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.

The Standing Dead

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My son has a word for long-dead trees that still stand in the woods: the Standing Dead. The smaller ones he enjoys pushing over, both to test out his muscles and to hear the great crack and groan as they tip and finally fall to the ground. After an ice storm a few years ago, we ventured to the river and found ourselves in dangerous territory. All around us, we heard branches creaking, snapping, and crashing, and the accompanying whump and snap and kersplash as they landed in the forest and the river echoed through the chill, moist air. One such branch missed us by only a few feet. The boys, being heedless daredevils wont to cheer enthusiastically during lightning storms (especially on airplanes) and tornado warnings (which are too few in Maryland, according to them), thought that the whole thing was magnificent, and I had a hard time convincing them that it might be a good idea to go home.

Despite the floods and ice and wind storms that take out these Standing Dead (which, by the way, actually go by the scientific term “snags”), there are still plenty of them along the river.  They are important to the insects, birds and other small animals that use their cavities, dead wood, and solid structure as homes and food sources. Only yesterday, I spied a pileated woodpecker knocking on a snag for insects, and it is always fascinating to peel away the loose bark to find grubs, ants and beetles busily making lives for themselves underneath their surface.

Since explaining to my son the importance of keeping the Standing Dead standing, I have convinced him to leave them alone for the most part.  The large ones, at least, he can’t move anyway, which is fortunate because, whether festooned in vines during the summer, or bent and angled sharply against the sky in winter, these dead trees are really beautiful in their own way.

Trash Collecting Fail

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My older son is obsessed with watching “Fail” collections on YouTube. He finds them hilarious, but, since they’re really nothing more than compilations of people hurting, maiming, or making idiots of themselves, I can hardly stand them. Then again, I’ve never been a fan of physical comedy; I cringed watching “Mighty Mouse” and “Tom and Jerry,” and the “Home Alone” movies are horrific to me. Besides, the word “fail” is way overused.

Nonetheless, I had my own “fail” on a recent trash collecting mission. While heading home after an uneventful afternoon, I heard my son call my name on the trail behind me. I turned to find him balancing a large round object in one hand and the handlebar of his bike in the other. By the way his shoulder sagged in one direction, I could tell that the round object was heavy, and he was having difficulty maintaining his direction on the muddy trail.

“Look what I found in the water!” my son shouted proudly, “A bowling ball! I actually tripped over it!”

He dropped it on the ground with a thump so that I could examine it, and, after taking a picture, I offered to carry it to the bike trailer for him so that he could ride his bike more easily. After he agreed, I hefted the thing from the ground and propped it against my chest with both arms.  It was heavy, most definitely not the ball of a lightweight bowler, but I’m not a weakling and was unconcerned with making it down the hill to the trailer. Unfortunately, the trail was slicker than I realized, and almost instantly I slipped onto my butt and lost my grip on the ball, which rolled quickly and inevitably back into the river. When we followed it to its entry point, my son looked at me accusingly. The ball had plunged straight into a deep embankment, where it could neither be seen nor reached by the longest stick we could find.

Oops.

I suggested that maybe we would be able to reach it this summer when the water level fell. My son leveled me with an incredulous glance. I admit that, considering the amount of rain we’ve been having, a drought seems far-fetched. But, you know, if the water level fails me, I’ll find another way to, uh, unfail.

Washed Away

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“I guess you haven’t gotten to the river lately,” my son’s doctor said to me this morning.  My younger son, doing his best impression of a weary adult, sighed, rolled his eyes, and replied, “No, we’ve been there every day.” I smiled ands shrugged. “Yep,” I said, “Every day.”

Although I claimed yesterday as a day off, in the end, it wasn’t.  When the boys got home from school, my older son was eager to see how high the water had risen, and, despite some complaining from his younger brother about how we wouldn’t really be able to do anything, we set out with our bikes and bags. We found that the Monocacy had risen high enough to fill even its secondary streams up to their highest banks.  Passage to the island was impossible, our usual dam and bridges submerged 6 feet under rushing, brown water. Newly fallen trees, too, blocked our passage, gathering in their dark limbs the leaves, seeds and small sticks that will become the little mouse boats my son gathers once the water recedes and the sun dries the mud.

