Category Archives: environment

The Edge of the County

Howard County, Maryland is a diverse place. It hosts business and commerce and agriculture. Its population densities range from fairly rural to well-packed suburban. And although on average it is one of the better-off placed in Maryland, rich and middle class and poor alike call it home.

Its land, too, is diverse. Situated on the Piedmont, the hilly plateau between the Atlantic coastal plain and the Appalachian Mountains, the Piedmont (literally “foothills”)  is the remains of several ancient mountain chains, which makes it geologically complex.  For those of us living on the rolling surface, the region can be most beautiful, at least when not overcome by human development.

But sometimes nature and humanity work together. The southern border of Howard County falls along the Patuxent River, which at the midpoint of its course alongside the county flares into Triadelphia Reservoir, created in 1943 by the construction of Brighton Dam. Dam and reservoir are managed by the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC), an inter-county agency that handles drinking water and wastewater treatment for Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties. The reservoir provides drinking water to those jurisdictions, but oddly not to most of Howard County. A small portion of southeastern Howard County is served by WSSC, but most of the eastern half of the county gets its water from Baltimore, while the western half relies on private wells.

WSSC maintains recreational facilities around the reservoir, too. Hiking, picnicking, fishing, boating, horseback riding, and hunting are all available. Only self-powered or battery powered vessels are allowed on the lake, of course, to protect water quality, and permits are required.

Among the recreational facilities on the Triadelphia property is an azalea garden near the dam, featuring over 22,000 azalea bushes sited in a 5 acre hardwood forest. I’ve never been there, and might not be anytime soon. My wife is allergic to the darn things.  But for azalea lovers, it must be quite a place to visit. It’s a collection that probably rivals that of the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C.

Unfortunately, the azalea garden is temporarily closed. Brighton Dam is currently undergoing maintenance to ensure its future life. Although structurally sound, it’s over 70 years old.  Most of us need a bit of work by that point in our lives! The collection will presumably open to the public again after the work is complete.

Detective Lieutenant Rick Peller and crew haven’t been sighted in the vicinity of Triadelphia Reservoir so far, but one never knows. In the future, clues to some dastardly crime might just turn up in the surrounding woods. Meanwhile, pay the area a visit yourself if you happen to get down that way.

Recently Read

I have an author profile on Goodreads. In addition to listing my own books there, I list books I’m reading and post reviews when I finish them. Here are links to a few of my recent reviews:

The Life and Death of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan
An excellent examination of the troubled history of the Great Lakes, the world’s largest supply of fresh water.

Hey Ranger! True Tales of Humor & Misadventure from America’s National Parks by Jim Burnett
Funny, incredible, hair-raising real-life adventures mitigated by those unsung heros of our national government, U.S. Park Service rangers.

The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories by P.D. James
The final collection of mysteries by one of the grand masters of the field.

The Sun’s Heartbeat and Other Stories from the Life of the Star That Powers Our Planet by Bob Berman
A close, enjoyable look at the sun in its various aspects.

A Killing in the Hills by Julia Keller
A topical mystery set in West Virginia. This is the first novel in the Bell Elkins series.

You might enjoy picking up some of these volumes. I sure did.


A Walk in the Park

On September 20, 1976 at Northwestern University, I met a bright young lady who would before long become my wife. One day that fall I happened to be in her dorm room looking at a poster hanging on her roommate’s wall, a gorgeous photograph of forested mountains draped in the oranges, reds, and golds of autumn. As I admired the poster a story came to mind, and in short order I wrote the first draft of “National Park.”

To be honest, it wasn’t very good. I still had a lot to learn about writing in those days. Over the years, the story was rewritten and recast several times. You can read the current incarnation here, and I suggest you do before going on, because what follows is a serious spoiler.

Initially the story featured one lone character making a climb up a treacherous mountain. The climb lasted only a few pages, and was followed by a startling revelation. (This is where the spoiler comes in, so if you haven’t read the story yet, better do so now!) I left the climber intentionally anonymous, to emphasize what I hoped would be a stunning transformation from the richness of the natural world  to the desolation of the city in which he finds himself.


That’s right: the National Park isn’t a natural wilderness at all, but a virtual reality experience. The climb didn’t happen except in the character’s head. The story was a cautionary tale about the destruction of the natural world and how increasingly we were being severed from it.

Not bad for 1976, a time when the term “virtual reality” hadn’t even been coined, although a few SF writers had created virtual reality stories before (Bradbury’s brilliantly chilling short story, “The Veldt” comes to mind). Alas, it wasn’t a well-written story.  Over the years I would rewrite it several times.

Even in its improved forms, readers didn’t seem to know what to make of it. One editor rejected it with the comment that although he enjoyed it, at the end all I’d done was to build up the danger to the climber and then reveal that he hadn’t been in any danger at all. Obviously the guy totally missed the point. The danger is real; it’s just not what it first appears to be.

Others told me to give the climber a name, and as I learned more about the sport of climbing, I added considerable detail to the preparations and the climb itself. I also added some other characters, partly to increase the realism and partly to increase the tension. Last but not least, the original story didn’t have a very good hook. The current version starts with one of the climber’s companions suggesting that he’s going to die on the mountain.

Today, virtual reality stories are so commonplace that I doubt “National Park” would excite any editor. So it is now relegated to my files and this blog. But I hope you enjoy it anyway.