Way, Way Off the Monocacy

Last week my boys and I tagged along when a professional conference took my husband out to Denver, Colorado. We persuaded him to ditch the meeting a few times, once to tour an old mine in Breckenridge and another to see the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, but one day we were completely on our own and, after visiting the United States Mint in Denver, had a few afternoon hours to fill. When a waitress heard me debating some alternatives with my boys (and I, as usual, realizing that they would agree on nothing in the city), she registered my rising panic with the keen eye of a veteran mother, disappeared into a back room, and returned with a pen and a hotel map.

“Okay,” she said, as she slapped the paper on the table. “Do you have a car?”

Yes, in fact, I did. The rental place had given us a behemoth that I was barely able to park. I was so reluctant to use the thing, I almost denied it, but sense (or lack thereof, I’m not quite sure) demanded the truth and so I nodded my head.

“Well, then,” she uncapped the pen and began drawing lines out of Denver, rattling off names and places familiar from earlier internet searches, like Dinosaur Ridge and Red Rocks, but finally she paused and said, “But do you want to know my favorite place?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Does it have rocks and cliffs?” my oldest asked.

“The bowling alley?” my youngest suggested.

“Here,” the waitress circled a light green splotch with her blue pen. “Roxborough State Park.”

While I would like to say that we all immediately agreed and loaded into the rental tank with snacks, backpacks, and sunblock, in fact we dithered and debated all the way back to the hotel room, into the lobby, and finally down to the parking garage, where, with a broken sack and a few bottles of water, I simply declared (or, more accurately, commanded, with a strong edge of irritation), “We’re going to the state park!”

Driving out of Denver proved a long slog through traffic, which didn’t help the tempers of my backseat drivers, who resorted to calling each other names that should have shocked me until we finally got a glimpse beyond the foothills and into the Rocky Mountains, the white-capped massiveness of which finally rendered them speechless…for a few seconds. Despite the disappointment of seeing new development almost to the very entrance of Roxborough State Park and some initial confusion about how to pay our entry fee, I was in a hopeful mood when I finally parked near the visitor center. Both boys threatened to bail before we’d begun hiking — the youngest because they had no live animals in the visitor center itself, and the oldest because he didn’t immediately see any high cliffs with lots of rocks — but when I started, they followed, and as our trail began to climb, their complaints weakened.

20170531_142214
Complaints in process of dying.

In fact, when I caught back up to them after stopping to take some pictures of wildflowers, they were actually beginning to seem interested and perhaps even a little bit in awe. At a crossroads in the trail, they chose to follow Carpenter Peak, and the vistas opened wide.

20170531_144356.jpg

As I continued to stop to take photos of wildflowers, the oldest pulled ahead, while the youngest usually dallied to give me company.

20170531_152007

I appreciated it, not least because there was a sign at the beginning of the trail warning us to be aware of mountain lions. Both of the boys tried to amuse me by imagining them in ridiculous places. I reassured them by letting them know that we were unlikely to see them coming. Then I took more pictures.

 

 

Perhaps it was just the altitude, but the boys and I returned to our mastodon of a car in an almost giddy state that even a reprimand for rock-throwing (he really can’t seem to help it) couldn’t entirely destroy. It lasted through the seat-kicking, insult-throwing car ride home, into the I-can’t-find-anything-to-eat-on-this-huge-menu dinner, and even into the cover-stealing night. I think I can even feel it a little now.

But I am glad to be back home on the Monocacy.

20170606_081327
Yellow Salsify (Tragopogon dubius) yesterday morning on the Monocacy River.

Waste

20170506_083251

Waste is not just another word for trash. It’s a place, abandoned, uninhabitable and barren; as an action, it means the destruction, withering away, and purposeless consumption of something (or someone) valuable; as an adjective, it describes something rendered useless. We have waste grounds and waste lands. We waste our time, or our money, or ourselves. When we’re sick, we waste away. At war, we lay waste.

One of the wildflower guides that I use describes the location in which some plants grow as “waste places,” while another refers to the same type of terrain as “disturbed.” Both names evoke a sense of wrongness and unease. Biologically, ecologically, environmentally, this feeling of wrongness is absolutely correct. The  plants that grow in these places are “alien,” “non-native,” and even “invasive.” Why would I want to have anything to do with a wasted, disturbed space full of aliens, like these?

20170504_163608
Milk-vetch
20170504_163643
Cranesbill
20170504_163931
Storksbill
20170504_163117
Mayweed

 

I’m not sure. (But maybe it’s because of these very same aliens, or, as I like to call them, wasteflowers). At any rate, I go, and make the best of the disturbance and waste, which, as a human, I am responsible for in the first place. I clean what I can, appreciate what I can, and hope for the best. We cannot undo everything that we’ve created and destroyed, but that doesn’t mean we should waste it, either.

 

UPDATE: For a comprehensive guide to invasive (not simply non-native) plants of the mid-atlantic see this guide by the National Park Service:

https://www.nps.gov/plants/alien/pubs/midatlantic/midatlantic.pdf

 

A Flower Tour

20170403_173223
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!”

20170329_160347
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!”

20170403_171830

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).

20170329_165106

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:

20170403_173821

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.

