Rivers from the Sky

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Clearly I wrote about flooding too soon this year. Last night, my sons called me to the driveway to look up at the sky. It was awash in clouds; high cirrus behind monstrous — but still white — cumulonimbus, their rapid swelling and blossoming revealed and backlit by the setting sun. To the north, a slit of clear sky was still visible against the horizon. Wisps of cloud, mere suggestions of tornados, reached toward the earth. The day had been stifling, the air choked with humidity and heat, and we could still feel that latent energy as a small breeze began to stir. It was beautiful, but not frightening.

An hour later, the street had turned into a large creek, and hail the size of dimes and playing marbles lined the driveway. A constant stream of ice and rain fell from the clouds, which continued to settle and grow over us. My raised garden filled with muddy water, and the peonies bowed their heads against the onslaught. Since our house is built on the high ground in the neighborhood, the boys and I could watch the churning storm in relative safety, our only danger the slippery floors created by the hail and rain driven through open doors, but the streets of Frederick city overflowed, roads closed, and buildings flooded. Our phones constantly sounded with alarms and warnings. My oldest, who has always loved extreme weather (in kindergarten, he told his teacher he wanted to be a storm chaser, and all he wanted for Christmas were books and videos and posters of tornadoes), begged to be allowed to ride his bike to the river. Our faces must have spoken volumes, because he gave up the argument much more quickly than usual.

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This morning, he woke up early to check out the river, and I followed behind him shortly after. The sidewalks were scattered with leaves and frail limbs and branches, and the paved paths along the river required rubber boots and waders in spots. The informal dirt paths had turned into small streams in some places and disappeared entirely into the river in others.

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Worms writhed in the puddles, and tadpoles found temporary sidewalk homes in the overflowing waters of the vernal ponds. I hope that they’ll find their way home on their own, but the forecast suggests they may not need to for some time. Rain, rain, and more thunder and rain is expected for the rest of the week.

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But I wait. And wonder. Always wonder.

 

 

In the Air

Lately, as I sort through the photos in my laptop’s library, I find more of my son’s work than my own. Now outfitted with a much better camera, he takes dozens of photos every time we go planespotting (which is nearly every weekend these days), bouncing between Dulles, BWI, and Reagan National airports. I read or ruminate or listen as he and his friend discuss the finer points of every aircraft that passes over us. As time has progressed, I’ve been gratified to hear their arguments expand to include the merits of different camera settings or even the benefits of varying points of view and composition. It feels as if they’re learning something about more than aviation. Maybe that’s why I was especially pleased to find that my son has broadened his subjects to include the birds that he sees while his eyes are to the sky, particularly the gulls that hang out near Reagan National Airport. What was even better was noticing how alike his compositions are, despite the disparity between steel and feathers.

A profile:

 

A slight lift with a view head-on:

 

Entering the lens:

 

Preparing for landing:

 

Among my own few photos, I found evidence that something else is in the air: spring.

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Unscheduled Departures

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My oldest son’s current obsession is aviation. Actually it’s been an interest for while: at first he simply collected die-cast airplane models and left doodles of aircraft everywhere, but then he began watching videos and reading books, insisting on multiple trips to the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museums, and begging to go on long-distance trips just to ride in the airplane. (When I traveled to England with my niece last summer, the only thing he wanted to know about was Heathrow Airport.) As we are within an hour’s drive of three different international airports (a perk of living in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. area), planes regularly fly overhead. They’re at an altitude high enough that I just think “airplane” when I see one skimming between the clouds, but my son and his similarly-minded friend can name the model and carrier, and, with an app, tell you its origin and destination. Recently, I’ve been driving them both to airports to meet up with other plane spotters, who gather to take photographs, compare life lists (they’re like serious birdwatchers), and speak in aviation techno-tongue (a new language). While I do admire the beauty of a well designed machine, spending my weekends in a field breathing in airplane fumes (did I ever mention I used to get horribly airsick?) is not my idea of leisure. It’s just parental duty. Friendships are new and fragile things for my son, and I feel bound to nurture them as I’m able. But all of this has left me with less time to meander the Monocacy, picking up trash and allowing my mind to wander with my feet.

