Dangerous Beauty

 

The Honey Locust, or Gelditsia triacanthos, is a remarkable but treacherous tree. Its lower trunk is covered in 3-inch barbs so sharp that in the past they were used by woodsmen as pins, spear points, and animal traps. (More recently, they’ve been known to pierce running shoes and flatten bicycle tires with a budget-busting regularity.) The trees are common along the Monocacy River, and currently they’re festooned in the long, flat, curling seed pods that inspired the “honey” in their name. The pulp of the pod is sweet enough to tempt wildlife like deer, squirrels, and rabbits, and Native Americans, in addition to using the pulp of the Honey Locust as a thickener and sweetener, also roasted its seeds as a source of protein. I, however, prefer to admire the trees from a distance.

More Trash Talk

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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.

Reflections on “Cicada”

Cicadas remind me of transformations. Slow, patient transformations. Even the annual cicadas live in the earth for years, feeding on tree roots as small, white nymphs before finally crawling out of the soil to trade their dull exoskeletons for wings and color. After a life of silence, they drown out even the birds’ songs with a harsh, incessant buzzing that, for me, is the defining sound of summer. They demand to be heard. Is it their years of invisibility that makes such bold insistence possible?

If so, can I learn from them? Can I accept my years of quiet acquiescence as years of growth and then be brave enough to let them go, to break out of them and find a new form? While nature forces the cicada into its impressive transformations, it seems to work against my own. It is much easier to remain as I am, safe and fed, than to risk the precious resources of time and energy to try something new.

Loss has been such a power in my life that I’m reluctant to lose anything purposefully, even if it is my own sense of limitation. When I lost my mother at the age of 5, it was too much for me to understand. Certainly I couldn’t put my grief into words. I knew only that my world seemed to change color the day she was buried, from bright hues to a constant sickly green. In the car, I would count my family over and over again, only to come up with the wrong number, but for some reason I was sure that it wasn’t my mother I was missing. There was something else, something bigger, something too frightening to really look at. I wished upon the first stars of many nights for my mother to return, until a well-meaning adult told me that I needed to wish for something I really could have…like a Barbie doll. Children are so resilient, I heard them say.

But I didn’t feel resilient. Not even 20 years later, when my oldest brother died in an accident so bizarre that it’s almost impossible to discuss. We buried him next to my mother, while his own son, the same age that I was when my mother died, looked on. Why can’t anyone just grow up with both of their parents? my grandfather asked at the wake. My brother’s loss was nothing less than a reaffirmation that change is frightening, risk is an expression of stupidity, and that that great big hole was never really going to be filled.

As it happens, I was with my brother’s son, now an adult, when I found the cicada yesterday. He bent to look at it with me, still wondering at my weird preoccupation with the life of the Monocacy River. He was there at my son’s command, to skip rocks across the slow, brown water of one of the broadest spots along the river. He is, like my brother, a gentle and soft-spoken man with a desire for family and a peaceful life. In fact, he is studying to become a family counselor, noting that he wants to help people the way people helped him. Maybe that is what resiliency looks like.

Grief can force change. It can force action. It can force one to see time more clearly for the precious thing it is. I know that there is time to wait and to grow, but that time is not limitless. I need to dig myself out of my safe hole, shed my fears and truly spread my wings. I’ve been close so many times. What’s stopping me now?

The Bird up the River

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Yesterday I volunteered at my son’s school picnic, which was held at a park some ways up the river. The day itself was nice, sunny and breezy, not at all humid, and even cool in the shade. The morning was going well, my son seeming to play happily with his friends while I monitored a life-size version of Angry Birds, the highlight of which, surprisingly, was not flinging painted balls from a large slingshot,  but rebuilding the fortress of cardboard boxes that the balls knocked down. I got bonked on the head a few times, but this was nothing to what was happening inside of my head. As I looked on, the world was becoming blurred at the edges and overexposed, overlaid in pulsing splotches of shimmering color. I drank water, smiled at the other volunteers, laughed at the kids, but my sense of otherworldliness grew as the slow hours progressed.

In the afternoon, after a lunch of pizza and oranges, I noticed my son sitting apart from the other kids. At his mute but earnest request (a pair of hazel eyes can speak volumes), I’d been keeping my distance, but, even from 200 yards away, I could see by his drooping shoulders that something was wrong. When I got close, I could see that he was crying, and, after a practiced silence and casual inquiry, I discovered that the group of boys he usually relied upon had “banished” him from their circle the rest of the year because he had spoken meanly to them “just once!” For a group of children entering middle school, such behavior is perhaps to be expected, and not just among girls, as people so stereotypically suppose. My son and his friends seem to have spats regularly; one night he has “no friends” and the next he’s talking about what funny things his best buddy said that day.