Every flood reshapes the river.  I can see why my oldest is so eager to see it after the rain. The “hideout” will be the same in general outline, but so different in particulars. The force of the high waters will undo what he has done, what he has built, and so will offer the chance to do something new.  He sees opportunity, a world wiped clean. His brother, on the other hand, sees the destruction of his efforts, misses what was, and feels discouraged about having to start over again. This conflict of ideas is as constant as the rain lately.

For me, the flood waters will leave behind, on the shores I have so diligently cleaned, trash from miles upstream. There are two ways to look at this: I can be frustrated that I have to start all over again, or I can be pleased that I have new work. Today I choose to be pleased.

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.

 

Frogs and Pollywogs

 

A few days ago, I was attempting to take a picture of a plant that I couldn’t identify when I heard a suspicious commotion. Laughter. Lots of it. And the startled shrieks and shouts of boys who are immensely impressed with how clever they are at amusing themselves. By the time I’d shoved my phone into my back pocket and  scurried down the riverbank, one of the boys had plunged knee-deep into the water, the contours of his face sharp with the concentration of pursuit, and the other was grinning at something cupped in his hands.

“Look, Mom, we found the snake again!”

He held it out for me to see, and, yes, it was the same unfortunate water snake I posted about a few days ago. Before I could speak, my other son appeared at my side, panting and glowing with sweat and success.

“I got it back,” he smiled at his brother, spreading open his palms to reveal a stunned bullfrog.

“Okay. You put yours down after me,” the older one said, placing the small snake on the rocks. My younger one obeyed, practically dropping the frog on the snake’s head.

This would have been a perilous situation for the frog, had he not been about five times bigger than his natural predator. So, while the snake did lash out at the frog once, the action looked to be born more out of defensiveness than hunger. Still, it was a rather unfair game and one that I didn’t want to encourage. I reverted to my (to the boys) annoyingly logical, let’s-be-nice, mom voice.

“Boys, leave those poor animals alone. Look how stressed out they are!” It took several minutes of such cajoling, the boys countering that I was no fun, a wimpy girl, all sorts of arguments that just weren’t going anywhere near making me change my mind, until the creatures were finally set free.

I’m hoping that the snake’s reptilian brain has convinced him that it’s time to move on. I haven’t seen him since. There are so many bullfrogs, though, that it’s beyond my ken to distinguish the boys’ victim from amongst the several I see daily. Millions of tadpoles (or pollywogs as I liked to call them when I was younger) now swim in the long, shallow puddles left behind by the Monocacy’s receding waters, and, in the murky, lethargic pools off of the main river, mature frogs beat their drums and strum their chords amidst roots, leaves and the occasional Bounty paper towels wrapper or Sonic Styrofoam cup. I don’t think that they’re easy to catch (my overeager pups certainly don’t help with that), but I’m not the one they need to worry about.

It’s late spring on the Monocacy, the predators are out, and they’re hungry for fun.

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.

Snakes in the Water

If you see a snake in the Monocacy River, don’t panic, because whatever your mean-spirited friends may have told you, it’s not a water moccasin.  We really don’t have those in Maryland.  Instead, it’s most likely a harmless, though sometimes ill-tempered, Northern Water Snake.

Yesterday, while moving large rocks from one place to another (because it’s what they do), my boys found a baby Northern Water Snake at the edge of the water. It was rather unfortunate for the poor snake, who had to endure being moved in and out of the water repeatedly so that they could watch him swim sinuously against the current. He was a docile infant, gazing at us patiently as water dripped from his smooth head, and posing on the rocks, in the river, and on my son’s jeans, until the boys finally let him go.

