Rodents of Unusual Skill

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A couple of weeks ago, I diverged from my regular rounds along the Monocacy and came upon a young tree trunk that looked as if it had been hewn by a wood-carver.

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I took note and walked a little farther along to find another tree that had been similarly cut. Now strongly suspicious, I stepped a little closer to the steep riverbank, scanned the waters, and found what I expected: a dam.

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Such logjams are not uncommon. They occur naturally after flood waters push down and collect fallen trees, branches, leaves and other debris (i.e. trash) against obstructions in the river, such as boulders, bridges, or small islands. I had a feeling that in this case I was seeing the work of another river dweller, one of earth’s largest rodents, the North American Beaver (Castor canadensis). Just to be sure, I revisited the area yesterday and found that even more trees had been felled.

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While I would very much like to meet the beavers, I’ve a feeling that they’d prefer to avoid me (I live in Maryland, after all, not Narnia), so I had to make due with knowing that they were nearby and looking about their home. Unfortunately, the light was horrible, flat and almost numbing, so I had to play a little with the paltry light meter on my phone when I tried to photograph these industrious beavers’ environment. None of the results are accurate.

Besides frustrating myself with my limited camera, I managed to gather an overflowing bagful of trash, some of it unusual (the foam from a bike seat!). I don’t usually get noticed, but today a man observed me and remarked that I had an impossible job. “Just a little bit every day,” I answered. He just kept walking.

A Brown Study

Despite a day or two of cold and a recent dusting, this has been a decidedly warm and un-white winter. And spring is coming quickly; already I’ve heard the territorial whirr of a red-winged blackbird, and violets and celandines are sprouting beneath last year’s crispy leaves. It’s likely, then, that this winter will remain the winter that really wasn’t. I could mourn this (and, honestly, I do), but I can also make do with what the river and woods will give me: a rainbow done in shades of brown.

Recently, in the heart of the “island,” I made what has become one of my favorite discoveries: a fallen tree, debarked, drilled upon, and worn away by weather, animals, and fungus. It is like a massive canvas, revealing masterpieces frame by frame.

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They are mostly Impressionist pieces, I think, or perhaps Expressionist. I can see Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” or Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” to name two more famous works. Another fallen trunk I found assumed an altogether different color and texture, slightly more Cubist, perhaps, a tree trunk reassembled:

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Then, we can move on to something equally textured and also, thanks to the mud left by recent rains, brown. Also decidedly Modern. Our trash:

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“Bicycle Seat”

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“Beer Can”

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“Styrofoam Cup”

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“Self Portrait with Plastic Bottle”

Beyond Mud Pies

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Last week’s rains filled the Monocacy to its banks, which prevented exploration for a few days, but as the water receded to more average levels, we were treated to another sort of fun: mud. Lots and lots of it. The kind that sucks off your boots and ends up in your hair. While the boys modeled it into facades that seemed to lead into the riverbanks (and which reminded us of something out of Tolkien, like the Mines of Moria, but for muskrats), I discovered a veritable treasure-trove of tracks and footprints.

 

They reveal the life along the river that I rarely see; the creatures that come out when I’m not there. Honestly, evidence of the white-tailed deer is everywhere, in the form of scat that my younger dog takes too much pleasure in rolling herself in (and then pouts for days over the subsequent bath), and the squirrels are rarely too shy to show themselves, either. Raccoons, however, are more secretive (being nocturnal), and herons, although visible, prefer not to let me get too close. The Monocacy is host to other animals as well: opossums (one of which made it into my house), shrews, moles, voles, mice, chipmunks, groundhogs (whose holes are another obsession for my younger dog), weasels, minks, and otters, just to name a few mammals. We’re there, too, of course, sometimes leaving a little more than footprints

At least yesterday I found a piece of trash that I could use to collect the other pieces of trash. That’s always helpful. If you look on the bright side.

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Another Perspective

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Traffic on the Monocacy Blvd Bridge over Riverside Park.

