Getting Dirty to Keep Our Parks Clean

Viburnum in Glover-Archbold Park – Photo by CGIOS

The older I get, the more I feel I need excuses to put on wellies and jump in mud puddles. Why is that? And what’s a better excuse than signing up for a park clean up that also just happens to be on a rainy spring day?

Last April, I joined site leader Jerry’s group for the Rock Creek Conservancy’s Rock Creek Extreme Cleanup. Our task was to remove the trash from Glover-Archbold Park, a sub-unit of Rock Creek Park. For a map of all of Rock Creek Park and its finger parks, check here.

I made sure I wore comfortable clothes that I didn’t mind getting muddy in. And I honestly did fight myself a little getting out of the door. After all, rainy days are great for curling up at home with a book and a cat. At the end of the day, getting out was not a decision I regretted.

I arrived and paired up with another woman whose partner was at home with a broken ankle. Since the rest of the group seemed to arrive together from a college, it was lucky for us that we were each alone. Jerry handed us a large bag for garbage and one for recycling, gloves, instructions, and pointed us in the opposite direction of the big group. We were on our way.

We entered Glover-Archbold Park near New Mexico Avenue and Garfield Street. It was raining a little harder than I realized, but that added to the visual magic. Thanks to the rain’s broad brush over the earth, we were surrounded by new spring growth made bright green in contrast to the darkened tree bark.

What’s nice about volunteering in early spring is the beauty of the early growth mixed with the lack of poison ivy and bugs (if bugs aren’t your thing). My mother passed on her love of wildflowers to me, and DC is full of them. The very first things I noticed with delight were the prehistoric-looking Jack-in-the-pulpits everywhere! And there was a tree with beautiful cascading white blooms on one side trail that was a challenge to identify. After outsourcing the plant’s identification on Facebook, a friend who works in parks says he is 100% sure it’s viburnum. I returned the very next weekend, sun in tow, to snap pictures of both species.

Jack-in-the-pulpits – Photo by CGIOS

I was grateful for my clean up partner who had a much better sense of direction than I do. I was mostly teaching myself to use visual cues in the physical geography as breadcrumbs, but not very successfully.

We chatted some and learned about each other, and walked quietly and enjoyed the light rain while we collected trash on the network of trails. The park was mostly empty of people, probably from the weather. Their loss.

Most of the trash in this area of the park was located closer to the street entrances. That is where the hard work was concentrated. However, one of the more disturbing things for me (and here is your embedded PSA, people) was the number of doggie bags people leave in the park. The point of the bags is to pick up your pup’s poo and remove it with you. So leaving it in the bag in the woods seems even more egregious than just leaving the waste there to decompose. We picked up quite a ridiculous number of bags. And also found a few plastic Easter eggs with toys in them, clothing, and the always ubiquitous plastic water bottles.

I know from my volunteering experiences over the years that people show up for a variety of reasons. I’m an introvert and love people but also love just plain hard solitary work. So I go for the joy of being outside and helping the environment, and the therapy that is ripping vines from trees and hiking into challenging crevices for a piece of trash. For me, there’s nothing like the feeling of taking a warm shower after getting really dirty and working hard. A lot of people volunteer for team building and for socializing and, yes, because this is DC, even networking. If you met your partner for life while volunteering, I’d love to hear about that! Tell us why you volunteer in the comments.

The Rock Creek Conservancy works to protect Rock Creek and its parks throughout Washington, DC and Maryland (including Rock Creek Park). Like in any system, the condition of one part can affect another part. The health of Rock Creek, for example, affects the health of the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay (the bay closest to my heart). Join the efforts to protect these parks as a natural oasis for all to enjoy. For forthcoming information about the next Extreme Clean Up and other volunteer opportunities, keep an eye on this page.

The Rock Creek Conservancy volunteer experiences are well-planned, with site leaders who bring supplies and communicate about the event with participants. All you need to do is dress for the weather and the woods (and if you must, bring a business card or two). But most importantly, get out there and have fun!

Barred Owl in My Backyard


Barred owl. Copyright : Lynn Bystrom,

I’m always on the alert for animals, even in the city. I spend a large part of my day proofreading and apply that same Where’s Waldo scan to every tree I walk past.


Black and white warbler. Copyright : Marie-Ann Daloia,

Just two weeks ago, I noticed a small black and white bird on the tree that separates my office window from a view of Freedom Plaza and discovered it was a black and white warbler. I have never seen one before, so this was exciting. It moved quickly and the window washers hadn’t been around in a little while, resulting in blurry attempts to capture an image of the little guy. Thankfully, real photographers exist so you can see a picture.

