Thursday, November 17, 2011

What do Lilly Tomlin, Bear Creek, Los Padres, and Rock Creek have in common?

"I always wondered why somebody didn't do something about that.  Then I realized I was somebody."
                                                                                                              - Lilly Tomlin

Bear Creek is a beautiful trout stream in Garrett County, Maryland.  In most places it has steep, wooded banks on the southern side, rising nearly straight up a mountain, and a sparsely wooded flood plain on the northern bank.  Towering hemlocks and stands of rhodedendron mix with beech and maple and oak, and in fall it's a magical place to hang out.  I can see why Native Americans used to live along this stream.  A friend of mine is lucky enough to have Bear Creek just outside her back door, and has found many artifacts while digging her garden. Trout fishermen are it's main "users" these days, mostly during the spring.  I always thought fisherfolk would not be likely to leave trash since they value their experiences of being out in nature doing their thing.

I've learned differently.

During the last few weeks, I've started cleaning up along Bear Creek between Friendsville and Accident.  There's a lot there, I was dismayed to discover, mostly out of sight of the road.  People tend to fling things out their car windows in locations that make them difficult to see from the road, like down banks around curves.  This makes them harder to find and retrieve, too!  But I am up to the challenge.

I started out at the pull-offs, and there are about five of them along this stretch of road.  And I started with two tires, which someone had been obliging enough to leave in plain view at a pull-off.  I didn't see any trash in the flood plain between there and the stream, and was feeling the magic of the place in the yellow-green woods, when, back by the road I noticed a beer bottle to the left of the pull-off.  And another.  And another.  And many others...iced tea, soda, hard liquer, water, chewing tobacco, more and more beer...I quickly filled my bins and headed off to the landfill, not having finished.  My haul included hip-high wading boots, so, so much for fisherfolk being environmentalists.  Hopefully most are.  What I've been finding is that, in both directions from the pull-off, the litter was mostly down banks around curves, and I can't blame those on fishers.

When I went back a few days later, the pull-off was trashed with Halloween candy wrappers and pages ripped out of a school planner.  Kid perps!  Further in that direction I found car parts, including a back seat and broken headlight casing, in amongst the beautiful fall leaves and beer bottles.  Good place to put 'em, folks!  (By the way, the Friendsville trash collection site is about equidistant to this site, but in the other direction from town.) 

As I was picking up, I started thinking about how what I do is similar to hunting.  Think how great it would be if all the hunters out there put all their gear and effort into retrieving and recycling trash instead of killing deer!

This is from a sign posted by the U.S. Forest Service in Los Padres National Forest:

Cigarette butts............................................1-5 years
Aluminum cans............................................80-100 years
Orange peels...............................................up to 2 years
Plastic bags................................................10-20 years
Glass bottles...............................................1 million years
Tin cans.....................................................50 years
Wool socks.................................................1-5 years
Plastic bottles...............................................Indefinitely

Here are some pictures my daughter took of Rock Creek Park in Silver Spring, Maryland.  This creek and park runs into our nation's capital:

Unbelievable, isn't it?  In this day and age?  In a supposedly modern, 1st world, enlightened country, capable of putting a spacecraft on mars?

Monday, October 31, 2011

Treasures from the Deep

Since our early eight inches of snow is keeping me from picking up trash, here are some pictures of "treasures" I've found in various old garbage dumps. 

This first one is an old toy car.  Note the axles for its missing wheels.

Next are three unusual antique bottles.  The medicine bottle on the right I wrote about in my last blog.  It says: Dr. T.W. Graydon / Cincinnati, O / Diseases of the Lungs.  The one in the middle is a beautiful old perfume bottle.  It's light purple, which probably means it used to be clear glass and was made before 1911.  Its upper surface is out of round, and the sides still have uncut extra glass along the seams.  I don't know if that makes it more or less valuable, and it would make a good History Detectives episode to figure out how it ended up near an old house site in the woods of Appalachia!  I also found a woman's lace-up boot near it.  The green bottle I don't know anything about.  I just like the shape and size of it.

Next is a a beautiful aqua Ball mason jar for canning, that says Ball / Perfect Mason and has a 7 on the bottom.  It makes a good vase or, if I could clean it well, a grain storage jar.  Beside it is an old RC Cola bottle with a painted-on label.  In the pale yellow you can barely make out: Royal Crown above the RC.  It was made prior to twist-off caps.

