Sunday, May 17, 2015

MD: The Countdown Begins - A Walk At Governor Bridge Natural Area

Yesterday marked graduation weekend at my graduate school in New Hampshire. I am behind by a year because of an advisor fail over three years ago. I almost quit. I was so angry I can still feel bitterness. That I should have walked that stage yesterday blurs into  resignation of adding the extra expense and year to what has become a six year odyssey, a journey that has vacillated between what I love to do in writing and research and what I most despise about academe. But despite the highs and lows, I have been committed all along to environmental, agriculture, and conservation history which involves a tremendous amount of reading and writing, drafts and rewrites, reviews and proofing. These are the things I thought about while on a lunch walk following a meeting in southern Maryland. There's something freeing about the idea of acceptance when I can just wander to clear my mind.

Broad-headed skink.

Someone at the meeting yesterday asked me if I hate it - the disruptions, the grueling pace of the work, and rearrangement of life as I knew it. I had to answer honestly that somedays I do - that I am always exhausted, I've lost a few good friends, and I always feel guilty for going for a walk instead of writing another page. The worst part is trying to balance a full time job on top of the demands of this dissertation. Then there are the marathon writing weekends or holidays when I can write for 72 hours and not look up and be in the zone, when everything clicks and flows together and blossoms into good writing and a good story. I love that. But I miss  the weekend hikes, the overnights in the mountains, the long canoe and kayak expeditions, weeks and weeks of wandering and exploring.  So the countdown starts for next year - 52 weeks from now - when finally I'll walk across that stage.

My lunch walk destination after a meeting near Washington D.C.

I wandered the network of trails at Governor Bridge Natural Area trying to come up with metaphors for what I've already endured and what this next year promises to bring. The site is an old quarry area that came into the hands of conservationists and land planners when the sand and gravel company sold the land. But it's also a haven for people trying to escape the crowded highways and dense residential and shopping areas that have consumed everything around it. I met a few fishermen, one slightly drunk or high or both who had to tell me why he thinks parks are closed. Blame gays! Blame Obama! Blame the Pope! I walked very quickly away from him! My metaphor exercise wasn't working. 

Yellow pond lily.

The reptiles were out in force. It was a hot day for birds, but a nice day if you were cold blooded. I counted two black rat snakes, three broad-headed skinks, one five-lined skink, two garters, and a fat northern water snake. The spring migrant warblers have passed through I think, some staying to nest, but at the time of day I walked, early afternoon after the meeting, the birdsong had quieted down. I picked up red and white-eyed vireo by call, several common yellow throats, and orioles all around the ponds. The trails of old truck roads were perfectly tropical-looking draped in the greenery of high spring time, but it was the quarry ponds that really were beautiful. After almost 60 years an industrial area, the wooded swamps, open ponds, and vast meadows seemed like a miracle.

An old sand quarry pit now serves as a lily-filled pond.

This is sand and gravel country where for centuries people have mined the outwash of distant glaciers and the deposits of seas coming and going over millions of years. It's not uncommon to see abandoned mines and quarries like this throughout the southern Maryland peninsula, but it is a treat to see such a quarry site fully transformed into a park and valuable natural area. I circled all the ponds on the Red, Blue, Orange, and Yellow trails.  A canoe and kayak launch trail gives paddlers access to the Patuxent River Trail. 

Female Prothonotary Warbler.

The deep woods seemed older than they were, and if I closed my eyes and listened to the flycatchers and vireos punctuating the forest with their calls, I could imagine a wild, untouched place before the quarries were clawed from the sandy soils. But the fact is that in order to reclaim this property for conservation purposes, some serious work had to be done. Wetland soils just don't happen. Forest soils have to be replaced. In the field of reclamation, ecologists and biologists work with heavy equipment operators to create the base layer of what will be a restored habitat, whether terrestrial or aquatic. It's hard tedious work - the unglamorous side of conservation. And it takes time to see results. 

A forested wetland - and a family of geese.

As I walked along the trails I observed hints of the construction work that took place here to maintain the swamps, ponds, and water flow. Pipes, large and small, culverts and dikes seemed to criss-cross every boundary between woods and open water. Another bit of engineering has recently come to the scene: beavers building lodges against the flow of water, thwarting the work of two-legged water engineers. The humans dig out the dams, the beavers put them back. In the big picture however, stream management doesn't mean a lot if the laws designed to make these places possible and to protect them are themselves weak or unenforced. Congress continues to wage war against the EPA and Clean Water Act. Development in and around areas like this continue to have real and devastating impacts on streams and rivers.

Eastern Phoebe feeds her young under the bridge I was crossing.

A blogger named Kirk who I follow ( can explain more about the impact and consequences of poor policy and political wrangling on our waterways and wetlands. He's a 'mud engineer' and works some of that heavy  equipment to make and manage places like this. But as an environmental historian, the story of policy and restoration ecology is an important one that helps us to see the 'before and after' of a place. Laws and conservation policies that are enforced or not have very real, sometimes ugly, results on our ever-shrinking wild resources.

A friendly black rat snake.

My failed metaphor hike came to an end an hour later, when back at my car I took a few minutes to glance back down the trail. This visit had been pleasant enough - but I could have done without the talkative fisherman. And, I felt guilty for not having found a library somewhere to do a little more reading or writing instead of wandering around an old sand quarry. I had to head home - through hours of congested highways as it turned out. Hours in the driver's seat, frustrated and impatient, something like this PhD program - not enough time to do good work, and the time I have is spent in traffic between offices, meetings, schools, and events. But I must thank those who, for the past five years, have recommended the places I've visited for my lunch walks - my own tranquil hours to decompress. 

Dark and handsome Orchard Oriole.

So the countdown begins. Fifty-two weeks till I walk that stage and then venture off across the Big Pond - a graduation gift to myself of the 440 mile Camino de Santiago. I'm praying I can stay on schedule with my writing timeline and have a first draft ready by fall. And I know, through experience, to expect the failed metaphors and the frustrating starts and stops. But the birds are always singing somewhere. I'll hang on to that for the next year. There are many stories to be told...

No comments:

Post a Comment