A Creek with No Name

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Frederick City lies in a valley, cut through by the Monocacy River and surrounded by the Catoctin Mountains, which are part of the ancient Appalachian Mountains that range through the eastern United States, from Maine to Georgia. When I’m feeling romantic, I tell people that I am from the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which is another name for this region of the Appalachians. On hazy days, which are plentiful, the mountains do indeed appear blue, a result of the isoprene released by the trees that cover them.

Beside a winding road up to these mountains, runs one of many small streams that flow through Frederick County. Although this stream is small enough to lack a proper name, it is significant in my family as the site of “Uncle J’s property,” which was given to him by my grandfather, who purchased it after proposing to my grandmother along the stream’s banks. Since it cannot be built upon, it is worthless as real estate, and, in fact, no one has ever made an effort to fence in or claim the small plot in any official manner. It’s nothing, really, but a cool escape – quite literally, actually, since it averages about ten degrees cooler than the city proper – where we can splash in the clear water, let the dogs go to roam freely over the fern-covered slopes, and be left entirely alone.

 

Marquis on the Monocacy

Frederick is full of history, from its Hessian barracks dating to the Revolutionary period, to Francis Scott Key, who wrote the national anthem during the War of 1812, to its Civil War hospitals and battlefields.  Every school child learns about Barbara Fritchie, who, along with Frederick’s “clustered spires,” was made famous by John G. Whittier’s poem about her bold star-spangled flag-waving at Stonewall Jackson when he marched his Confederate troops through town, and it’s hard to miss the multitude of signs and markers commemorating various historical events throughout the county. The Monocacy River is well decorated itself, mostly for its role in the Civil War’s Battle of Monocacy, which “saved” Washington, D.C. by waylaying the Confederacy, but also for another, happier event.

From 1808 to 1942, a stone arch bridge carried the Old National Road (Rte. 40) over the Monocacy River in Frederick, Maryland. On its east end stood a large stone monument shaped like a demijohn, a vessel popularly used for holding bourbon (in fact, there is a rumor that there is an actual demijohn of bourbon inside the monument), which gave the bridge its name, “Jug Bridge.” When the famous Revolutionary War general Marquis de Lafayette came from France to make his popular tour of the United States in 1824, one of his stops was at the Jug Bridge, where he addressed a large crowd of enthusiastic Fredericktonians. After the bridge suddenly collapsed in 1942, the “jug” and a marker commemorating Lafayette’s visit were eventually moved about 2 miles away, to a small park near the Frederick Airport, where the National Road flows into downtown Frederick’s Patrick Street. There have been discussions about moving the monument elsewhere, but I’m glad it’s still not too far from the Monocacy River that inspired it in the first place.

Oh, and it’s quite convenient to the MVA.

 

*If you like humor in your history and are interested in learning more about the Marquis, I highly recommend Sarah Vowell’s Lafayette in the Somewhat United States. Vowell also reported on Lafayette’s 1824 tour of the United States in This American Life’s Episode 291: “Reunited (And It Feels So Good).” You can find it here:

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The Unexpected

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My grandfather and his brother, and their father before them, were doctors who practiced general medicine in Frederick, Maryland, throughout the 20th century. As country physicians, house calls and home births were the rule during most of their careers. Medicine changed radically during the period, the advent of antibiotics offering cures for countless illnesses that had been lethal throughout history, and the establishment of medicare and insurance ushering out an era when payment for a check-up might have been a dozen eggs. Grandaddy was a natural storyteller whose profession provided him with endless material (much to my grandmommy’s chagrin, at times). One story he liked to tell inspired me so much that I included it in a short story of my own.  While my story wasn’t all bad, it was written during a dark period in my early twenties, and so I tossed it away with a great deal of other material I wrote at the time. It’s just as well. The story is Grandaddy’s, and he tells it best anyway. He’s been gone over 10 years now, but his voice was distinctive. I’ll do the best I can to tell the story as he did, but I promise you it won’t be as good as the version he told in his dark living room, sitting back in his armchair and puffing sweet tobacco smoke from his pipe:

Sometimes I had to deliver lots of babies in the same day, and I had to drive all over the place to get to everyone in time. One day like this, I got a call from farmer Winters [names have been changed] while I was at another house, and he told me that his wife was in labor and I needed to get there quick. I told him, of course, I’d be there as soon as possible, but I was still attending to another mother and couldn’t get there immediately. On the phone he seemed fine: Mrs. Winters had had children before, and there was no reason to be alarmed. So, as soon as I could, and it was quicker than I’d even led him to believe, I drove to the Winters Farm and knocked at the door. Mr. Winters answered, quite upset with me. He said, “Doc, what’s taken you so damned long? I told you to get here quick!” By his tone – he was red-faced and irate and almost in tears – I thought that something must have gone terribly wrong with Mrs. Winters, but when I got upstairs, I found her doing just fine, and I delivered the baby a little later with no trouble at all. After it was over, Mr. Winters led me to the door and apologized profusely for how rude he’d been to me earlier.  “You see, doc,” he said, “my cow gave birth to a two-headed calf this morning, and I was just a little upset!”