And last is a picture of a very interesting mechanical pencil, a shot container for a gun, and an apparent sunglasses lens.
These were all found in the same vicinity as the old medicine bottle.  The mechanical pencil has writing at the top end that says: Wahl Eversharp / Gold-filled  Pat.  Made in USA.  My daughter, who noticed the writing, and I researched it.  The Eversharp pencil was invented by Charles Keeran in 1913, and he applied for a patent in October, 1913 and was granted it in March, 1915.  It was first produced in New York by Heath, a company known for their fine etching on jewelry, etc.  Then in October, 1915, Keeran signed a contract with Wahl Adding Machine Company in Chicago to manufacture them.  They took it over and booted Keeran out!  I suspect this is one of the first mechanical pencils in existence, since he got it patented.  It has a very fine design all along it.  There are also threads inside the top.  There's a blob of rust at the point end, which would have to be chemically removed.

The copper shot box has a label, which when wet, has some legible words:  ---ILLINED / EL 10 / Center Fire  / Winchester  /  1916.

The lens I don't know anything about.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

What's Left Behind

As I've been digging up old dump sites lately, I start to reflect on the items I use on a regular basis that will survive me.  Someday, like Hamlet examining a skull, someone will find pieces of this pot or these dishes or this car, and they will try to reconstruct what my life was like.  It's impossible to do, of course, which is why I don't like reading fictional accounts set in prehistoric times.  What gall!

BUT----I do love having that close contact with people's lives, handling what they've left behind.  Before I was horrified by old dump sites, found everywhere near old house sites, in nearby ravines.  I felt it was such a travesty!  And while I still do, I also, now, see them as an opportunity to explore the past.  Some things "sink," get covered up by inches of decaying leaves and roots and plants.  There they become part of the new lives of bugs and roots and mosses and molds.  Sometimes I'm reluctant to disrupt these new adaptations; I've found roots going in one end of a broken bottle and out the other, and I've found entire ant colonies living in old bottles.  I've found bottles that look like little terrariums, full of diverse plantlife.  But I do disrupt them.  I feel I'm healing the earth by removing broken glass and rusty metal debris, like splinters under the skin.

And sometimes things get uplifted to the surface, probably by frost heaves.  The other day I was walking in the woods and saw the side of a flask-shaped brown bottle.  I nudged it with my toe, and it came out whole, a beautiful antique medicine bottle, embossed with words.  I looked it up on the internet, and it's worth about $47.  It was made in the late 1800s by a doctor in Cincinnati for diseases of the lungs.  I started probing with a trowel in that area, and found several buckets of broken glass and rusty metal.  The latter included lots of big nails, some of them square; pieces of chain; and a broken spatula.  One bottle piece was a beer bottle embossed by the Cumberland Brewing Company, which was in business from the late 1800s until the early 1950s.

Here's a picture of the Youghiogheny River, which was up and muddy, near whose banks I found an old dump site:
And here's what I found:  the tip of the iceberg:

It was in what looked like an old mill race, parallel to the river.  Lots of crockery, glass, and a few metal pots.

This summer my husband and two friends paddled down a most pristine part of the upper Blackwater River in Canaan Valley, WV.  The river is narrow and meanders in a round-about way through a bushy nature preserve.  They did sixteen miles that day.
And THIS was the ONLY piece of trash they found on the entire trip:

They had great debates about what it was, and finally decided it was a golf ball!!!  Another example of how wildlife tries to eat and can be harmed by trash.  Imagine how like an egg this must have looked!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Flotsam and Fishbones: The Alaskan Waters

Last summer, 2010, I was one of the luckiest people in the world. I got to go see Alaska and British Columbia’s Inside Passage, not on a cruise ship, but on a study tour with 23 other college professors & instructors, most expenses paid by the National Endowment for the Humanities. We started in Juneau at the University of Alaska Southeast (in nearby Auke Bay), and ended in Vancouver, being shuttled around by planes, ferries, and busses. We were studying the native cultures of the Yup’ik Eskimos and the Northwest Coast (especially Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, Kwakwaka’wakw, and Coast Salish). It was definitely a highlight of my life, and I got to share a lot of what I learned with my students all last year. I also presented to the Western Maryland Division of the Archaeological Society of Maryland this past March.

