Thursday, December 22, 2011


The beauty of the universe expresses itself in simplicity.
Margaret J. Wheatley, TURNING TO ONE ANOTHER

Winter is the time of year when we are confronted head-on with simplicity.   In the latitude where I live, as the earth turns away from the sun, temperatures drop. Water molecules slow down to the point where water freezes as cold envelops the landscape.   Most plants go into a state of rest - they shed their leaves in preparation for this time of rest.  Many animals hibernate, or migrate to warmer climates.  Those who remain grow thicker fur, find burrows to hole up in, and begin to feast on the stockpiles of food they have gathered in preparation for this time of scarcity.  And it is during this period where darkness dominates the hours of the day.

Humans often try to fight this time of simplicity.  We turn on more lights, we crank up our furnaces, we lock ourselves up in our homes and our buildings, or we try to migrate to warmer destinations ourselves.  Instead of finding ways to participate in this season of cold, we look for ways to control it, or distract ourselves from it.  But as hard as we try winter goes on.   So why don’t we simply enjoy it?  Could it be that this time of reflection scares us?  

Despite our large brains, it seems that more often than not we have become afraid of thinking, of looking around us to see what all our attempts at control are doing to the world around us and to ourselves.   My goal for this season is to take advantage of this time of slowness, to look at my own life, and to find ways that I can enjoy the simplicity of the universe - perhaps to become more a part of it.  I invite you to do the same.  

Saturday, November 5, 2011


A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.  It is wrong when it tends otherwise.  
Aldo Leopold,  The Land Ethic, A SAND COUNTY ALMANAC

Whatever preserves and enhances this meadow in the natural cycles of its transformation is good; whatever opposes this meadow or negates it is not good.
Thomas Berry, The Meadow Across the Creek, THE GREAT WORK

Aldo Leopold included the quote above in one of the last chapters of his book THE SAND COUNTY ALMANAC.  The chapters preceding The Land Ethic highlight experiences that Leopold had with the natural world, with the ecosystems where he lived, worked, and played. Click here to read his essay "The Land Ethic".

The quote from Thomas Berry comes from his essay where he tells the story of how as a boy, he came across a meadow across a small creek near his new home that was filled with lilies rising above a thick grass. “It was not only the lilies.  It was the singing of the crickets and the woodlands in the distance and the clouds in the clear sky. “   Click here to listen to Berry tell about this experience.

It is our experiences with the natural world, with the ecosystem that sustains us, that shape our response, that craft our ethics.  When our experiences are distorted by our complicated human inventions - these ethics become driven by things like economics, politics, or religion.  When these experiences occur naturally - our ethics are guided by the simplicity of the ecosystem of which we are but a part. 

Saturday, October 1, 2011


Every now and then I need to remind myself to face my fears.  Normally when I do, they seem to mostly fade away.   So the other night I decided to face one fear I have had since I was a child and that is the fear of darkness.  I went outside and started walking down a trail not far from my house. 

Walking along, I neared a place where someone had spray painted the word “FEAR” in white letters across the black asphalt pavement.  The word was located in a remote part of the path, far from any houses, and where no light reached the trail.  I began to think about the word and then all of a sudden was startled by a rustling noise in the trees next to the path.  

My body responded by injecting adrenaline into my bloodstream which got my heart pounding and I quickened my step as I tried to figure out what made the noise and if the noisemaker was a threat or not.  All this happened in a split second, and I soon realized that a small animal must have been dozing in the woods and my approach down the path startled it as much as it startled me.  I continued my walk, smiling to myself at how thinking about fear, had essentially increased my fear. 

Passion is another feeling I need to face.  Somewhere along the fear dominated paths of life I came to believe that one should not follow their passion – for that could lead you into dangerous places, places where people were out to get you or where strange creatures might be lurking.  But as I face fears and get out into the darkness, I have learned that following passions is much more interesting than avoiding fears.  Following passion sheds light on the darkness.  

