When It Rains

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When the Monocacy overflows its banks, my oldest son pulls on his waders, mounts his bike, and speeds to the river, frantic lest he miss a moment of the spectacle, but, as he apparently needs someone with whom to share the wonder (and, amazingly, his active Instagram account doesn’t seem to count), he even more frantically insists that I come along. Secretly grateful to be wanted for something other than a ride to the airport, I follow along, prodded by the intermittent “hurry up!”s made necessary by my bikeless status. Someone, after all, needs to hold the dog’s leash and stash her poop bags, not to mention stop to clean up once in a while.

I haven’t looked at any flood charts, but my son and I reckon that this week the river was the highest it’s been since a stretch of rainy days in March 2014. While the “island” wasn’t  completely underwater, as we have seen in the past, it was shrunken by the swollen waters. The bluebells had become aquatic flowers, and flotillas of logs, branches, leaf debris and trash (I could make out plastic bottles, the distinctive red of a coke can, and the occasional flash of artificial color) drifted by at a frantic pace. A pair of darting swallows and the voice of a nearby kingfisher made me wonder about the other animals, not lucky enough to have wings, whose holes and homes were now underwater.

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Err,um, could you like, maybe, give us a lift?

And I do mean to include those animals with more than two or four feet, like this rather unfortunate spider and possibly doomed caterpillar. Honestly, it’s been a rough spring for the insects and arachnids, in pupal form or otherwise, what with the snow and lingering cold. And now this? Bother.

Not far into our explorations, we encountered a very large snapping turtle that certainly didn’t mind the extra water. My son poked it with a stick (of course), which provoked it into an aggressive hiss, which, in turn, provoked our Rosie-pup into lunging after it in our defense. Knowing that she would lose that battle, I held tight to the leash and suffered her whimpering frustration as the beast disappeared into the muddy depths.

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The snapping turtle is here somewhere: trust me.

Next week: cleaning it all up.

A little bit of trash

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So, I do still exist…mostly sitting in a hospital room or frantically seeing to my chores at home, but, still, I’m here. I’m getting dinner on the table. Success! My boys are passing all of their classes. Yay me! The dogs are walked. Woohoo!

A few weekends ago, before my father fell ill, I took my son and two of his plane-spotting friends to Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C. We spent some time in the terminal but soon departed for the Washington Sailing Marina, which offered a more scenic view of the airport and a better perspective of the planes landing there. (Most spotters prefer Gravelly Point, another small park, but that would be much too unoriginal for these teenagers). The boys spent hours out on the windy docks that reached into the Potomac River, taking photographs and arguing the merits of one aircraft versus another, while I chose to watch birds and wonder over the river that receives the Monocacy’s waters. As another urban river, the Potomac, too, had its share of trash, but it also had its share of waterfowl, like a small raft of mallard ducks and a very determined egret.

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Despite the non-potable water and floating trash, the view was undeniably diverting, from the taxiing planes at the airport on one end of the horizon, to the Washington Monument on the other.

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It’s not easy to write these days. I find I’m distracted all of the time, bullied by guilt and driven only to do things that must be done. I feel flat; finding the sort of inspiration I need in a hospital room is a bit of a challenge, after all. But I’m here.

And this is my little bit of trash on the Monocacy.

Cars and Time’s Tricks

One of the landmarks on my regular walks along the river is an old car frame, belly-up and tires attached, half-submerged at the bottom of a steep bank. Over a year ago, when the brown turf of winter was beginning to green, I took a photo of the wreck.

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Today, stepping carefully into a flowering of touch-me-nots, I took another, wondering whether I would note any change.

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Despite the several minor floods that have occurred between then and now, it appears the only real changes are the cosmetic sorts that seasons bring: grass where there was mud, a darker, clearer hue of water, and the dappled light of a leafy canopy. As a former archaeologist, I keep hoping to witness its gradual burial, until it is entirely consumed by the earth, a curious artifact rather than a niggling eyesore.

But time works at its own pace on the earth, building and eroding in thousands and hundreds of years rather than months or days. Or, at least, it has in the past. It seems, lately, that we may not be able to rely always on what we have known or taken for granted when it comes to the shape and speed of time’s passage as it plays out in currents, storms, and the creeping of tides. For now, though, that old car is suspended in time and mud, exposed and broken, watching the seasons wash over its carcass. Slowly, to my eyes, but quickly, to others.

I find time treacherous and slippery. Some days I wish away before they’re over, but others I want to magic alongside me forever. Sending my boys to school today reminds me of this. One is in high school now, the other only two years behind, and they are changing, growing up, less willing to be part of my ramblings. They measure time in minutes and hours — it stretches out before them — and they have little patience when I stop for a moment just to look.

Especially at a rusty, abandoned old car.

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.