Anyway, as soon as I got settled in my dorm at UAS, I walked down to Auke Bay to see the water. The scenery was amazing, of course, and everything looked raw and pristine. But the first thing I saw washing up from the water was an ammunition belt, buckled, full of bullets! The next day a paperback book washed in.

This summer I read a book called Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings by Jonathan Raban, published in 1999, about a trip he took in a sailboat from Seattle to Juneau and back. I highly recommend it! He writes kind of like Bill Bryson. But anyway, he has a passage in there about the junk in the oceans—even in a supposedly untouched place like Alaska, the last frontier.

The tide ran in lazy swirls and fingerling whirlpools. I drove through a tide-meet of flotsam—a sinuous, unbroken line of stray logs, green branches, yellowed chunks of polystyrene packing, soft-drink cans, condoms, fish crates, frayed rope-ends, old boots, half-eaten apples, a broken caneback chair, a rubber ball. Wherever two tidal currents come into collision, they form a long thin floating junkyard, to which all superfluous items in the neighborhood eventually gravitate. These trailing windrows suggest to the eye the natural affinity of the unwanted: all the local orphans collect here, jostling together in a buoyant democracy of abuse and neglect. I passed through every tide-meet with care, always hoping to rescue an abandoned fender, a Japanese glass float, or any of the other useful and decorative things that sometimes showed up in these anfractuous garbage dumps. Nothing this morning. The gulls were having a good time of it, though, picking over such delicacies as the triple-decker club sandwich that most likely had been tossed by a sated cruise-ship passenger. (333-4)

That last image reminds me of an incident this summer. I was in Wal-mart’s parking lot, directly in front of the store, with cars and pedestrians milling around. A two-seater pickup turned right in front of me, and as it was turning, the back window opened and a teenaged girl threw a half-eaten sandwich on the pavement, right at my feet! I tried to catch her eye and yelled Hey!—but they were gone. I was stunned and angry. Now, admittedly, half-eaten sandwiches are biodegradable, but who wants to see them or step on them?

So you might wonder if we have anything to learn from the Native Americans on this issue. You know, there you are out in a vast natural landscape. All your food scraps and raw materials are from the earth and will return to the earth. So what do you do with your fish bones and seal bones, etc. Toss them, right?

Wrong. First of all, most people know that Natives are notorious for using the entire animal. Every body part has a use. But what about fish bones? Fish bones are discarded, but not just tossed. In both the Yup’ik and Northwest Coast cultures, every part of the universe is alive and sentient. Every rock, every piece of driftwood, every fish bone, and even the dirt and garbage on the ground is alive and aware. If you treat those fish bones with disrespect, leaving them around for people to step on, you won’t have any luck fishing next year. You have to carefully collect them and place them in a thankful manner back in the water near where they were found to ensure those fish will want to return to you the next year. Whenever I pass a squished animal in the road, I think how horrified the Yup’ik people would be to see how we treat animals.

Related to this, driftwood was what made travel into the Western Hemisphere possible. The original people came along the coast, not inland, using driftwood for fuel. The Yup’ik and Northwest Coast people believe you shouldn’t pull driftwood out of the water but only use driftwood that’s washed up and dried out of its own accord. Otherwise, you may have trouble finding more driftwood in the future. Then, when it’s beached and dry, it has offered itself to you for your use. But you should also turn driftwood over now and then, so it doesn’t get tired of being in the same position.

Unfortunately, I wouldn’t be surprised if that ammo belt and book had fallen off of a boat owned and operated by Tlingits. The Natives quickly acquired and put to use any modern tools that would help them, and attempts were made by both the American and Canadian governments and missionaries to wipe out the Native languages and cultures. Many Yup’iit still have a subsistence culture, though using some modern tools, and many still speak their language. Along the Northwest Coast, very few survive who grew up speaking their native languages and living in the old ways, though their values have often been passed down. And there is a huge revival, and attempts are being made to resurrect the old customs and arts all up and down the Inside Passage.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Lyme Disease, Corporations, and Rising Above It All

from “The Ponds” by Mary Oliver:

     Still, what I want in my life
     is to be willing
     to be dazzled—
     to cast aside the weight of facts

     and maybe even
     to float a little
     above this difficult world.