Today on another walk down the path during the daylight, I was happy to see a number of positive messages written along the path in pastel colored sidewalk chalk – a good reminder to me to follow the passion – because as the sidewalk chalk writer reminded me - “YOU CAN DO IT!”

Thursday, September 22, 2011

That's It

In the last scene of the movie BROKEN FLOWERS, Bill Murray plays the character Don Johnston, a middle age bachelor who just returns from a quest to meet with five former lovers to figure out which one may have sent him a mysterious note on pink paper claiming he was the father of son from their relationship 20 years ago.  He meets up with a young man, played by Mark Weber, whom he saw at the airport the night before and wonders if this kid might be his son.  He buys him a sandwich and they sit outside and talk. 

The kid asks, “So a, as a guy who just bought another guy a sandwich, do you have any philosophical tips or anything, for a guy on a kind of road trip?”  Johnston replies, “Are you asking me?”  The Kid responds, “Ya”.  Johnston says, “The past is gone, I know that.  The future isn’t here yet, whatever it is going to be.   So all there is - is this - the present.  That’s it. " 

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Reflecting On Stars

For just as the Milky Way is the universe in the form of a galaxy, an orchid is the universe in the form of a flower, we are the universe in the form of a human.  And every time we are drawn to look up in the night sky and reflect on the awesome beauty of the universe, we are actually the universe reflecting on itself.  And this changes everything.

Brian Thomas Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker, Journey Of The Universe.

Reflecting on stars, something we all have done at one time or another can be difficult in our electric world.  Where I live, the lights that we think we need to keep us safe from the unknown that the darkness harbors, blind us from being able to even see the multitude of stars that make up the galaxy we journey through the universe with.  But despite our best attempts to overwhelm the darkness, a few hundreds of stars are still able to break through our artificial lights and share the nighttime sky with us. 

Yesterday, I experienced another form of blindness, what I think is called an ocular migraine.  While reading a book, suddenly a bright jagged image of light began flashing in my eye, making it difficult if not impossible to be able to focus on the words on the page.  Being unable to read, I walked outside and sat in a chair trying to figure out what the flashing in my eyes was all about.  

 I noticed my neighbor mowing his lawn across the street, and it seemed strange that the flashing in my eye seemed to resonate at the same frequency as the gasoline fueled engine in my neighbor’s lawn mower. As I sat, I wondered if it was just a coincidence between the flashing light in my eye and the roaring engine, or if there was a connection.  Suddenly, my neighbor put his mower in to neutral resulting in a reduction in the RPM of the mower engine and the flashing in my eyes stopped.  When he put the mower into gear again, the flashing fortunately did not start up again.  

Coincidence or connection  ̶  the incident reminded me that in our electric motorized world  ̶  the noise, electrical lights, and other waste we spew into our environment prevent us from being able to fully interact with the world around us.  If we want change the way we are, we need to create space where we can find the connections that will lead us to a better way.  

So the next time you feel blinded, take some time to use your other senses to understand what it is that you are doing that is causing you to lose your vision.        

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Sustainable Cake

This week marked the 49th time that the earth has circled our sun since I entered the world in 1962.  In his birthday greeting to me, my older brother asked me if I had a sustainable birthday cake in honor of my one year from being on the earth for half a century.   His question along with an article by Greg Breining in today’s Star Tribune titled “Is Sustainability Sustainable?got me thinking about what it means to be sustainable.   

On my part, I have sustained (or continued to exist) on this earth for 49 years.  During this existence, I have experienced much growth – from the nurturing I received, and much learning – mostly from my mistakes.   I have not led a stagnant life, despite my attempts at times to fight the changes that I experienced.  There is a part of me that would like to take the credit for this accomplishment, but there is another part that realizes that my continuing life has much to do with forces beyond my control.  

I was fortunate to have been born into a family that had the available resources to keep me alive and relatively healthy as a child.  It was from my family and the community in which I grew up that I learned some of the tricks of sustainability.  These include the simple things like living healthy, avoiding unnecessary risks, and to have a basic respect for and participation in the community around me. 

