On Loneliness

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During my long absence from this blog, I continued to visit the river, finding some respite in its wintry dun aspect. At the start of the year, it froze over completely, and the boys startled me with their delighted insistence on stomping over the surface to prove its impenetrability. It was some comfort to me when their mocking brazenness receded with the ice, although I missed the stillness that accompanied it. We were always alone on these coldest days.

My trash collection was perfunctory, distracted as I was by emergencies and the inevitable crises and phone calls and text messages that followed them. Among the regular bottles and cans and plastic snack bags, I once found a Frozen balloon.

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What I find remarkable about this now is not the balloon itself but the day on which I found it. I must have stepped out early on this expedition because the rest of this day was taken up entirely by moving my father’s things out of his last apartment. I ended up at a storage facility, alone, locking away the last of his possessions. There was a loneliness there that I never feel at the river.

It is the loneliness that comes of things. Discarded things. Ownerless things. That one shoe by the side of the road. The tent pole caught in the brambles. The handleless cooler buried in mud.

But when I collect these things, I take away some of the loneliness. Don’t I?

 

Hot Tea…Party On!

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It was hard to tell difference between the water and the air last week; I came out of both feeling soggy and on the wrong side of refreshed. Wading through the river for a castaway water bottle was much the same as channeling through the weeds for an emptied bag of chips. But there was some pleasure in filling two bags of garbage to overflowing. I take my overblown feelings of success where I can find them.

Although what I found was not so peculiar — abandoned campfires, lost fishing gear, and discarded food and drink containers — the details were just off enough to entertain me every now and then. For instance, this situation:

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Beside this:

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My thought? Only the most refined revelers on the Monocacy drink Earl Grey tea while melting synthetic fabric over an open fire. Do you think that Bigelow might like that for an ad campaign? Or a bit of co-branding with the DNR? We could always include 3M as well because of the Post-It Notes. Were these partiers writing scraps of poetry and submitting them to the flames as offerings to the Muses? I can only imagine. Leaving the lighter in the fire is such a nice touch.

Apparently I’m feeling a little snarky. Maybe I’m still just a little sore about being fooled by this lure I found under the water nearby:

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I thought at first that I was seeing a cool larva of some sort. It didn’t take me long to realize my mistake, but it wasn’t until I pulled it up that I realized what it was supposed to be.

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A crayfish? I can still barely see it. I guess the fish didn’t buy it either.

It’s hard to think clearly when it’s hot out.

 

Cinderella Story

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Last August, it was Barbie. This June, it’s Cinderella. I found her after wading through a growing jumble of invasive japanese hops on “the island.” My son was throwing stones into the water on the opposite side of the river, where the trees are tall and plentiful enough to offer relief against the heat that has overtaken us the last few days. On “the island,” I sweated, dust and gnats and plant juices clinging to my damp legs, and collected my stash of garbage.

As I photographed Cinderella, turning her over to catch her at different angles, recording her placement on the disturbed earth, I began to feel as if I was in some twisted parody of a police procedural. Later, when I mentioned this to my husband, he conjured his best Lenny from Law and Order and quipped, “Well, it looks like she won’t be getting back before midnight.”

As a girl I was obsessed with Cinderella, especially the Disney version, with the ice-blue dress and nipped waist. I had a small book accompanied by the seventies version of an audiobook, a record recording of a magical-voiced woman reading the words to the story, interspersed with a cue to turn the pages. Curiously, although the book cover depicted the classic Disney Cinderella, the interior illustrations were in an entirely different style, more slapdash, and her fairy godmother blessed her with an entirely different dress as well: white and pink, with cap sleeves, and a massive hoop skirt festooned with what looked like crinkly pastel-colored garland. It was this dress — not Disney’s — that inspired the endless drawings of princesses I doodled between the ages of four and six.

Later, in my early feminist stage, I felt ashamed of my younger preoccupations with princesses and Barbies. I took some solace in the fact that my Barbie play usually involved operatic sagas that ended with Barbie friendless and homeless, begging on a street corner in rags. Even my princess obsession eventually evolved into an interest in mythology and, much, much later, a manuscript for a distracted fantasy novel. But I can’t deny that this early focus on external beauty certainly had some influence on my how I regarded my own appearance (that is, poorly). I didn’t escape my teenage years unscathed.