My younger son had a more unfortunate encounter with an adult Northern Water Snake a few years ago, as we played in the deep waters of the main river. It was a hot July day, when the sun and humidity were intense enough to make swimming in the polluted water tempting for the boys. I remained on the shore, likely daydreaming as much as overseeing their play, when one of them called out excitedly, “A snake!  A snake!” Immediately they agreed to pursue it as it swam toward the opposite bank.  “Leave the poor thing alone!” I commanded repeatedly, honestly more afraid for the snake’s welfare than my sons’ safety, although I did add, “You’ll get bit!”  “Grab it! Grab it!” my older son insisted, as he waded noisily through the water, his excitement (and, yes, general disposition) rendering him deaf to my warnings.  Just as my younger son began to say, “Got it!” he uttered a cry of pain and turned to me with wide eyes, holding out his bare, wet arm. A trickle of blood flowed from four perfect fang marks on his wrist.  Swallowing my I-told-you-so’s, I reassured him that everything would be okay, that he wasn’t going to die, that we would clean his wound, and that we would look up the snake on the internet so that he could see that it wasn’t poisonous.

Fortunately, I’m not terribly afraid of snakes, particularly in Maryland, where only two are venomous, the Northern Copperhead and the Timber Rattlesnake.  When I was hiking in the Catoctin Mountains as a teenager, I almost stepped on a Copperhead, but I haven’t seen one since, and the Timber Rattlesnake is so uncommon that it’s on a watchlist. I was raised encouraged to be unafraid.  One of my brothers, at least, would have teased me unmercifully for being squeamish, and even I thought it was funny when, on one of our camping trips, my dad had to remove a snake from a woman’s bathroom to stop a lady from crying.  (We begged to take the snake home, but he said that it was against the law). Besides, snakes didn’t always inspire such fear; in the past, they were even good omens, such as in Minoan Crete, where snake goddesses were worshipped as chthonic deities, or in Classical and Hellenistic Greece, when snakes were a part of healing at the temples of Asklepios.

Of course, there are snakes that one should fear and avoid, but not here on the banks of the Monocacy River.

Happy Earth Day!

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 1

 

After a spate of recent frosts, the warm, sunny version of spring finally seems to have arrived, along with an uptick in animal appearances.  Over the weekend, my boys got their hands on a few American toads, most of whom were clearly just waking up from their long winter’s sleep in the mud.  They were far more docile than they are midsummer, two of them even sitting comfortably on my sons’ open hands to pose for the camera.  In July, fingers will have to be closed around those amphibians to prevent escape, and I won’t be able to take my time fishing out my phone.

The boys did extensive work on their dam this weekend, which left me free to explore.  While I need to supervise them, I don’t like to hover. Although an imaginative adult, I’m still an adult, and, therefore, will inhibit their creativity by watching over them. (That’s a fact, but I’m not footnoting it). In my wanderings, I encountered a pair of mallards that were less skittish than I expected considering I had two dogs on leash.  Likely they have a nest nearby.  Or they’re really stupid. Or really, really smart. They let me take a picture, too.

A large and growing herd of white-tailed deer occupy the protected land along the stretch of the Monocacy where I walk. There are over twelve of them, now, and this morning I encountered about half of them lounging in the shade of a few trees.  They’ve grown so used to people that they’re hesitant to move if they’re comfortable, and this was the case this morning, when, with my two very alert dogs, I stopped to take a few pictures.  Camouflaged by the brush, they flicked their ears and casually watched me watching them.

A groundhog I encountered wasn’t nearly as blasé.  Even before I noticed him, he was hurling his fat body over a hill in an effort to escape me.  I believe I’ve seen his hole before, but I have no intention of bothering him.  When I was a kid, my father had to live trap several of them to protect his garden, but it’s the rabbits that are problems for me now.  I did see one of those later, but the picture I took wasn’t very good.  They’re not as complacent as the deer about my overeager dogs, who, only a half-hour before, where chowing down on loose rabbit fur left behind by another, more successful predator.  (Maybe that barred owl who loves the neighborhood so much?)

And the trash for today? An empty maxi-pad bag.