As I continued to grow, I began to understand that the community that sustained me included not only the human community, but also the land on which I lived, the air I breathed, the water I drank, and the plants and animals that fed me.  It was not only their basic life sustaining functions that kept me going, but that these components of the ecosystem exist -- without them, my life holds little meaning. 

I also began to understand that my actions and the actions of the other human beings that lived in my community could play a big part in determining whether or not the other members of my ecosystem would be sustained or perish, and in effect continue to be able to sustain my own existence.  And so the bigger question for me becomes not whether my cake was sustainable or if sustainability is sustainable, but how do I need to act to avoid destroying the ecosystem that sustains me?   

After reading Breining’s article, I am not sure what he is recommending to his readers as far as whether or not sustainability is sustainable.   He seems to imply that sustainability cannot be defined, or that its numerous definitions make it incomprehensible, or that to know it presumes ability to “divine the future”.    Breining writes that “‘sustainability’ is a reflection of the human abhorrence of change and a desire for stability”.  He concludes by telling us to “look to advances in technology and planning, in production of energy and treatment of land and water, and the surprises they will bring in an unknowable future.”

As I reflect back on my life, it is not knowing my future that has sustained me, nor has living a stagnant life.   I also don’t believe that technology deserves much credit, nor planning or energy production.  The land and water and other components of the ecosystem however do deserve credit for my sustenance and how I treat them will play a big role in whether I continue to grow and adapt or perish.  In other words, if I respect the entire community that has sustained me to this point in my life -- I can have my cake and eat it too.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Grounded Leadership

 The above image comes from the website for the book SEVEN PILLARS OF SERVANT LEADERSHIP, by James Sipe and Don Frick. Anyone who has visited this blog in the past will know I am definitely a believer in servant leadership as professed by Robert Greenleaf. Because of this I looked forward to delving into Seven Pillars, especially since I found Don's Frick's biography of Greenleaf a great read. 

As I came across the image above in the "Introduction" to the book, I was at first intrigued by the simplicity of the diagram, the structural metaphor, and the components of servant leadership that make up the structure.  As a former civil engineering student, I recalled one of the basic lessons from a structures class that for any structure to be stable, there is a need for a foundation supported in the earth.  Unfortunately, the well conceived design by a psychologist and leadership-communication professional wouldn't pass the basic structures test.  

My first clue to the pillars instability came from the second pillar, "Put People First".  At first glance this seems like a great concept, one that often seems to be forgotten by most organizations.  But on deeper reflection, it is this concept of putting people first and separating ourselves and our institutions from the rest of the planet that actually drives most organizations. This separation from the Earth allows us to treat it as an endless source of resources to consume and manufacture products from; dump the resulting wastes into the air, land and water; and fuel our primary drive for profit.  Once we separate people from the earth, the next step is to start segmenting people into those like us and those different from us, and use them as resources the same way we use the earth.  And these are the structures that build our hierarchies and these are the stories we tell ourselves and our children. 

An example of this process of accepting the division of people into the haves and have-nots can be found in the chapter that highlights the pillar "Person of Character".  Sipe writes about a client of his who "was a highly successful attorney, founder and CEO of an influential lobbying firm" and "a man of character" and "of principle, humble in spite of his considerable wealth and power".  He "was in the process of trying to secure a six-figure account with a healthcare organization that was up against a much larger competitor for the right to build a new medical complex" and "he was reasonably confident that he had a strong shot, given his track record in healthcare and  his thirty-year friendship with the district's popular state senator, whose vote would tip the scales in favor of his prospective client."

Unfortunately for the lobbyist, the health care organization did not hire him, and got the needed votes to gain the contract without having to pay the lawyer his six figure contract.  Apparently this "humble" CEO demonstrated character by not using his influence with the senator to have him vote against the health care organization who spurned the lobbyist.  It seems to me that it is easy to keep your integrity when you lose six-figure contracts when you already have considerable wealth.  That is not the humility that finds its roots in humus - the earth.  