I always laughed at the end of the story, but the humor behind the punchline is a little muddled, and the humor I see in it has evolved as I’ve aged.  Is it funny because a two-headed calf is just weird?  Or are we laughing because the farmer was more concerned about his cow than his wife?  Or is the joke that the farmer was worried that his wife would have a two-headed baby as well? As I look at it now, I see that Grandaddy was maybe making fun of himself as well, the doctor looking through his own narrow lens and being blindsided by a completely unexpected explanation.

You’re right, Grandaddy: the unexpected is hilarious. Socks on the sidewalk. Cardinal whistles on the beach. Hats in trees. And I miss you.

 

 

 

Trashology, Part 2

Most of the trash I find is repetitive and unremarkable: soda and beer cans, plastic cups and bags, miscellaneous wrappers.  On occasion, however, I encounter something curious, unique either for its innate qualities or locale, and when I find these things, I photograph them, catalog them mentally, and move on.  But now it’s time to settle up and, piece by piece, present to you my sideshow of the strange and remarkable Trash on the Monocacy.

A bird whistle?

 

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It says it’s a Glo-Coater Wax Applier.

 

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In case you didn’t pick up your spork.

 

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I haven’t figured out the make and model yet.

 

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I wouldn’t trust it.

 

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I think that’s Snoopy. Or maybe Woodstock. Definitely Peanuts.

 

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And, last of all, in my Pollyanna-ish moments, I like to think that someone placed this bottle so conspicuously on this branch so that they could come back for it later. When I’m objective, I realize someone was just, well, not thinking.  But, when I’m tired and cynical, this looks like someone flicking the bird at the river.  Today is wet and gray, so I’m thinking definitely the bird.

The good news: none of this trash is on the Monocacy anymore.

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.

The Wild Life, Part 2

There is a dirt path off of a paved trail that leads to a sort of overlook of the Monocacy River.  There, one can simply stand and watch the murky river wend its way toward the Monocacy Boulevard Bridge, or one can skid down a steep and often muddy trail toward a makeshift footbridge that provides access to the water. Usually this is a popular spot for fishermen, but this morning I encountered two painted turtles instead. As I generally only see them sunning themselves on logs from a distance, I was surprised to find them in the shade on a rocky path.  I assume that they forgot to move with the sun, which, like the water, was only a few feet away.  When I moved off with my two unimpressed dogs, the smaller one peeked out of its shell and gradually scrabbled toward the water.  The larger one, which remained calm throughout the ordeal, apparently wanted another chance at the snooze button.

The good news for these river-dwellers is that I’ve been encountering far less trash.  The visible sort, at least. The cleanliness of the water, subjected for miles to agricultural runoff and the vagaries of development, is another matter entirely.  For those who are interested, I have been gathering links to information about the river’s history and conservation on my page The Monocacy River.

Birds of Prey Are Cool

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A few summers ago, my son participated in a day camp at the Catoctin Creek Nature Center.  One day, he came home eager to share something with us: a YouTube video. (Yeah, I know, I thought that it would be a cool feather or something, too). So, he typed “Birds of Prey Are Cool” into the search tool, and up came an educational video about (obviously) birds of prey, featuring a montage of film and pictures set to a weirdly catchy, folksy, guitar-strumming song cataloging each bird. Although it’s been years, we all still break out into song almost every time we see a hawk, eagle or vulture, which, embarrassingly, is not rarely.  In case you would like to do the same, here it is:

Birds of prey are common along the Monocacy, and, while I do see eagles, vultures (both Black and Turkey), red-tailed hawks, and barred owls are the most easily spotted (or heard). There is a pair of hawks that reliably nest not far from my neighborhood, and vultures glide over us in broad circles nearly every day.  In general, I see these birds from afar, but lately my interactions with them have been a little more personal.  While walking through a wooded area a few weeks ago, I disturbed a couple of turkey vultures and a crow who were feasting on a rabbit. While the crow chased off one vulture, the other flew in my direction, headed for a nearby branch.  Though not beautiful, turkey vultures are large, impressive birds, and my young hound mix was threatened enough to jump onto her hind legs, pull against her leash, and let loose a barrage of growling barks.  Eventually it was annoyed enough to leave, flying low and heavy through the trees.  Then, only two nights ago, at dusk, a barred owl squatted comfortably on a neighbor’s roof, allowing itself to be seen and chattered at by every small bird within a quarter mile’s radius. It was completely nonplussed, and no doubt was the same owl who couldn’t stop repeating his questioning hoots a few nights before. (The barred owl is the one who so famously asks, “Who cooks for you?”)  It took my son forever to fall asleep because he couldn’t resist opening the window and leaning out into the cool dark to hear the owl better.  The owl did get his answer that night, but it was from another barred owl, not us.