Nonetheless, I think of Cinderella fondly. It was a shame to find her abandoned in the dirt. But I threw her out anyway.

Addiction on the Monocacy

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I climbed through the pile of debris, a great mass of limbless logs, sticks, mud, and leaves driven together in a recent flood, in order to grab the Frappuccino bottle for my trash bag. It was only at the last moment, as I replaced my phone in the back pocket of my jeans, that I noticed the snake. It was still, watching me closely, apparently convinced (and rightly so) that it hadn’t yet been seen. Not wanting to startle it, I made a show of noisily stepping back and around to pick up the bottle from the other side, and it took the opportunity to slither under a branch, deeper into the jumbled mound.

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As I continued picking my way around the river, I stepped a little more carefully, as much to avoid falling through camouflaged holes as to avoid stepping on an unassuming reptile, and I encountered more trash than I had in many weeks. This isn’t altogether uncommon after a stretch of rainy weather, which both prevents me from my work and drives more trash into the rising waters of the Monocacy as it rushes downstream. I was actually grateful to find an empty cement bucket to carry the excess garbage from my three overfilled plastic bags.

Later, as I shifted the bucket and bags to my left hand to reach for a cigarette wrapper caught in the upper branch of a fallen tree, my thoughts rambled in their disjointed way from beer cans to plants, soda bottles, and snakes, and I realized that my trash-collection was yielding a veritable garden of vices. But, as I thought of these vices — drinking, smoking, gambling — I decided, no, I won’t call these vices — that term expresses a degree of moral judgment that I don’t feel — but addictions. They’re there, these addictions, all of them, their evidence littering the river, whether chemical (beer cans, cigar wrappers, and soda bottles/alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine) or habitual (lotto cards, styrofoam, and plastic bags/gambling, technology, and food).

Nationally and locally, addiction is a major topic of concern. Abuse of opioids, and fentanyl in particular, has become an epidemic, reaching crisis levels in Frederick County, where, according to the Frederick News-Post, “despite the increasing prevalence of overdose-reversal drugs, opioid overdoses and deaths both nearly tripled in 2016 compared to 2015” and “another 43 overdoses — four of them fatal — were reported by the end of the first two months of 2017” (April 27, 2017). In February, a pedestrian not far from “my” island on the Monocacy found a body washed up along one of its banks.  An April 13, 2017 article in the Frederick-News-Post reported that, while the young man, Matthew Thomas Delash, died from drowning and hyopthermia, “intoxication from fentanyl and N-ethylpentylone were also complicating factors.” His family wrote an honest, heartfelt obituary for him, expressing the pain and power of addiction as they sought to acknowledge the true person, a generous son and a friend, behind it. When I first heard about this man’s death, I wasn’t sure whether to include it in this, my loose account of life on the Monocacy River. He and his life were not trash, and it is a hard thing that he was lost in the waters of such a beautifully ugly place as this urban river can be. But to ignore his death is even more of an impossibility. He, like the rest of us who live along its winding banks, is a part of the river and its story.

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The Talk on the Monocacy

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Excerpt from a conversation between two boys, 11 and 13, and their mother:

Setting: “The hideout” at the Monocacy River

Boy, age 13: Guess what I found in the woods, Mom?

Mom: Uh, what?

Boy, age 13: A box of condoms!

(Boy, age 13, grins. Boy, age 11, looks unsure but laughs anyway)

Mom: Do you know what those are for?

Boy, age 13, (rolls eyes): Yes! I’ve had health class for 3 years.

(Boy, age 11, conspicuously quiet but still grinning)

Mom to Boy, age 11: Do you know?

Boy, age 11 (with sarcasm): Uh, yeah.

Mom: What are they for?

Boy, age 11: Like, getting drunk or something.

(Boy, age 13, starts laughing)

Mom: Would you like to explain, Boy, age 13?

Boy, age 13 (turning red): No! Not now!

Mom (imagining later explanation): Would you like me to explain, Boy, age 11? If Boy, age 13, won’t now, I can.

Boy, age 11: Yes, um, no, um, I don’t know…

Mom: It has to do with S-E….

(Both boys interrupt)

Boy, age 11: No, no, no!

Boy, age 13: It’s something the boy puts on his penis for sex!

Mom (discreetly laughing to self): Okay, where is this box?