When I’m in the woods or on the banks of the Monocacy, it’s easy to find tranquil places and to take beautiful pictures. When I take a step back, however, the perspective necessarily changes. The fact that it is an urban river becomes clear and beauty more difficult to capture. Lately my boys and I have been spending a lot of time at Riverside Park in the city of Frederick, which is a short walk from our home. It has a boat launch  (for kayaks and canoes, mostly), a soccer field and is the starting point for most of the paved trails along the river, but truly it would be difficult to find a less park-like setting.

While the Monocacy does run through the park, it is hemmed in on one side by a large parking lot and on the other by an expanse of road and warehouses. There is also a clear view of the Monocacy Boulevard bridge, which is always busy with traffic making its way to the shopping malls and housing developments along Rte. 26 (also known as Libertytown Rd.). One of the larger stores is a Walmart, which is due to close within the next week because a much larger one has been built just across the street. As yet, there is nothing scheduled to move into the soon-to-be-vacant building.

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L to R: Trees along the Monocacy, soccer field, flood retention pond, Walmart. The Blue Ridge mountains are in the background and construction refuse area in the foreground.

The (now) older Walmart is divided from the park’s playing fields by a man-made pond, which receives the runoff from the store’s parking lot. This helps to keep the river clean, of course, except for those times when the river floods and the fields, parking lot, and retention pond become one massive body of water. Usually, though, this body of water sits on its own, host to Canada geese and the occasional heron. What is more remarkable about the “pond” than the geese, however, is the massive quantity of construction materials that is piled alongside it. From the park’s parking lot, a gated gravel road leads to a flattened space where trucks and earth-movers regularly dump dirt, old asphalt, chunks of concrete, twisted rebar, and other such miscellany. Much to my chagrin, my boys like to climb on these piles, and I spend much more time than I’d like hanging about in what is, at best, a very big dirtpile, or, at worst, a dump. When I’m not gathering trash of the plastic sort, I look toward the mountains and try to wish away the warehouses, cell towers and machines obscuring my view.

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The gravel road to the retention pond, with the soccer field and trees along the Monocacy in the background.

But to wish everything away would be to wish myself away. I live in one of the developments on Rte. 26. I drive over the Monocacy Blvd. bridge. I buy groceries in a shopping mall. Frederick was settled early in this country’s history, and the Monocacy has been supporting it since its founding. The people and the river are inextricably linked. We rely on it not only for our drinking water (yes, it’s true!) but for fishing, farming and recreation. Not only should we take care of it, we must. And there can be beauty in that responsibility.

Scraps

Sorting through my photographs, I realized that there are several that I set aside for a particular post but then, for whatever reason, never used. Although it conflicts with my need for some sort of focus for all of my writing, in an effort not to completely lose sight of my intentions for these pictures, I’ve decided to set them all out today, with notes, like a disorganized scrapbook page. (I have tried scrapbooking before, and it just isn’t in me; neither is keeping an immaculate house. Truly I am a failure as a homemaker.) But, of course, having written this paragraph, I’ve assigned a theme.  Why do I do that?

These photographs were to be about line, texture, and symmetry. The old wasp’s nest also reminded me of the huge hornet’s nest that hung inside the ‘Walking Stick’ shrub in my backyard when I was little. I ran right into it during a game of SPUD and suffered the consequences. I never developed a fear of stinging insects, though, perhaps in part because my father took the nest down that winter and allowed my brothers to hang it in their bedroom from the central light fixture. Also, I’m clearly not allergic to them.

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I found this and spent the rest of the day with R.E.M. songs streaming through my brain.

Peek-a-boo trash: before and after. I nearly missed this Starbucks cup when the only thing visible was the green straw.

And, of course, I’m still running into the problem, months later, with other sorts of trash. (Yes, Bud Light, again).

My mixed-breed, young Rosie, is obsessed with sticking her head in holes. (Mostly made by groundhogs, I think). I’m a little afraid that one day she’ll pop back up with a bite on her nose. My friend’s dog once got bit by a squirrel, and the poor thing bled profusely. The dog was fine, but the car never really recovered from the trip to the vet.

Okay, so now I’m fighting the urge to write a summary paragraph. Mission almost accomplished.

 

Delinquency

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

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

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

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

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

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