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My dogs are my only willing companions these days, but my oldest, Poppy, has slowed down significantly this summer. While there was a time when I couldn’t do enough to exhaust her, now there are days when I pick up her leash and she just looks up at me, head between her paws, and sighs. Or we walk out the front door and she immediately slides down onto her belly, claiming the porch for her own, and refuses to come back in for hours. Other days, like this morning, she pulls herself up, wags her tail mildly as I fasten her harness, and totters to the sidewalk behind her overeager friend Rosie and me. For mysterious reasons, Poppy tends to want to walk down the center of the road, and she yearns to visit streets that have never interested her before, but at least a few times a week we make it all the way to the river path, where now the weeds and wildflowers fall in a jumble around us, jostling for the light of the last warm days of the season. And here, as I let her leash go, Poppy smiles.

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I think I do, too.

Way, Way Off the Monocacy

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.

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Complaints in process of dying.

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.

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As I continued to stop to take photos of wildflowers, the oldest pulled ahead, while the youngest usually dallied to give me company.

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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.

But I am glad to be back home on the Monocacy.

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Yellow Salsify (Tragopogon dubius) yesterday morning on the Monocacy River.

Off the River

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In an effort to avoid a Spring Breakdown, a condition caused by two boys with too much time together, I’ve been filling the last few days with as many outings as my sons will allow. (It’s become clear that, before the break began, they formed a pact — and a not-so-silent or secret one at that — that they would never, ever agree on anything, even if it meant contradicting themselves within a matter of seconds in order to disagree.) As much as possible, I’ve kept them outdoors and within a 20-minute drive of the house (a requirement of my oldest), which has meant that we’ve stayed in Frederick County, Maryland. My youngest’s insistence on doing something we haven’t done before put further constraints on my list of possibilities, so, while I would like to say that I’ve created a great travelogue of the county, I can really only claim to have wrung out the last drops of my Fredericktonian imagination.

Catoctin Mountain Park, a National Park in Thurmont, Maryland (and home of Camp David, for the historically minded), abuts and merges with Cunningham Falls State Park, and the trail that I chose to hike with the boys, Cat Rock, is supported by both parks. Most of the trails at Catoctin Mountain Park seem to lead to impressive arrangements of boulders that overlook the valleys of Frederick and the Blue Ridge Mountains, and these rock formations are given bizarre names such as Hog Rock, Wolf Rock, and Chimney Rock, based either on their appearance or history. Whether Cat Rock was so named for the bobcats that were sighted in the area or because someone drunk on moonshine imagined the shape of a cat in the quartzite outcropping is unclear. At any rate, last week was the first time I climbed the trail to Cat Rock, and, judging by our solitude on the trail in contrast to the numerous cars in the parking lots, I believe I’m not the only one to have neglected it. The boys and I scaled the rocks on our own, daring ourselves to leap from one boulder to another, and warning each other not to stand dangerously close to the edge of breathtaking precipices. Which meant, of course, that we all stood much too close to the edge, all of the time.

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The next day, we took a less rigorous walk in the Frederick Municipal Forest, which, like Catoctin Mountain Park, we often visit but haven’t entirely exhausted. If you follow Mountaindale Road into the mountains (toward Gambrill State Park, but don’t follow the road of the same name!), past the reservoir, and along Fishing Creek, you’ll soon notice a tall ledge of exposed stone on the right side of the road. My oldest has been asking for months to explore the area, so on this day I finally agreed, pulling off to the left, behind the truck of a pair of hopeful fishermen. (At this time of year, there are quite a few of them, as the stream is stocked with trout at the end of March). A well-trod path and scattered pieces of garbage proved that we were not the first to be curious about the small outcropping, which provided a view of Fishing Creek as well as an ingenious spot for hide-and-seek.