Today, in addition to a red-tailed hawk diving into the trees and a turkey vulture soaring in the distance, I saw a few other surprising birds, who, while not birds of prey, are predators in the eyes of fish and other swimming things.  Just as I approached the river, a belted kingfisher leapt from a tree toward the opposite bank, and below, on the water, I found a double-crested cormorant swimming on its own.  Both of these birds are ones that I feel lucky to have found, especially on the same day.  If you haven’t seen a belted kingfisher, you should look at my “Birds of the Monocacy” page, where I record all of my avian sightings.  The belted kingfisher really is a hilarious bird, something of a mix between a blue jay and a kookaburra.

But what has this to do with trash?  Well, to be sure, the vultures do a far better job keeping the river clean than I do.  They’re not very interested in picking up all the plastic, of course, but I’m not so inclined to deal with rotting flesh. I happily leave that to them.

Teasel

Teasel is what is called a “noxious weed.”  Spiny throughout, from leaf to stem to seed pod, it grows tall, branches out, and lasts through winter as a brown, hollow version of itself. Even as I trample it, it catches and tears at me, scratching my hands, pulling at my boiled wool jacket, yanking my hair.  It shreds holes in my garbage bag, too, forcing me to abandon my trash-gathering task earlier than planned, but it’s hard to resist venturing into the thistle, when tattered plastic flaps from its bones like a poor man’s banner.

Trashology

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Yesterday, just for fun, I recorded the brand of every piece of trash I gathered.  I was exploring new territory, an open meadow with lots of prickly shrubs that I usually avoid (see the sign above), and the quantity of cups and cans overwhelmed me.  There was much more than I could carry:

Deer Park Water

Mountain Dew (Diet and otherwise, many times over)

Dairy Queen

Sheetz

Monster Energy

Bud Light

Wegman’s

Harris Teeter (migrating trash, apparently)

Powerade

7-11

Coca Cola

Domino’s

Olive Garden

Utz

Starbucks (for Tammy, whoever and wherever she is)

Pepsi

Tropicana

Rockin’ Refuel

Fanta (orange)

A&W Cream Soda

Gatorade

McDonald’s

Rita’s Italian Ice

I brought all of these home, some for the trash can, but most for recycling.  Unfortunately, the city only gathers the recycling every other week, so I always end up filling the recycling can, bin and extra cardboard boxes of my own to overflowing.  I’m a little concerned about how much more trash warmer weather will generate. I might have to start begging my neighbors for recycling space.

The Thing with Feathers

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Juncos and friends braving the blizzard of 2016

When I was a little girl and people asked what animal I would like to be, which, for some reason, they did quite often, I would always answer, “A swan.” Likely I was influenced by fairy tale drawings (what was a castle, after all, without a swan swimming in its lake, preferably at sunset?) and at least a little by E.B. White’s The Trumpet of the Swan and Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling. The swan, to me, was the epitome of beauty and elegance, with a potential for a brilliant future, and, of course, it could swim or fly with equal grace.

When I grew a little older, I began to find the swan and bit too ostentatious, and, by the time I was a teenager, desiring total anonymity and feeling very small and frightened, I decided that I would rather be a mouse. Sometime in my thirties, although people had stopped asking, I decided again that I would like to be a bird, but not a swan. Instead, I would like to be a small bird, a common bird, one that is much stronger and and more interesting than people assume.  Maybe a chickadee, like those I watched endure Minnesota winters with cheerful fortitude, fluffed up among pine branches in their small black caps, or a junco, like a little gentleman in a gray tuxedo, so dapper and sprightly, even in the midst of a blizzard. I’m not sure, but I do admire them. And I wish that I could fly.

Because of my affinity for birds, I watch for them, and observe them, and, on a separate page on this blog, record them.  Today was a particularly good day for spotting birds at the Monocacy.  Besides the usual Robins, Red-wings, and Cardinals, I saw an American Goldfinch, an Eastern Bluebird, a few Tree Swallows, a pair of Canada Geese (accompanied, for some reason, by a bachelor Mallard), a Red-tailed Hawk, some noisy Crows, and a wading bird and woodpecker that were just too far away for sure identification.  Honestly, I was so distracted that I left quite a bit of trash on the ground. But, unlike the birds, it’s not going anywhere, and neither am I.  For now.