The Earliest Frogs

I hear frogs.

Yesterday a deluge. Wild storms ripped libs from the trees.
Pounding rain left pools of cool spring water
the vernal pools that invite the sleeping ones awaken.

Imagine: your world is cold, solid, dark. You are one with the winter dream, until a trickle of liquid warmth reaches down, stirring something in your sleep.

This (relatively) warm tickle, a tentacle, touches tentatively, teasing a limb
reminding a muscle of its urge
to leap, to stroke, to swim. Your chilled blood moves.
Your amphibian body stirs.

Restless, confined, no longer adrift in the winter dream
with a little birth struggle
you press forth from the cold mud,
slip into the vernal pool,
wave your webbed feet and trill.

River Painting: Deep Summer Afternoon

I’m in the last throes of completing a series of river pictures that have been ‘almost done’ for weeks now. I nudge each of them forward every time I get out the palette, and yet they seem to stay stubbornly in the ‘not quite yet’ camp. ALMOST!!

Last Sunday I completed this one: (click for larger view)

Deep Summer Afternoon, ©2015
20″ x 16″ Oil on board; $500 unframed

This was one of those summer days when you can feel the thunderstorm wanting to happen. Living on Piscataway Bay gives me the most wonderful relationship with the sky. I am so much more in tune with the movement of weather and celestial bodies than I was living in the big woods.

Moyaone Market this Saturday, October 3rd.

Come on down for new paintings and new things happening at Clearwell Studios

Setting Sail into the Storm

One hundred years ago and only the old watermen would have known: a great storm is approaching. So late in the year, the lowering sky and restless wind could be chalked up to October’s moods. But now, the Weather Channel blares drama from every flatscreen.

OK, I’ll confess: I’m right there with them, those eager meteorologists. This is their moment, and it’s the best reality show on TV, stealing the ratings from not only Real Housewives and Storage Wars, but the last gasps of the Presidential election. There’s good old Jim Cantore, knee-deep in surf, gamely reporting at the risk of his own dry socks.

I love this stuff. I grew up with a northern fresh-water version of bad weather, doing homework by lantern light and cooking on the fireplace though fierce winter storms. You can’t scare me. So although my hotel is closing at five tonight due to a mandatory evacuation of low-lying St. George Island, I don’t want to go.

I’ve planned this trip for months! It’s my reward for soldiering through the grueling house dissolution project. Not the parental home this time, but my own. And along comes the Perfect Storm, just in time to derail my get-away. I want to curl up here in this hotel, in my nest of white comforters and pillows, TV remote in hand and watch the river rage from my room, perched high and dry above the waves.

potomac river from st george island md

The wind has slowly built its strength over the last three days, and now is an insistent presence. At first I was disappointed to get a room on the west side of the building, until I visited a friend this morning. There on the sunrise side, with its nice view of bay and dock, what met me was a rude and pushy wind, cold enough to make you want to shut the windows. So now I am glad to be back on my leeward side.

When the storm gets nearer the wind will turn and make a nasty onshore assault, but at the moment I’m enjoying the shelter of the building at my back, hot tea in my hands, while I watch the small trees toss their manes and marsh grasses bow. The arc of each gust pushes a crescent of riffles across the slate gray surface.

I should be packing. I don’t want to go. I like my high perch, a good view and well away from any big trees that might decide to fly around. Somehow I think the hotel will be better at keeping its lights on than my home. And without my dogs, home is cold comfort indeed.

Besides, the gulls seem unconcerned. They sail the wind as if it were a summer breeze, so perfectly formed for gliding, their long tapered wings only moving when they head into the wind. Look: they are busy now diving and fishing. There are hundreds of birds, all over the river. The more I look, the more I see. I want to join them, these small darts hanging on the wind.

I feel a sweet breath of calm between wind gusts, but they are getting shorter. The next blast follows on the heels of the one, nipping, chasing, hurrying to join the storm.

I love bad weather. You can’t scare me, most of the time. Last hurricane, though, it got to me. In the howling night of Irene, at home in the swamp forest, the grinding shriek of the wind came in whirling thrusts and woke me in time to hear a massive oak smack down just outside my bedroom window. I grabbed my big dog in a bear hug and burrowed beneath the quilts, shaking like a leaf.

A storm is an engine: heat and moisture help set it into motion, then its low pressure center becomes a black hole, hoovering everything into itself. This ravening wind churns along ocean currents, sucking sand, devouring islands, hurling trees about like toothpicks. It’s nothing personal; we are but grains of sand to rearrange.

Sandy’s pull is strong now. I see clouds racing to meet her. Leaves are pulled loose and sprayed across the water. They call up from downstairs and want to know when I am leaving. I eye the water, beginning to creep across the road. The pressure is dropping and the pressure is on: I need to leave before it is no longer an option.

The day grows darker and it’s time to go. The thought of setting sail in my car frightens me. Where will I feel this safe again? When I admit that I am afraid, I don’t know who I am.

I pulled up anchor on my life, this year. I walked a path that would have either saved or sold my house, and it sold. Clearing out all my possessions, I felt the ache of loss as I weighed each thing in my hand, as I chose again and again to let go and say goodbye to objects I thought I’d have forever.

I’ve found a new lightness, imagining I’m as free as those gulls gliding on the wind, but now it’s time to leave the earth, to allow my feet to lift, to feel that infinitesimal space between me and solid earth. It feels like an enormous gulf, and I flail wildly for a sense of up and down.

I love bad weather, I tell my self. I want to set sail, ride the wind. But now that the time is here, my heart is in my mouth.