 

Revelation and Rambling

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This week has been a revelation. The melting snow has pushed the Monocacy just a little over its usual borders. It flowed from streams, trickled from sunny banks, and washed in from streets and drains. As the swelling river turned a muddy brown, the land returned to a green slightly brighter than when we’d last seen it, before the snow fell.

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For most of the week, I was exiled from “the island” by the river’s rising waters, left to gaze longingly at the carpet of green, where I knew early spring flowers were blooming. It’s the most wondrous time of year for the place, when it seems most clean and bright and promising (I’ve been known to call it “Fairyland”). But my side of the river isn’t without its own curiosities.

Again and again this winter, I’ve meant to write about the Canada Geese that travel over us in noisy flocks at dusk. It’s a particularly wintry phenomenon that I associate with clear skies and bracing cold. It seemed only fitting, then, that on winter’s last day, I watched about a hundred of them take off from the soccer field at Riverside Park.

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As they flew over the Monocacy Boulevard bridge, I noticed a Red-shouldered Hawk perched on a taller tree in the forest retention area (which got some much-needed attention only last December).

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It’s just a smudge in the distance in the picture that I took of it, and the geese merely specks, but with my naked eye it cut a regal silhouette, and I got a glimpse of its burnished chest when it glided from its perch, crossed low over the path in front of me, and headed into a stand of trees on “the island,” well out of my reach. Despite knowing that it was unlikely that I’d spot the hawk again, I hurried to the edge of the river and searched in the direction I thought it had gone. As expected, I didn’t find the bird, but I did see a tall, white American sycamore, which reminded me that I was supposed to take a picture of my favorite sycamore (because, yes, I have one) for the Maryland Biodiversity Project’s American Sycamore Facebook Blitz (because, yes, they had one). I was too late for the blitz, but I set off down the path the next day to photograph “my” tree anyway.

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Isn’t it beautiful? It’s branches like gnarled, work-weary hands, reaching for the sky?

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It even makes trash look good:

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(Needless to say, among the things revealed by the melting snow was quite a bit of trash, and I couldn’t help but think that the juxtaposition of these two things meant that someone had a pretty wild night followed by a pretty rough morning:

Or maybe it was just a few ill-conceived hours.)

Trashscapes

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The warmer weather that has been hounding us most of the winter surpassed itself over the long weekend, bursting into a series of summery days that resulted in a) lots of human activity and b) lots of human trash. My elbows are still recovering from the weight of the garbage bags that I had to carry home, and I have far more recyclables than my 2 bins and bi-weekly collection schedule can manage. While I usually take a sort of housekeeperly pleasure in cleaning around the river, weekends like these are overwhelming. It’s frustrating to have to leave things behind (such as a stash of cans squirrelled beneath a log) simply because I don’t have enough bags to hold it. That’s when I remember that this is a job that is never finished. Like laundry. (Actually, I found some of that, too).

Two days of collecting were particularly intensive. On the first of these, the boys and I encountered a fire circle with one log still so smoking hot that it took little more than a dry leaf to reset it aflame.

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After we hauled the log farther into the water, I set about gathering a case’s worth of beer cans, a six-pack of bottles, and other such picnicky miscellany. I couldn’t help but see the irony in having to clean up yet more Budweiser “America” beer cans, which have splashed across them the lyrics of “This Land Is Your Land,” by Woody Guthrie, a song that highlights the natural beauties of the United States. (For the song’s history, see the concise NPR story http://www.npr.org/2000/07/03/1076186/this-land-is-your-land). Yes, indeed, this land is for you and me. I wish that we could all remember that. And behave that way.

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On the second day, I found an entire campsite’s worth of garbage. Literally. A tent had fallen down an eroded bank into the water below, along with a slew of cans and food wrappers, mostly submerged in mud and impossible to extricate. As I filled up all three of the bags I had brought and two more bags that I found, I was grateful for the broken, soft-sided cooler, which served as an excellent trash receptacle after I dumped the muck that had accumulated inside of it. To reach the makeshift site, I had to ford the river twice, which, since my five-foot frame was so weighed down, required that I carry everything back in shifts.