As typical as this may be, however, it is even more complicated for my son, who suffers from poor impulse control and even worse social skills because of things that happened to him even before he was born. Through no fault of his own, his behavior can seem bullying when he’s trying to be funny, and he cannot read subtle social cues. For instance, he’s quite sure you want him in your game even though you smirked and rolled your eyes when he joined in. My son’s temper is short – he blows his top at small things and spirals into an ugly vortex of nasty name-calling – but a few minutes later he can’t remember what he said. When you accuse him of saying something rude or pulling your arm and he denies it, you think he’s lying, and, technically, he is, but he honestly believes he’s telling the truth. As a parent, I know all this, I’ve studied it and wrestled it with it, and it is still difficult for me.  How, then, can I expect another child to understand? Or, honestly, even another adult? Despite the books, articles and pointed conversations I’ve distributed in my son’s wake, among all of the teachers and staff and adults he sees, understanding and acceptance are slow to follow.

Of course I didn’t say all of this to my son or to the boys who hurt him. I did, however, let them know that they had hurt him and that, whatever he had said, hurting him back wasn’t the best way to deal with it. Eventually they made some tentative movements at reconciliation, but not before my impaired vision was joined by an all-encompassing headache that made me feel as if my mind had detached itself from my body.

And there was over an hour left of the picnic.

With everything going on, it’s amazing that I noticed the flash of orange darting from tree to tree, and a miracle that I didn’t write it off as something that I was imagining. In fact, as I slowly approached the sycamore across the way, I told myself that it was impossible, that it couldn’t be what I thought it was, what I was hoping it was. Once underneath the tree, I looked up, scanning the branches, and, just when I was sure that whatever it was had moved on or had never been, I saw a  bird light onto one of the lower limbs. And – I had been right – there it was – an actual Baltimore Oriole! It was the first one I’ve ever seen in real life, despite its status as Maryland state bird and mascot of our beloved major league baseball team. And it was every bit as bold and bright orange as texts had always assured me.

It was a small thing in a long day, but there’s a poem by Emily Dickinson that I often return to and that this Oriole so completely illustrates:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

There’s Poison on the Trail

As I walk by the river these days, I am overwhelmed by itchy green things. Poison hemlock plants tower over me on their purple mottled stalks, their delicate white flowers opening like tiny parasols over their broad, finely-cut leaves. They are as poisonous as their name suggests (it’s the extract of this hemlock, conium maculatum, in fact, that likely killed Socrates), which might strike me as ominous if I wasn’t so busy avoiding the Japanese hops spreading their itchy tendrils all over ground. Both of these plants are invasive aliens, crowding out the less rigorous (and, quite literally, less irritating) native plants, like the nodding pale touch-me-nots pictured below. Native or not, I photograph and identify every flower I see on my Wildflowers of the Monocacy page, which I hope will help others who wander the trails by the river.

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It’s Not My Party

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This piece of trash is just wrong on so many levels. First there’s the picture. We all know that’s not a cigar in her mouth. And, if the picture isn’t obvious enough, the words all over the wrapper will give you a hint: XXL, Wet Mango! Besides all of that innuendo (which is much too subtle a word for something that immediately inspires the knowing guffaws of two adolescent boys), there’s the product itself. Mango flavored cigars? I would ask who in the world would ever be tempted by such a combo, if it weren’t obvious by this open wrapper that clearly there is someone out there who thought, “Hey, great idea!” The sort of someone, by the way, who leaves this:

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In case you can’t tell, that’s the remains of a fire on a well-used trail by the Monocacy River. In addition to cigars, the anonymous fire-starters also consumed Juicy Drop taffy, hot dogs, and Mountain Dew. And, for some reason, instead of using their plastic bags to carry away their trash, they did this:

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Yep, they burned them. Both of them. Like I said, just wrong.

Hidden Places

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Mysterious, hidden places are the lifeblood of children’s literature. I think of the classic realism of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s garden in A Secret Garden, the fantastical realm of Neil Gaiman’s graveyard in The Graveyard Book, or maybe something in between like the hidden country in Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia. These places, however, are not only for children.  Adults, too, have their secret spots, whether real, earthbound escapes or hidden corners of their memories or imagination.