20170329_160649

Alien Invasions

20170227_085354.jpg

While many plants are just now budding and flowering and sprouting leaves, there are others that have retained some degree of color all of this mild winter long. Besides the obvious evergreens like holly, juniper, and pine, one of the most prominent of these plants on the floodplains of the Monocacy, and throughout Frederick, is the Japanese Honeysuckle, or Lonicera japonica.  It’s a non-native vine that attracted gardeners with its delicate flowers and heady aroma and then, with the fast-growing tenacity common to all invasive species, escaped its tidy beds and uncoiled itself across the wild landscape, binding trees and suffocating the native groundcover. I’ve been taking photos of this intruder, intending to dedicate some part of a blog post to it, so it seemed a great opportunity (or at least prompt) when yesterday a Facebook post from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources informed me that it’s National Invasive Species Awareness Week. I’ve written about invasive species several times before, often to complain about their less-than-desirable attributes, like itchiness, or poisonousness, and I keep a running list of them in my Wildflowers of the Monocacy page by noting the word “alien” behind its common name. You can find a more exhaustive list of these aliens here, at the site of the Maryland Invasive Species Council (MISC).

Unlike the usual trash I can just pick up and stuff in a bag, invasive species cannot be eradicated in a moment. A few days ago, when I took my father into the mountains of the Frederick Municipal Forest to find a trout pond, he found himself distracted by all of the Japanese Honeysuckle that had insinuated itself into the underbrush. Despite his poor balance and aching joints, he began trying to disentangle it. After a great deal of work (and a little pain inflicted by the brier patch the honeysuckle had infiltrated), we did manage to pull some of it up by the roots. It seemed a sorry effort when we stepped back to see all that remained. But I can be stubborn, too.

20170303_083315.jpg

 

Stars

 

As a beginner armchair botanist, I can hardly claim any expertise in the identification of asters. They come in such a high variety, with only the slightest differences between them, that I have wasted hours trying to distinguish one sort from another. Am I seeing a bushy aster (aster dumosus), a calico aster (aster latiflorus), a little of both, or something else entirely?  After several doubtful attempts to label a few of them properly on my Wildflowers of the Monocacy page, I’ve decided to dump pictures of them here, in a despairing blog post.

Despair aside, however, asters really are as bright and lively as the stars for which they are named. Right now, they are constellations of white light in yellow fields of goldenrod; delicate pinpricks of color.

 

20160928_084354.jpg

A Few of My Favorite Things

Because I can’t pick just one thing when I have such little time to write, and The Sound of Music is inspiring any time of the year…

A doe, a deer, a female deer. There’s a Where’s Waldo scavenger hunt going on in downtown Frederick this month, but at the river we like to do things a little differently.

20160721_133155.jpg

 

Raindrops on…Sharp-winged Monkey-flowers. Because the bloom of the mimulus alatus is beautiful, but the common name is even better.

20160721_143748.jpg

 

Ford every stream. Seriously. It’ll cool you off.

20160721_142135.jpg

 

How do you solve a problem like… trash? Clean it up, one piece at a time.

20160721_143929.jpg

 

The Green Stuff

There are wildflowers that aren’t wildflowers.  They’re green or brown or furry or smooth or fringed or winged, in bunches and fronds, clubbed, tall, short, and everywhere. They’re “grass flowers.” I discovered a short article about them by Jennifer Frazer on Scientific American‘s blog “The Artful Amoeba,” which was very good but further persuaded me not to tear my hair out trying to identify grasses as well as flowers and birds. Still, I can’t help but notice the grass flowers now that I know that they’re there, and often they’re weird or dramatic enough to merit a picture. Even the seeds and pods can be interesting. Right now there’s so much green that it’s tempting to overlook all of it, but the most average of green stuff is worth a little bit of time.

Fairyland, Maryland

 

At this time of year, the silver 2-week period when the Virginia Bluebells bloom in concert with the delicate Spring Beauties, Trout Lilies, and even the alien Lesser Celandines, I can’t help but feel that I’m in Fairyland. And today, when the white sunlight shone beneath the gray rainclouds, it lit the world in crisp, clean, and almost metallic shadow, and I felt as if I was walking through a photograph.  With one effect on top of another, I might have been unreal myself, and, as must always be true when a proper fairy has you in its sphere, I was a little unnerved.

A few years ago, my father showed me an old drawing of mine that he had found in his basement.  Surrounding a smiling girl were curlicues and flowers, mice and birds, and I had written across the top, “Nature is Love.” My father, who has a wry sense of humor, laughed at me for having been a young, secret pantheist, and I was suitably embarrassed by the naivete and simplicity of my early drawing. Only a year ago, I was even more embarrassed when my nieces started reading aloud from my early diaries. They contained the usual, painful nonsense about boys, family problems, and worries about my appearance (listen to the podcast, Mortified, and you’ll get the idea), but they also had the affected, pretentious prose of someone who wanted very much to be a a writer and had read way too much Louisa May Alcott and L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series, not to mention piles of Andrew Lang’s many-colored Fairy Books (Olive! Pink! Orange!). I wrote in high-flying language of my love of nature, of the joy of sitting by “the creek” and making up stories, of the respite from the “real world” it offered me.

In Fairyland, you lose time, or maybe you gain it.  At any rate, Fairyland changes time, so that you can be in two places at once, be two people at once, and yet be one person in one time all the same. Am I 10 or 40?  Have I grown up at all? I’m not a pantheist.  Or a pagan. More often, I’m a simple rationalist with a Lutheran upbringing.  But I can feel the magic, even if I don’t believe in it. That’s why there can be trash in Fairyland.