All of this activity managed to startle a fox, who zipped past me in all of his sly regalness. He wasn’t twenty feet away, but my hands were too full to grab my camera. Perhaps it was the campsite that had attracted him in the first place. It’s hard to tell. But he didn’t appear drunk, and there was very little but alcohol left to consume. I, unfortunately, stank with beer that dribbled from the cans as I collected them, and I’m pretty sure that the odor, combined with my bag-lady appearance, is what earned me a few nervous stares from families with small children on my way home.

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Of Dogs and Deer

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Nope, nothing to see here, you can put that camera away now.

So, I think that my younger dog, Rosie, might be planning her escape.

As I was getting prepared for our walk a few days ago – gathering trash bags, putting on my coat, jangling leashes – instead of presenting herself at my feet, as she usually does, she rushed upstairs. A little puzzled, I snapped the harness onto my older dog, Poppy, and waited. A few moments later, Rosie reappeared, but with an old, dried up, edible “chewie” in her mouth. I said to her (because I regularly talk to my dogs, cat, and any other living thing that happens to be in my vicinity, including myself), “We’re going on a long walk, don’t you want to leave that here?” But, as I reached to take it from her, she respectfully turned her head away. “Suit yourself,” I shrugged. As my older dog loves to carry things in her mouth, the situation didn’t seem too strange, and I figured I would just put the “chewie” in my pocket when she got bored.

About a half mile later, however, at a divergence in the path to the river, Rosie turned onto the less-traveled dirt trail, found a stone, and began digging a shallow hole just beside it. When she reached her preferred depth, she dropped the “chewie” into it, snuffled, and proceeded to nose dirt, leaves and other dried plant matter over it until the hole was filled. Now, I should note the Rosie has lots of these little stashes in our back yard. Occasionally she unearths them and returns them to the house in their slightly soggy, rotten state (another good reason never to buy rawhide). This is the first time, however, that she has ever stored something off of our property.

So, yes, I’m a little suspicious. She’s a nervous dog who’s been acting just a little too nervous lately. And I know she’s done with me holding her back from all those wild animals out there, so tantalizingly close, taunting her with their heady scents. Like those white-tailed deer we came upon on the island yesterday: a whole herd of them, and I wouldn’t let go of the leash, even to take this poor video:

That’s Rosie’s bark at the beginning, when it looks as if I’m going to fall over.

I can’t blame her, really, when the deer are so clearly out of control. I found a hoofprint just inside of the boys’ shelter (which Rosie, therefore, considers hers), so who knows what they’re getting up to when we’re not around?

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Although I am guessing that, even though there was evidence that they were eating and sleeping nearby, this was not their empty pint of gelato:

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Ice on the Monocacy

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While the winter solstice is a few days away, its spirit arrived last week, when temperatures plummeted and sleet and ice covered the ground in a white and crunchy coating. The winding tendrils of summer’s itchy hop plants have withered and drawn back from the encroaching freeze, revealing bottles, cans, and wrappers formerly hidden by the tenacious invasive’s spreading leaves. As my boys set shards of ice and small stones skidding across the Monocacy’s ice, I gather the debris, not only for the satisfaction of cleaning, but also to keep myself warm. This time of year, I always wonder at the small animals who do without hats and gloves and fleece-lined boots, like the little nuthatches, sparrows, house finches and wrens that play in the brush, or the small group of bluebirds I spotted in the trees. It makes me feel almost ashamed of my eagerness to return home to heat, light, and a big mug of tea.

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Out of the Fog

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As yesterday’s rain clouds pushed away, a fog crept in, dampening dusk’s last glimpse of light. We stuck to the path and made our way to Riverside Park, where the Monocacy Boulevard bridge offers some shelter. When we ventured down the boat ramp, we found that the rising waters and runoff had swept along some garbage as well.

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As I wasn’t wearing my waders, I was confounded in my trash collection. On my return home, however, after I picked up a discarded latex glove, a man who was posting small flags on the floodplain by the bridge emerged from the fog to comment on my work and ask whether I would like to do more for the river. Since I was feeling curious, I asked what he meant, and he revealed that he was from Stream-Link Education  (how uncanny! I just wrote about them in Connections and Clean-Up) and that the group will be gathering volunteers at Riverside Park to plant 300 trees this Saturday, December 3rd, from 9-11 a.m.

This isn’t the sort of message you expect to emerge from the fog at sunset, but I’m a little more practical than a gothic heroine anyway.