I have a few such places in both categories. The ones in my mind, like Tallameirissa, where live generations of characters with elaborate histories and mythologies, I can always reach unless I am too troubled, but some of my real escapes, like the sun-scorched ruins of Samos, or a snow-covered overlook on the Gunflint Trail, require too much travel to be of help with any regularity. For a more daily escape, I have only to look to the quieter dirt trails along the Monocacy River.  There, I have touch points that I like to revisit, usually places where I’ve seen something mundane but amazing, like a lonely trout lily, or a flattened clearing of grass where deer have slept, or the dead tree with the hole 15 feet above the ground where I once spotted a rat snake sleeping after shedding its old skin. I’ve visited the old, holy tree more than 100 times since seeing the snake, always hoping to find it again, but I never have.  I’m not really sure why I feel so compelled to look so often.  I suppose it must be hope itself.  It has its own kind of magic.

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My boys spotted a rat snake in a different tree a few days ago. Its black coils shining in the sun, it was twined around a thick branch of a tree that had fallen into the river.  When the boys, far too curious to resist its magnificence, began poking it with a very long stick, it resentfully uncoiled itself and slipped into a hollow of the tree.  It was so long that the tip of its tail remained tauntingly visible, but it had more patience than the boys, who decided to move on and create trouble elsewhere, in their own hidden and mysterious places, some of which, I hope, I know nothing about.

What I See

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I’m actually distressed by the amount of “new” birds I’m seeing this spring. When I set out to do a backyard bird list for my small stretch of the Monocacy River (see the Birds of the Monocacy page), I promised to record the appearance of a bird only when I was absolutely sure that I had identified it correctly. I imagined that there would be a quick burst of activity in the beginning as I noted the most common birds (robins, crows, house sparrows, etc.), followed by only sporadic additions. As it happens, I was entirely wrong. My bird sightings have been constant and frequent, almost unbelievably so. When I see three new birds in a day, when I find more than one type of swallow in a week, when I notice a bird that I’ve never seen before, I begin to doubt myself.  It’s impossible, isn’t it? Won’t real birders say that I must be mistaken? That I’m just hoping that I’ve seen these different birds?

While I was internally berating myself like this one day, even considering pretending not to have seen the green heron perched in the tree a few yards back, I realized that there was a perfectly good explanation for why I was suddenly seeing all of these birds. Namely, I was suddenly seeing all of these birds.  Hadn’t I, in the past, seen a small bird out of the corner of my eye and simply thought, “Oh, small bird”? Or maybe I hadn’t see the small bird at all, because I was looking down, or ahead, or at some picture in my mind. And it’s not really about seeing at all, is it? It’s about looking. That bird is small, it’s brown, its tail is short and tipped up, it has white stripes by its eyes, it hangs out in the bushes. Oh, it’s a wren! What kind of wren? How small is it, really, how clear are its markings, what is its song? Oh, it’s a Carolina wren!

I remember when I first really understood drawing. I had always drawn. I was a highly complimented drawer, in fact, but when I was about eleven, I realized that there was something missing from my drawings. They didn’t look real. They were only flat representations of real things. I was stuck in this place for a long time, until one day in art class, my new teacher said, “Look at what you’re drawing. Don’t draw what you think should be there. Draw what is there.” Look at the lines, look at the shadow, look at the color. The sky isn’t simply blue or gray. It’s violet and olive and all sorts of shades in between. So is that rock and that leaf and that flower and your skin. Her words were magic. They were like a spell that opened my eyes and transformed what I saw, permanently changing the way I drew and painted.

Look. See what is there. Don’t think in shoulds. You’ll be amazed at what you find.

Constructive Destruction

My boys are a destructive force – let’s just put that out there – and it’s one of my jobs, as their mother, to civilize them and thus to mitigate their destruction. Of course, we all have a little bit of the savage in us. When I discuss the animal kingdom, I like to include myself, as a human, in that kingdom, and acknowledge that many of our actions, and our motivations, are rooted in our basic, animal selves. We want to survive, we want to thrive, and we want the resources and power we require to do that. Some of us are better equipped for survival, whether through biology or circumstance or, perhaps most importantly, adaptability and resilience. Others struggle.

It is a quandary that I encounter on an almost daily basis that my boys, in order to survive, seem to need to destroy and dismantle. Unless they dig holes, bang on trees, lift logs or break something, they themselves fall apart. According to today’s parlance, they have “sensory issues.”  Why they have these issues is not something I wish to discuss.  It’s up to them to share such information.  It’s enough simply to say that intense activity is necessary for them to function in a way that modern society would find acceptable.  And yet, in this modern world of cities and towns and carefully ordered neighborhoods, it is very difficult to find a place for them to be as physical as they need to be.