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When we returned to the car, my oldest spotted a black rat snake basking on a log. Not yet having outgrown their desire to touch whatever they see, the boys approached, scared the snake beneath some rocks, and chased it toward the stream, where they finally succeeded in grabbing it by the tail for a few moments before letting it slide into the water. It stubbornly, and wisely, remained there until we left.

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While I don’t mind snakes as a rule, I’m hoping not to encounter them in the vicinity of our most recent trip, the Fred Archibald Audubon Sanctuary. Located near the small town of New Market, Maryland, off of Boyers Mill Road, the 140-acre reserve of meadow, forest, and scrub is under the care of the Audubon Society of Central Maryland. The boys and I assisted in pulling (and cutting out) some of the more obnoxious invasive species on the reserve one day last winter, and now we have volunteered to monitor the nest boxes in the front portion of the sanctuary through the summer. We are expecting to find Eastern bluebirds (one nest is complete!), wrens, and swallows, as all of these have successfully fledged in recent years. Snakes, unfortunately, have been a problem in the past for the purple martins, who have yet to arrive at their newly-fashioned, extra-snakeproofed nesting boxes.

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Today, I have to confess, I went to the movies. One boy was thrilled, the other found a friend to take him in, and I daydreamed during the car chase. When we got home, I carefully opened the front door, where a pair of house finches have been intermittently constructing a nest on our spring wreath. It’s always nice to know that nature is literally just outside my door.

Delinquency

Thinking about anything has been like slogging through mud lately, so facing the mental gymnastics of writing has been impossible. Whether Christmas, brain chemistry or lack of sleep is to blame, I have no idea, but I’ve been hanging on with a meagre and unhealthy diet of popular fiction. It’s fun while it lasts, but leaves me hungry and unarmed for the simple tasks of daily life.

Even in this half-wakeful state, I can walk through the woods and pick up the trash. A few days in a row, I found plastic bottles filled with balls of tin foil, like this:20161209_163649.jpg

I did puzzle over them a little but wasn’t completely suspicious until I found this alongside them:

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When I googled this combination of objects, I found that, yes, I had a right to be suspicious. I immediately disposed of the objects (though the ammonia kept leaking through my bag) and carefully did not mention them to my boys, who would be all too interested in their explosive chemistry.

Fortunately, they’ve been distracted with their own, much less poisonous and more peaceful, project: the building of a shelter made of fallen branches. It is the perfect size for two boys, one adult, or a couple of curious dogs (and I know this because we’ve tested all such combinations). My oldest even used a bit of my trash to decorate its facade.

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Because you can do more than one thing with an empty bottle.

Four Feet on the Monocacy

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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.

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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.”

Sublimity, meet the Internet.

In Knots

It’s ridiculously trite to say that life is complicated, so let’s leave it unsaid and admit that it’s true all at once. For a stay-at-home-mom (which is what I’ll call myself today), summers are not restful, particularly when camps and the like are impossible for her children. I feel like nothing less than a one-woman show, doling out food, entertainment, and enriching activities to two boys who want nothing more than to fight with each other…constantly. This year, to make matters more difficult, I need to help my father, who is in the early stages of dementia, move from a 4-bedroom house in Pennsylvania to a 2-bedroom apartment in Maryland by the end of August. For a man with hundreds of antiques, ranging from wooden spoons and bowls, to early American furniture, to a vast collection of Noritake china, the prospect of such a move is terrifying, and I find myself in the new position of being the comforter rather than the comforted, even though I myself am almost sick with apprehension, grief and guilt. So, yes, I am tied up in knots this summer.

But I also know that one day I’ll look back on this summer with not a little bit of nostalgia. Some of my most painful moments are my most vividly remembered. These times of transition are unique: held dear as the last precious moments of an earlier life and yet thrilling as the first few steps of a new one. My boys won’t be boys much longer, and my father’s mind will never be better than it is now. As much as I want to rush to September, I must not run blindly and breathlessly through these last few days of June and the entire months of July and August.