Sometimes that’s what it takes to not be discouraged by what has been done to the world—people to the earth, people to people, people to animals, animals to animals, “nature red in tooth and claw,” as Tennyson so aptly described the latter.

And how about bacteria and viruses to people and animals? Yesterday I watched a documentary about chronic Lyme disease, called “Under Our Skin.” It’s really scary, but if the HMOs would stop controlling everything, the research holds out hope for those with Alzheimer’s, MS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, and Parkinson’s, not to mention Lyme disease!

How did we let our lives fall into the hands of the puppeteer HMOs? Though I mean this rhetorically, this is actually answered in Michael Moore’s movie, “Sicko,” which makes you feel sick to be living in the USA, with private companies running our health care. And related to HMOs are all corporations, which the documentary “The Corporation” explains have all the characteristics of sociopaths.

I highly recommend all three of these documentaries. They should be required viewing. What will it take to throw off the yoke of corporations? Laws and red tape have gotten so complex, people don’t even know they’re being abused—and outright killed—by these corporations. Paranoia? I think not. I think that’s the world we live in.

So either we live lives of engagement, involving constant anger and frustration, or we try to turn it off, to rise above it all and just enjoy what we can of what’s lovely in this world. I know for me, I do some of both. I contribute to some environmental groups which are grappling with the corporations in the courts and sign their e-mail petitions, and locally, I pick up trash and try to call people’s attention to that and other environmental problems I notice. And I try every day to get outdoors—out any doorway—and feel my way back into nature, to melt into the woods…

This is the balance I’ve found.

As for battling the HMOs, everyone viewing the films mentioned above would be a good start, including our representatives in the government!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Six-legged frogs, Japanese Knotweed, and Lawn Mowers

I'll have to add to my levels of hell, one level down from people who throw recyclables out their car windows, people who mow grass without picking up the trash first!  I spent several hours in the hot sun Saturday picking up shredded little bits of plastic and paper left by some idiot on a lawn mower.  This was at the bottom of Pysell Road---again.  I was so hot afterwards, I retreated to the cool, shady old dump site by the stream, further up Pysell Rd. in the woods, and fought with the greenbriar and deer flies instead.  There were some interesting finds there, most notably eight half-gallon-size brown glass bottles that said "Austin's A-1 Solution."  I googled it, and they're bleach bottles.  Unlike everything else I was finding, they weren't broken!  It's tempting to save some of these unbroken finds, but I don't think they're old enough to be worth much.  They all have twist-off lids.

Earlier in the week I was busy with other environmental concerns.  I happened to notice in the Garrett County Weekender that some Mennonite kids had a plastic duck regatta in the Casselman River near the old bridge (built in 1813).  I read the article to see how the heck putting a bunch of plastic ducks in a river can raise money for a charity, and hoping they got them all, when a line jumped out at me.  It said:  "The youth were delighted to spot a six-legged frog during the event." 

Well of course I was horrified, and the next day I was on the phone all morning, being referred to this person and that person, trying to notify the right people in the scientific community, at the Mennonite church, and the state EPA.  Finally I talked to Ed Thompson of the Natural Heritage Service who's doing a study of rare and endangered non-game species, such as hellbender salamanders, in the Casselman River.  He's the first person I'd spoken to who was a horrified as  I was.  The first thing he said was, "That's right where the Grantsville sewage treatment plant discharges into the Casselman!"  He said the presence of that frog may be a clue to the disappearance of the hellbenders, too.  We had a discussion about all the possible causes of such genetic deformities, including pharmacueticals not being removed at sewage treatment plants, herbicides and pesticides from farms, and plastics.

Here's the really frightening part, though.  He said there was no one to report this to.  He said there's no governmental organization set up to respond to environmental incidents like this.  But he said he'd try to involve those higher up, and I agreed to let the town of Grantsville's government know, which I did.  He was also going to talk to the church to see if anyone had collected the frog, which he wanted to see.

Then the next day, I put a letter to the editor in the local paper about how trash affects wildlife and ends up in the ocean affecting wildlife there, and explained Maryland's litter control law.  While I was there talking to the editor, I proposed an article about an invasive species, Japanese knotweed, which is taking over our river and stream banks.  He asked me to go through Liz McDowell at the Savage River Watershed Association, who has written such articles in the past.  I've got some good pictures of it.