When he was younger and living in Minnesota, my older son used to dig holes in our yard. They were all over the place, some quite deep, and he liked to move the black dirt from place to place, pretending to fill in potholes, imagining that one day he would find the dragon that lived underneath us.  Perhaps because we lived in an older house in an older neighborhood, our neighbors were simply amused by the whole process.  Here in Maryland, however, we have found some of our neighbors less tolerant of such endeavors.  After my sons began excavating a rather large trench, one of them said to me, with an air of innocent kindliness, “I’ve always had neighbors who take care of their yards.  I guess I’ve been lucky.” The until now was unspoken but eloquent.

Driven from our home, the Monocacy River has become the boys’ primary outlet.  Yet, even there, I must apply some restrictions.  It is, after all, public property, and they can’t simply cut down a tree where they wish. When they dig holes, I worry about where they’re digging, and, as much as possible, I protect living things from being injured by their projects. After some internal debate, I no longer argue when they build their dams, which allow them to lift, dig, haul and plan, on the small streams that are off the main river.  They break them as quickly as they build them, enthralled by watching the water bulge over its temporary banks, then burst out, refilling the channels downstream like a miniature tsunami. Still, as the spring progresses, we encounter more fine-weather walkers, and I can see the disapproval in their furrowed brows and tight lips, the aggressive slowing of their gait as they pass us by.

But where are we to go?  What are we to do? We ask our children to sit quietly at their desks at school all day. From experience I know that, if they can’t, a common consequence is to have their recess taken away. And gym, music, and art, which used to be outlets for creative activity, are now often as filled with tests and standardized academic measurements as math or reading.  When the children come home, we then want them to participate in organized sports and activities, which still require sitting, or listening, or drilling. If a child can’t do these things, then what?  Where do they go?  What do they do? How can they be in this world?

I’m a rule-follower. I’m a conflict-avoider.  But I’m slowly abandoning the lifelong role of people-pleaser. It’s simply impossible, and, as much as I think it’s desirable, it’s really not. And so I will let my sons play at the river.  And some people will disapprove of how they play. But they will be the unfortunate ones, because, in their quest for rightness, they’ll miss wonder and passion and the beauty that destruction sometimes brings.

 

Your Servant

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Choices, circumstances, and the general vagaries of life have led me to my current occupation, the title of which seems to change according to time or point of view.  What I would have called a “housewife” growing up, is now, for the most part, a stay-at-home-mom (SAHM), but other terms I’ve heard used include domestic engineer (blah), domestic diva (ick), or homemaker (eh). In any case, the job comes with no pay or social security benefits, lots of judgement and guilt, and repetitive tasks.  Of course I’m very lucky to be able to stay at home and rely on someone else’s income.  It’s a privilege to be available to help at my sons’ schools, take them to their appointments, and field the emotional crises that their needs dictate.  It is wonderful to be able to adapt my schedule for my husband’s honestly difficult and stressful job.  My troubles are that of a middle-class white woman living in America, which renders them the least troublesome of all troubles in most of the rest of the world.  I am intelligent enough and unselfish enough to see that. But sometimes I do want more. Not more things. Just more. And it’s out there.

Collecting the Monocacy’s trash and writing this blog is part of the more.  What’s ironic, however, is how much the task can resemble my occupation.  After all, what am I doing, really, but cleaning up after people?  Usually the debris is so random and spread apart that the cleaning is rendered impersonal and therefore can assume an abstract expression of environmentalism.  There are times, though, when I just feel like some stranger’s beleaguered mother.  There is, for instance, an area on the “island” that a group of people use for a campfire every weekend.  When I’m doing my rounds on Sunday or Monday, I find, in addition to their ashes (which are dangerously close to a massive pile of dried wood, leaves and other kindling-like materials), beer cans, food wrappers, and miscellaneous garbage. A photo collage would do the scene justice:

In case you’re wondering, yes, that is a silly putty egg.  There was a deodorant cap, too, for the person who, I suppose, while sucking down his beer, noticed his pits stank.

But I’m not judging.  Oh, well, of course I am.  And isn’t that where this problem started?  I feel judged and so I judge, and we’re all a little more unhappy even though we imagine we’re the opposite? There are days when I feel tremendous joy and gratitude, when I understand how very lucky I am. And then there are days when I feel as if I’ll never get to the top of the trash heap (or is it the bottom?  I’ve gotten lost in this metaphor). Either way, I’m here, and so is the trash.  And so is the river.