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.

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.

When There Are No Pictures

Yesterday, while reconfiguring a temporary (and mostly imaginary) dam, my oldest boy discovered a snapping turtle under a rock.  Normally this would call for some panicked maternal shrieking – PUT THAT THING DOWN! – but the snapper was a baby, no bigger than my hand, and apparently too stunned to move. Nonetheless, my son, demonstrating an uncharacteristic streak of self-preservation, quickly threw the thing back in the water. “Wait!” I called out, too late, “I wanted a picture!” My son looked at me, then at the water, still rippling from the snapper’s entrance, then back at me. He didn’t have to say, “Are you crazy?  Those things bite!” His incredulous, clearly-I’m-smarter-than-you-mom teenage expression rendered such words self-evident.  Still, I felt in my pocket, grabbing for my phone, as I scuttled down the bank toward the river.  But there was no phone. No camera. Opportunity missed. Damn. I suffered the same frustration a few minutes later, when my boots left lovely prints in the carpet of bright green celandine leaves on the island, and again, only a few minutes after that, when I found the remnants of the nastiest picnic I’ve yet encountered: an empty 2-liter bottle of Strawberry Fanta accompanied by an also empty 2-pack of fruit punch flavored cigarellos. I could only imagine the hyped-up, nerveless state that such a combination of caffeine, sugar, nicotine, and artificial color and flavor would knock into a person.

In fact, I haven’t had this constant access to a camera for very long.  I got my first smart phone only a few months ago, after I lost my old flip phone somewhere at JFK airport on the way home from visiting my sister (whom I subsequently freaked out because the last thing I texted her before misplacing the phone was something like, “I think this taxi is taking me the wrong way.”) I am what you might call a late-adopter of technology.  I resisted the smart phone partly for financial reasons but also because I was afraid that it would distract me.  What I didn’t anticipate is how much I would come to depend on it. It’s wonderful because it has made this blog possible in a way that it never really was before, but it is also one more thing in this loud, artificially-flavored-and-colored modern life that serves as a barrier between me and the world of dirt and skin and breath. So, just for today, no picture.

But I’ll probably make up for it tomorrow.

Save the Invertebrates

Foraging for trash proved a lifesaving mission yesterday.  While exploring the island, I came upon a bright yellow container advertising “18 Canadian Nightcrawlers.”  Since the top was off, I could see that there was still dirt inside. Assuming that a fisherman wouldn’t leave perfectly good bait to shrivel in the sun, I dumped the soil to put the container in my bag and was surprised to see several long, meaty worms fall writhing to the earth.  Hastily, I gathered them back up into the container.  But, after looking around in vain for the careless fisherman, I agreed with my boys that we should liberate the nightcrawlers (poor, displaced Canadians) and give them an opportunity for a new life on the Monocacy.  The boys decanted and reburied them a safe distance from the water.  On the way home, I attempted to throw away yet another piece of garbage, a random square of cardboard caught in some wintry underbrush, when I discovered a few snails clinging to its underside.  It was an easy decision simply to return the cardboard to the ground with snails intact.  After all, cardboard biodegrades, and the snails weren’t being particularly offensive.

UPDATE, 6/14/16: I have since learned that I absolutely should not have liberated these nightcrawlers as they are an invasive species that can harm the native wildflower population and change the composition of the forest floor. Read more here. My apologies. I really am ashamed of my ignorance!

UPDATE, 4/11/16: It seems I’m destined to uncover little critters.  Today, trying to lift a piece of plastic (which I have since learned is irretrievably buried in the sand), I found a most impressive wolf spider.  He wasn’t inclined to have his picture taken, so I had to chase him around a bit. Thankfully, I don’t suffer from arachnophobia. (To be honest, I only mentioned that last bit because I have to take advantage of the few times Greek comes in handy).

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