 

“Obscure, plain and little…”

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My memorial painting of Anastasia, with her sister, Sugar. JSS

A few weeks ago, we lost the smallest member of our family, the timid but trusting albino rat, Anastasia. She doesn’t have much to do with trash or the Monocacy River, and I realized about a month ago that I was dwelling on my pets, and maybe even death, perhaps a little too much for my stated goals for this blog, but, with the passage of time, I’ve begun to see that to let her death go unmentioned is almost a form of dishonesty. Small as she was, we all miss her warm, little body, the strong, quick beating of her heart, and her ruby-red, curious eyes.

Of all the pets I’ve kept (and, oh, there were many in my childhood), rats have elicited the most vehement and divisive responses: either “Gross! Those tails!” or “Oh! Aren’t they the best pets!” I was devoted to mice as I grew up, and lived with gerbils, hamsters, a guinea pig and a rabbit, but never got a rat until my boys persuaded me, much too easily, a few years ago. First we had a pair of dumbo rat boys, Aloysius and Percy, who lived their short three years with patient zeal — a requirement for living with a pair of young human boys. Then, although my husband swore he would never countenance another rat living under roof, we rescued two rat girls who were destined to be snake food. Anastasia was the smaller of these two. Sugar, the other, is now lonely and squishy, choosing to cuddle rather than run off to find adventure when we let her out to play. All of our rats have had their own personalities, foibles, and weaknesses, and it is difficult to imagine that their ancestors were the terrifying vermin of the Middle Ages or to remember that their cousins remain the pests of modern cities.

Perhaps they belong in this blog more than I first though. Rats: Eaters of trash.  Spreaders of disease. Least liked member of the rodent world The Monocacy: Consumer of waste. Flowing with pollutants. Least appreciated of rivers. But beautiful in their own ways, with wonders in their depths, personalities to plumb, just waiting to be known and understood.

Rest well, Anastasia. I knew you. And I am glad for that.

 

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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Taking Shelter

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The boys’ shelter has survived the change of seasons, evolving from a barren, winter structure into a hidden hermitage, surrounded and softened by the island forest’s leafy undergrowth. While in the past I’ve found evidence of white-tailed deer visiting the shelter, and once even discovered the remains of a pizza party (not the deer that time, I’m assuming), last week I only found this lonely Horned Passalus Beetle (Odontotaenius disjunctus), which objected very noisily (or stridulated, for the entomologically-inclined) when my oldest son picked it up for further investigation.

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As I am a more of an etymologist than an entomologist, I advise that you visit this site if you are interested in more information about this beetle. In the meantime, I’ll just sit here,

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or maybe pick up these cans.

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A Flower Tour

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Trout Lilly (Erythronium americanum), with Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), Virginia spring-beauties ( Claytonia virginica) and Lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria)

At this time of year, I could take you on a 3-hour flower tour of my favorite Monocacy River island. While you wouldn’t see many species, I would bore you to death  amuse you with multiple views of the same flowers, particularly the Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), which nod in clusters of pink, periwinkle, and baby blue, forming a soft carpet over the cool, silty ground.  “Look!” I might say, “A bluebell with a bee!”

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Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica)

Or, “Aren’t bluebells colors perfect just before they open?”

Or, perhaps, “Oops! I let go of the leash! Rosie, get back here!”

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I get distracted by other flowers, as well.  Lesser celandines (Ranunculus ficaria), bright yellow flowers of the buttercup family, are an invasive species that thrive in the riparian environments of Maryland, and, as they appear before any other spring ephemerals, they have an advantage, which you can witness by the fact that they are in nearly every picture that I take of other flowers. For instance, they make a cheerful background for the emerging Trout lily (Erythronium americanum) in the photo that opened this post, and it is their leaves that surround the lovely moss I was photographing when Rosie, set loose by the boys, photo-bombed me. (Yes, she runs off leash much too often, but that grin was just too irresistible for me to get too angry).

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Virginia spring-beauties (Claytonia virginica), delicate white-and-pink petaled native flowers, do their best to raise their heads above all of the lesser celandine, and I crouch low, lifting their blossoms to the camera, in order to record their fairy-like loveliness.

Another flower that competes with the lesser celandine is the common blue violet (Viola sororia), which, despite its name, is white as often as it is blue.

Violets are such reliable flowers, as likely to grow in the yard as in the forest, but Toadshade (Trillium sessile) far more elusive. Last year I saw two or three before they faded at April’s end, but this year I’ve counted at least seven, and they’ve all yet to open.

For some reason, perhaps because of their names or concurrent blooming season, I associate toadshade with trout lilies, which also seem to be more numerous this season. The toadshade, of course, would be a distant, smelly cousin, as far as the trout lily is concerned. Despite the emergence of more trout lily leaves, it may still be years before I see a bloom on some of them; trout lilies don’t bloom at all the first 4-7 years of life, when often there is only one leaf sprout instead of two leaves and a flower stalk, as we see here:

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Of course, being who I am, no tour along the Monocacy would be complete without pointing out the trash in bloom. It competes with the lesser celandine, too.

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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.)