What keeps these messed up concepts about humility and character being passed on from generation to generation has much to do with the stories we tell ourselves and our children.  Sipe uses his passing on the "tooth ferry" story to his five-year old daughter as one of the "Defining Moments in Action" of his life.  In his reflections, he tells how early in his psychology career he found himself spending long hours at the office at the cost of lost time with his wife and daughter.  His "defining moment of his character formation" occurred when his daughter lost her first tooth at the breakfast table and then lost the tooth to boot.  He and his daughter lamented the lost tooth, the lost opportunities for a visit from the tooth ferry, and lost opportunities to earn some booty in the form of cash for the pain suffered in loosing the tooth.  His daughter burst into tears, and Sipe found himself unable to perform at work that day. 

So in order to avoid his own pain of facing his saddened daughter after work he concocted a scheme to obtain another child's tooth from a dentist and with surrogate tooth in hand he happily went back to work.  After work, he lied to his daughter telling her they found the lost tooth, the imaginary tooth ferry came, and his daughter earned her reward of cash in the bank.  Sipe was rewarded by an easing of his guilty conscious for spending too much time at work, "a barrage of hugs and kisses" by his daughter, and to top it off "an expression of understanding and admiration" from his wife.  

I don't mean to criticize Sipe for his parenting methods as I can recall similar instances in trying to raise my own daughters.  But telling lies to our children is not what servant leadership is about and telling stories of tooth ferries leaving money in exchange for teeth will not help our children to understand the aches and pains of life. Defining moments in life occur when we can be honest with our children about our mistakes and when we realize that making money is not what life is about. 

Its too bad that Sipe and Frick could not come up with better examples of what real servant leadership looks like.  The corporations they highlight as servant led, demonstrate regularly that without a foundation based in the earth -- people get laid off, unions get busted, and safety problems get hidden.  See the headlines below for examples. 

FAA inspectors: Southwest tried to hide safety problems

Cloaking a corporation in servant leadership does not make it an ethical institution any more then putting lipstick on a pig changes the the pig.   

So despite some good efforts by the authors to simplify Greenleaf's concepts, you cannot make the model work, unless it is grounded in in a solid foundation.  If we want institutions to serve people, we need to put the earth, and the ecosystems that sustain us first.  When we do this, we won't have to worry about putting people first anymore, but rather keeping ourselves in the proper perspective of our ecosystem.  Perhaps the model below might be a beginning  example of how we can do this. 

Saturday, April 30, 2011


It is rare in the world today to find people willing to speak the truth. More often then not, most of us simply go along with the crowds and compliment the emperor on his new clothes, despite the fact that he is naked.  We worry that if we speak the truth, we will be ostracized for going against popular opinion, or be labeled stupid or ignorant. It is that fear that keeps us from reaching the wisdom we need to see things they way they really are and become courageous enough to be able to speak that truth and act accordingly. 

Like the imaginary cloths woven by the two weavers in Hans Christian Anderson’s story THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHS, the economic system that cloaks the world today dupes most of us into avoiding the truth about it, in order to continue our plundering and pillaging of the earth and our neighbors.  Phillip B. Smith and Manfred Max-Neef honestly expose this economic system in their book ECONOMICS UNMASKED.    

Smith the physicist and Max-Neef the economist combine their efforts to expose the economic system that is primarily designed to “protect the wealth and power of the rich” and “threatens all forms of life” on our planet.   They review the history of our economic system and reveal that unlike the hard sciences of physics or chemistry that uncover the mathematics behind the real world, economics imposes it’s invented mathematical models in order to justify a system of consumption and control that ignores scientific consequences. 

They explore the lifeblood of our current economic beast, infinite growth and point out the impossibilities behind fueling this growth with a limited energy supply.  Instead of policies related to globalization driven by competition, they remind us that motivations driven by compassion rather then greed will be needed if we want an alternative to catastrophe and collapse. 