It reallys scares me because it's huge, as you can see in this picture of an abandoned house in the Spring Lick flood plain!  It's about 8 feet tall, so it shades out and crowds out all the native plants, and it totally changes these unique stream valleys such as I described in my last blog, Sang Run.  It's really heart-breaking how it's changed Spring Lick.  I've seen it along the Savage (as shown here),

the Potomac, the Casselman, and the Youghiogheny.   I've even seen it in isolated spots at higher elevations.  I saw on a website about invasive species that to kill it, you have to cut it back three times per growing season.  It has hollow stems that shoot up every year.  Here's what the leaves look like:

                          Death to Japanese Knotweed!!!

Well, that's enough bad news for one week.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Sang Run Road: Trashing Paradise

My friend Shirley asked me about how I came up with the name Ginseng for Garrett County's literary magazine back in 1997, so I told her about the history of hunting for wild ginseng in these hills, how it was--and still is--worth a lot of money.  The Chinese, especially, value the bitter root as an aphrodisiac and energy booster.  It's become pretty rare in the wild.  It's been cultivated, but that kind isn't worth nearly as much as wild ginseng.  And around here it's pronounced gin-sang, sang for short; hence, Sang Run Road.  And for those of you reading this in New England or elsewhere, "run" is what people in the mid-Atlantic region sometimes call brooks, streams, or rivers. 

Much of my trash picking up so far has been along various stretches of Sang Run, including today.  It is a pristine stream, cool and shady on a hot day, with towering hemlocks and maples above and stretches of wild rhododendron here and there along the banks.  Ferns, mosses, and a wide variety of delicate wildflowers flourish along its banks and floodplain.  There are many sections of it with tiered rock outcrops along the sides, giving it the feel of a cool, damp grotto.  In the sunny spots are large, primeval-looking skunk cabbage--not nearly as large as I saw last summer in Alaska, but still lush and verdant.  There's no poison ivy at this elevation and very few strands of greenbriar to detract from its sweet nature.

In fact, the Nature Conservancy owns a stretch of it, and today I was picking up just upstream from their property.  At first I didn't see much to pick up there.  I mainly stopped because I'd seen a big tarp blown off of a pickup on the side of the road, but I started exploring further in, between the road and the stream, and then across the stream, and I found quite a bit.   I made about eight trips back to my car with my buckets full of bottles and cans and plastic bags, broken glass and shotgun shells.  I also found lots of little pieces of styrofoam in some flood debris, along with woven plastic feed bags and a piece of house siding.  One thing I'm going to have to go back with leather gloves for is a lot of plastic tangled up in barbed wire, complete with a rotten fence post!  So I was doing a lot of jumping to and from mossy stepping stones, balancing on logs, and occasionally bashing my head on rhododendron!  But it was beautiful, and I was glad to be out in the day.

Last Friday I picked up a different section of the road, across the Youghiogheny River.  It's still called Sang Run Road, but it goes up over a mountain ending at Cranesville Road, where you're almost into West Virginia.  That section of the road is remote, mostly state forest land, including a primitive camp ground.  In early spring, I'd seen a lot of trash along this road, so I wanted to go back for it.  The trouble was finding a place to park off the road.  I finally found a spot, but the road looked like someone had cleaned it up!  I was hopeful, but no such luck.  Once you get out walking, you realize that a lot of it has been thrown ten or twenty feet off the road, and plants have leafed out, hiding the mess.  Without ever moving the car, in one hour, I picked up 18 gallons of plastic bottles, 9 gallons of glass bottles, and 18 gallons of trash.

And all this was from a clean-looking, fourth mile stretch of road in the wilderness!  Among the plastic, I found four milk bottles full of animal teeth marks.  Whether they're bear or fox or what, I don't know, but as you can see, wildlife DOES interact with trash and is affected by it!  Three of the bottles are shown here:

The forests of the Appalachian Mountains are unique.  It's the oldest mountain range in the world, and with all its nooks and crannies, varying elevations and amounts of daylight, it is the most diverse forest in the world, more diverse even than rainforests.  And it seems like ever since the logging companies arrived in the 1800s, people have done nothing but rape and trash the land and the rivers through logging, mining, and dumping trash.  Now they're clear-cutting our mountain tops to erect gigantic windmills and messing up the land and water with fracking, and still the dumping of trash continues.

Well, at least Sang Run is a little cleaner today.