I just need to stay afloat.

(No) Pets on the Monocacy

Painted Turtles, big and small American Toads, baby crayfish, Eastern Snapping Turtles: if my boys can see them, they can get their hands on them. So can I, of course, but most of the time I’m pleading for their release, because, one, we don’t need another pet and, two, wild things need to live in the wild. I was acquisitive of animals as a child, too, which is why I know that healthy wild things seldom thrive once put in a tank or a cage. The frogs and toads get away only to be found months later petrified at the back of a closet. The turtles eat your hamburger but look so morose that eventually you just have to put them back where you found them. And the crayfish? Either something in the fish tank eats them, or they eat something in the fish tank. I’m happy to say that I never took a Snapping Turtle home. My brothers were once attacked by one in a lily pond, and that settled the issue.

A few weeks ago, my boys caught a baby rabbit that was living in one of my flower beds. It was small, clearly just out of the nest, and rather stupid about just allowing itself to be handled. (Well, maybe more naive than stupid). I had the boys release it across the street, but it reappeared in the backyard a short time later, and, without telling me, my oldest put it in the cage with his two friendly pet rats, Sugar and Anastasia. Thrilled to see the maiden rats treat the rabbit as if it was their own long lost child, my son called me up from the garage, which I was cleaning, to his room to see a “surprise.” This is what I found:

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Yes, indeed, that is Anastasia grooming the rabbit. As you can imagine, it was very difficult to convince the boys that this situation, while adorable, was not actually good for the health of any of the animals involved. In the end, however, it wasn’t the boys that gave me trouble. They agreed to release the baby rabbit across the street again, but the baby rabbit had other ideas. Within minutes of being let go, it hopped right into the garage, where I was still cleaning, and up to the back door.

“Oh my God,” my husband said, “did it imprint on us?”

“I guess it liked being mothered,” I replied.

I am pleased to say that, no, despite the baby rabbit’s apparent desires, we don’t presently have a rabbit living with our rats.  It took several more tries, but it finally stayed away when we made sure that it noticed that we have two dogs and a cat living in our house in addition to our two affectionate rodents. It’s now living underneath a hedge two houses away.  In the wild.

An Average Memoir on the Monocacy

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One of the most difficult things I find about writing any sort of memoir or personal essay is that I did not and do not live in isolation. The stories that are my own belong to many others as well. I can’t write about motherhood without writing about my children, about my childhood without writing about my brothers and sisters, or about my marriage without writing about my husband. It’s why I often revert to science and history in my posts.

I was raised to be many things, but perhaps most emphatically I was raised to be humble and realistic in my expectations. One night, when I was feeling particularly bad about how school had gone that day, my father told me, “There will always be people smarter than you or better than you. You’re average, and it’s okay. Most of us are average. It’s not worth getting upset about.” I’ve had people tell me that this was a pretty mean thing for a father to say to an eight-year-old girl, but now I’m not so sure. He was being eminently practical and telling me the truth. I am average.

So why do I have the right to intrude on other people’s stories in order to tell my own? There are those who are so wonderful at telling their stories that it would be a shame for them not to write: David Sedaris, for example, who also happens to be another – but far more funny and astute – collector of trash; or Janisse Ray, whose Ecology of a Cracker Childhood deftly and beautifully combines memoir and natural history. But where that leaves me isn’t quite clear.

Where do I end and others begin? It’s not simple. Physicians are told “First, do no harm,” but it’s a directive that could apply to all of us. Certainly it can apply to writing. Yes, I’ll tell my story, and it will be yours as well, but I will not hurt you. Whatever that means.

Originally I intended to write all of this as an introduction to a piece of my own fiction, as an explanation for why I was posting something so irrelevant to the blog itself. While I might still post some fiction in the future, I believe I’ve already inadvertently written today’s entry. Maybe I’ll call it “The Trouble with the I in Memoir.” Or is that not average enough for me?