Get me to the River

2008 photo by miss karen on flickr

Yesterday was our first sweltering day this summer, appropriate, perhaps, on Summer Solstice. My mission was to fetch a friend from BWI airport, normally about a 75 minute drive. For some reason, traffic was jammed in all directions, and especially coming back. ugh!

The outside temp at 6:45pm was 97f/36c but ten minutes later, eight miles south and in the shade the thermometer read 84f/29c. What a difference a forest makes!! At peak summer, the change from urban heat island to rural cool is usually more like 10f/5c.

Cranky as all get out, I picked up the dogs and headed for the Potomac. They were ecstatic, of course, leaping from the car and racing down the shady trail. Lily was slurping cool water, belly-deep, when I finally arrived with gimpy Seneca, helping her climb over logs to get to the water’s edge.

The water was clear and cool, lapping the gravel beach. Branches hung down sheilding me from the view of the fishing pier. I shucked off my shirt and shorts and joined them, enjoying my first river swim of the year.

Where I grew up, the river was the stage on which life was played. In the summer, one would return from a hard day’s work, sticky and hot, and shuck one’s clothing en route direct from car to seawall. Depending on the number of observers and the time of day, one plunged in wearing some or all of one’s clothing. I remember standing on the sandy bottom and scrubbing the spagetti sauce and mayonaisse out of my uniform with a bar of ivory soap, the Harsen’s Island method of Pre-Wash.

Now, the embrace of the cool river as a reward for a hot summer day is not everyone’s cuppa. So many folks I know think of it as nothing but a filthy drainage ditch. Growing up in love with a river iss one of those things I took for granted, not realizing how extraordinary the rivery life was. Fast forward to Summer Solstice 2012 and find me in my underthings, paddling in the Potomac. Like a happy wet dog.

wet happy dogs

It’s a rare pleasure for more than just the obvious reasons. While the Potomac at Mount Vernon is healthy enough for bass and eagles and blue herons, it’s often choked with algae, a thick slimy green bloom of overgrowth, the result of fertilizer and sewage providing far too many ‘nutrients’ into the stream. The stuff gloms all over the native river grasses then dies and rots into a foul black stuff I call ‘dead spinach.’ Often this gunks up the river so badly I don’t even want to wade in it.

For whatever reason, this year the shore is relatively free of it, and thus the visible beach and the almost-clear water. So there I was, in bliss, the crazy lady swimming in the river. I could hear the murmur of conversation from the fishing pier and the laughing of water-skiers, fallen nearby. While I floated in the cool a bird came in low and landed on driftwood log near enough to see that it was a green heron.

So I float, weightless in a cool bath, spinning slowly under a hazy sky. What better place to be on a day like today?

The River Flows to the Sea

Sad but Not Surprising

Two days after River Cleanup and the first bits of trash have already washed ashore.

It’s not  messy boaters and fishing folk who create all this litter, as some assume. The bulk of the trash is washed down from storm sewers all over the metro area. When you toss an empty package or bottle, even into a bin, odds are it can find it’s way to the river.

Before the Clean-Up

Washed into drains from all over DC, tennis balls are common enough on my beach for the dogs have learned to look for them.  I’m sure that boaters aren’t dumping buckets of balls overboard! But I am busy training my girls to fetch plastic bottles!

Good news about river trash!

Hundreds of volunteers showed up Saturday all up and down the Potomac watershed. I joined friends and neighbors at the National Colonial Farm across the river from historic Mount Vernon. We enjoyed the low tide and beautiful day that allowed us to clean miles of shoreline. Now hikers, fishing folk, blue herons, eagles and osprey can all enjoy the shoreline without trash. For a little while.

But I did notice some improvement while trash-picking Saturday morning ; there was much less foam trash than  in years past.  Alice Ferguson Foundation‘s Trash Free Potomac 2013 has taken a survey of common logos found in river trash and pressured the biggest offenders (this year McDonalds , Pepsi, Deer Park and Budweiser) to change their packaging to biodegradable materials, and it looks to me like this has helped!

The biggest scourge at the moment is plastic bags and bottles. Please make sure your plastics are properly recycled, and replace them when you can with reusable containers. All of us river dwellers thank you!


I took the dogs to the river today, the sun was out! We’ve all been indoors too much, writing, painting, cooking. Today, walking was the first priority.

The winter beech leaves can be quite a bright golden peach in the winter, contrasted with the drabness of dried leaves and bark. The green of moss and holly are most welcome. Add the blue sky and you have a beautiful winter palette.

Of course the dogs were ecstatic. Oh, the joys of sniffing! Seneca forgets she’s a gimpy oldster at the park (this one) and romps like a puppy, a comical sight as she seems to gallop in slow motion. When we rounded the path to approach the boardwalk, a brisk wind was blowing off the river.

This is often the case; inland even a few yards the climate can feel very different from what’s happening on the water. Today, this strong, steady breeze was whipping the shallows into tiny whitecaps, making a frothy sound. And the bare branches were making that distinctive wintery roar. My hair flew around and I felt the cold come through the buttons of my jacket.

In the marsh a few groups of mallards were chattering nearby, then further back a flock of Canada geese rose up and make a V heading toward open water. But in the stiff breeze they seemed to hang motionless in the air. They were moving forward very slowly, and not really moving their wings. The wind alone was holding them aloft. It was eerie and beautiful, these big birds floating strongly, as if they reached the river on will alone.

Sometimes where we are trying to go is harder to reach than we expect. But maybe there is an added lift, an unlikely gift, from the obstacle.