responsible for in the first place. I clean what I can, appreciate what I can, and hope for the best. We cannot undo everything that we’ve created and destroyed, but that doesn’t mean we should waste it, either.

 

UPDATE: For a comprehensive guide to invasive (not simply non-native) plants of the mid-atlantic see this guide by the National Park Service:

https://www.nps.gov/plants/alien/pubs/midatlantic/midatlantic.pdf

 

Addiction on the Monocacy

20170430_105055

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.

20170430_105340

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.

20170430_111339

Another Perspective

20170119_164434.jpg
Traffic on the Monocacy Blvd Bridge over Riverside Park.

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

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

20170119_160257.jpg
L to R: Trees along the Monocacy, soccer field, flood retention pond, Walmart. The Blue Ridge mountains are in the background and construction refuse area in the foreground.

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

20170118_160756.jpg
The gravel road to the retention pond, with the soccer field and trees along the Monocacy in the background.

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

American River, American Beer

 

Or not.

Judging by the trash I gather, Budweiser (and, even more often, Bud Light) is by far the most popular beer consumed along the modest stretch of the Monocacy River that I patrol. The cans are dressed patriotically this summer, the traditional “Budweiser” even sporting the new name “America” through the November election. (You heard about that, right?) The cans even feature the lyrics of “The Star Spangled Banner,” which has special significance in this part of the world, where the author of the lyrics, Francis Scott Key, worked and is buried. (In a curious non sequitor, the local mall and minor league baseball team are named in his honor). Never mind that this all-American beer is now owned by the Belgian company AG Inbev. Free trade, mergers and the vagaries of Capitalism: you can’t get more American than that.

American River

20160723_164510.jpg

The sweat might be dripping down my neck and my bare ankles burning from all of the hops and nettle I stepped through to reach the river’s sand-and-pebble shore, but, in this summer’s heat, I am happy. I find the greatest peace at the most extreme of temperatures. At 20 below and 100 above, all but the hardiest of creatures are still and quiet, and, whether muffled in layers of clothing or in waves of heat, I feel alone and at home.

Unless, of course, it is a long Sunday afternoon, and droves of pool-less, beach-less citizens suddenly appear. As much as I like my peace, it is good to be reminded how very much I am part of a larger community. My boys play in the water with the children they meet, even if they and their families only speak Spanish. Kayaking hipsters wave hello to us. “Country” folk share fishing stories. Bored teenagers of every shape and size and color appear in motley groups, trying to escape the watchful eyes of adults. (They look a little annoyed when they see me, but my dog wins them over). The river, so imperfect, is so very American.

 

 

A Few of My Favorite Things

Because I can’t pick just one thing when I have such little time to write, and The Sound of Music is inspiring any time of the year…

A doe, a deer, a female deer. There’s a Where’s Waldo scavenger hunt going on in downtown Frederick this month, but at the river we like to do things a little differently.

20160721_133155.jpg

 

Raindrops on…Sharp-winged Monkey-flowers. Because the bloom of the mimulus alatus is beautiful, but the common name is even better.

20160721_143748.jpg

 

Ford every stream. Seriously. It’ll cool you off.

20160721_142135.jpg

 

How do you solve a problem like… trash? Clean it up, one piece at a time.

20160721_143929.jpg

 

High School Stars

20160705_101051.jpg

Warning: I am about to write something completely off-topic.

A few days ago, the local paper ran a front-page story about the sudden death of a 30-year-old former local high school football star. No, let me correct that: it wrote about anything but the death of a 30-year-old former local high school football star. I would be positive and say that it wrote about his life, but that would also be untrue. The lengthy story concentrated only on what an amazing, focused athlete he was as a teenager; how he was so good and so serious that his friends didn’t like to involve him in pick-up games; how he gave up every other sport for football; how he had the world at his feet and colleges banging down his door; how he casually and confidently chose to go to the University of Maryland…until he injured his spinal column at the end of his freshman year, transferred to Penn State, never played again, and “life did not get easier.” After this statement, the writer returns to extolling the young man’s athleticism in high school for several more paragraphs, before dropping this quote from one of his old high school buddies: “We haven’t really hung out much or talked to him much…There wasn’t much in common here lately. We didn’t really want to associate with him, unfortunately.”

The cause of this young man’s death is never mentioned, and so I cannot with certainty say why he died. But there are dark hints that lead to some sad possibilities. He had a bad football injury, most certainly painful, and was never able to play football again. Afterwards, his “life did not get easier.” His friends ceased hanging out with him and “didn’t really want to associate with him.” He died suddenly of a cause not reported. When I read between these lines, I see hints toward depression, personality change (think: concussions), and, very likely, addiction. I also see a lost opportunity for a real story.

I understand that, for the sake of his family and friends, relating the (apparent) grimness of his recent years and the (painful? sad? tragic?) details of his death is something that, as a sympathetic writer, you might be reluctant to do. You want to remember the good times. But, to put his death on the front page and and to devote almost 30 paragraphs solely to his years as an amazing high school football player seems entirely disrespectful of the majority of his life. Was he truly only valued for those 2 or 3 years of athletic greatness? Did he fall off the face of the earth after football? The article notes that his Facebook page mentions working for a local tree service and country club. Did he have no friends from these places to quote? What has he been doing for the last 10 years? Was it of no value? Was he of no value?

I am afraid that he might have felt that way. I hope not. I hope he found life afterwards. I hope that he didn’t become addicted to painkillers. I hope that he didn’t become depressed and choose to self-medicate. I hope that he found something to live for outside of football. I hope that he found other interests and friends. I hope that he didn’t think that the best years of his life were over. I hope that he died in a way that had nothing to do with his “tough times” after leaving football. I hope.

It’s strange how angry this article has left me…for him, his family, his loved ones, for all those injured athletes who have had to face life after their sport.  All of these men and women are more than what they can do on a field, or how fast they can run, or how hard they can kick. Let’s be respectful of that. Let’s remember that. Let’s remind them of that.

We are not to be defined by one ability, by one time in our life, by one tragedy that changed things. We are all so much more.

More Trash Talk

20160602_171030.jpg

In honor of our recent Independence Day, I’m returning to my main topic: trash. The 4th of July produces a lot of it, in the form of picnic scraps and recreational debris, like firecracker wrappers, cigarette stubs, and fishing paraphernalia. For now I’ll think of the trash as evidence of our ability to rejoice, in spite of the storms, literal and figurative, that are pounding our nation.