In all my enthusiasm, unfortunately, sometimes I’m the woman who cried bird. While scanning highways and forests, I’ve been known to get excited over nothing. I mistook many white plastic bags high up in trees for snowy owls during the great snowy owl visit a couple of years ago.

But what happened last night was unmistakable. Around 1:30 am (Happy Autumn, everyone!), I was woken up by the clear “who cooks, who cooks for you all” call. At first I just laid there wondering if I had dreamed it. Or maybe some taxi driver who really loves birds got carried away choosing a horn sound for his car. Sure enough, after several seconds I heard the call again, loud and close, from somewhere out back by the trees that line the alley. I couldn’t see anything in the dark from my window, and the neighbor’s house light made any chance of spotting silhouettes impossible.

Then, as I was fumbling for my phone to try to get a recording, I heard squawking and considered there might be two of them. And then they were gone. While I wasn’t able to get a good recording, you can hear the same sounds I heard in the first two recordings on The Cornell Lab of Ornithology site.

My backyard wilderness. Photo by CGIOS

Owls are around. Apparently, they’re known for victimizing joggers in Rock Creek Park. A few years ago, a woman posted on our community listserv that she heard a bunch of commotion at her door and opened it to find a saw-whet owl staring at her. I’m not as jealous as I used to be, now with the barred owl experience, but I’d still really love to see a saw-whet owl sometime. It’s more unusual to hear or see any owl in your backyard, the further away from Rock Creek Park you are.

This morning, while I took a quick stroll through the alley to look for any visual signs of the visitor (owl pellets or tree tracks), I was happy to greet our backyard resident rabbit who is still alive and hopping. Keep on, little buddy. It’s wild out there.

Alien Flowers Invade Washington


Photo by CGIOS

I thought about calling this post “The Day My Boyfriend Threw My Ice Cream in the Trash Can and Then Tried to Distract Me With Hats,” because once your boyfriend tosses your ice cream, it’s hard to remember what else happened that day. (I will get to the alien flowers in a second.)


Photo by CGIOS

The scene unfolds on an Annapolis sidewalk. Joe and I are eating ice cream and listening to Vasili Frankos play his viola. (You may have heard this talented guy at various metro stops in DC.) Mistakenly thinking I was finished eating, Joe throws the cup in the trash can. About 10 seconds of staring at each other in silence followed, but boy our thoughts were loud. Mine jumped from “Is this a deal-breaker?” to a more rational “Maybe there’s a way to get it out of the trash can.” I think for a split second he considered retrieving the cup of melted chocolate as well, because he looked at the can almost desperately. Then he looked back at me. I asked the obvious, “Did you just throw my ice cream away?” He brilliantly replied,”Oh look! Hats!”, grabbed my hand, and lead me into the hat store across the street to find distraction. Good for everyone involved that my sense of humor trumps my ice cream addiction.


Photo by CGIOS

Now back to the flowers. That morning we ventured to Kenilworth Gardens to explore the aquatic flowerbeds in Northeast DC. Despite numerous recommendations from friends, I was not prepared for the sight. The park is filled with alien space flowers almost or as tall as we are. By alien space flowers, I mean lotus plants. They’re HUGE. And stunning. The sunlight seems to emanate from the plants themselves instead of the sky. Everything glows brightly. And the enormous geometry of the strange shapes of the plants take my imagination to places like the Amazon Rainforest or Africa. I was expecting ponds and ponds of lily pads, not that there is anything wrong with lily pads.

Plan to arrive earlier in the day. Once the air reaches a certain temperature, the flowers close up. I sprinkled a few photos in this post to pique your curiosity, but of course the live version is better.

Many cultures and religions have assigned meaning to the lotus flower, and meanings change depending on the color of the blooms. For example, in Buddhism, the white flower “refers to purity of the mind and the spirit.” Click on this link for more symbolism.

Walking up to the gardens, Joe asked, “Where have you taken me?”  They’re breathtaking. Go. See. Them.

While you are on that side of town, here are some other things to do:

  • Drive about 30 minutes or so to Annapolis for an afternoon stroll or boat ride.
  • Visit the National Arboretum and have a picnic.
  • Stop by Union Market for lunch, a new chef’s knife, and definitely ice cream.