They propose an alternative “human-scale economics” based on five postulates:

1.  The economy is to serve the people, not the people serve the economy.

2.  Development is about people, not about objects.

3.  Growth is not the same as development, and development does not necessarily require growth.

4.  No economy is possible in the absence of ecosystem services.

5.  The economy is a sub-system of a larger and finite system, the biosphere; hence permanent growth is impossible. 

In their Introduction to the book, Smith and Max-Neef remind us that “words do have power, and perhaps the power of these words will help move humankind toward a better future”.   If a better future is what we desire, then we all need to find the courage to speak words based on truth.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Religion in the Ecozoic

Some quotes from the essay “Religion in the Ecozoic Era”, by Thomas Berry, from the book THE SACRED UNIVERSE. 

One of the most striking things about indigenous peoples is that traditionally they live in conscious awareness of the stars in the heavens, the topography of the region, the dawn and the sunset, the phases of the moon, and the seasonal sequence. 

How different is this world from the world we live in.  We hardly live in a universe at all.  We live in a city or country, in an economic system, or in a cultural tradition. We are seldom aware of any sympathetic relation with the natural world about us.  […].  We isolate ourselves from contact with the natural world except in so far as we enjoy it or have command over it.

The most basic issue of our time is human-Earth relations.  We have disturbed the geological structure, the chemical composition, and the biological forms of the planet in a disastrous manner with our population explosion and technological power.  […].  Earth is now in a state of recession; its basic life systems have become disturbed, toxic, or are extinguished. 

When settlers came to North America, they saw the forest and the wilderness as a dark, even demonic, world.  It was a world to be conquered and exploited.  There was little sense or understanding of humans as integral members of a single sacred community composed of ever mode of being upon the Earth.  Only humans constituted the sacred community; only humans had rights. 

[…], the prevailing view was that the North American continent must in some manner be reengineered and its power appropriated.  Otherwise it was simply wasted.  Not to dam the western rivers – […] – was wasteful. […].  Not to soak the soil with chemical fertilizer was to deny ourselves an increased harvest.  Not to pave the roads was neglect.  Not to take petroleum from the Earth was to reject a god-given opportunity for bettering human life, despite the fact that nature had stored the carbon in petroleum and in the forests so that the chemical composition of the air and water and soil could be balanced in some effective manner. 

To explain such an attitude, it is not sufficient simply to go back to nineteenth-century industrialization, nor to Newtonian physics, […].  We must push our inquiry back into the anthropocentrism of the Hellenic world, back to the biblical world and the scriptural foundations of our Western life.  […].  We also need to reflect on the more profound implications of the biblical emphasis give to our experience of the devine in a historical rather than cosmological manifestation.  Beyond this, we should consider the effect of the primacy of an emphasis on redemption rather than an emphasis on creation in Christian though in recent centuries, […].

That our religious and humanist traditions, our educational programs, our jurisprudence, our economics, our commercial-scientific-industrial establishments and the other shaping forces of our society all contributed equally to our present situation might be too extreme a position to propose, but to note that none were able to prevent the destruction produced from within the Western civilizations seems entirely valid.  To say that all these traditions have been excessively committed to an anthropocentrism also seems a proper conclusion.  It could be said that they all favored processes that in some manner permitted, even if they did not actually lead to, our present situation. 

As we enter the twenty-first century, we would do well to consider our way into the future.  I propose that we need to go from the terminal Cenozoic  to an emerging Ecozoic  period, defined as that period when humans would be present to the Earth in a mutually enhancing manner. 

To recover such a situation where humans would be present to the Earth in a mutually enhancing manner, I believe we must return to a sense of intimacy with the Earth akin to that experienced by many indigenous peoples of earlier times.  This can be done through our new story of the universe, which is now available to us through empirical inquiry into the origin, structure, and sequence of transformations through which the Earth has come to its expression at the end of the twentieth century.  

Articulating this story fully would be the supreme achievement of modern intelligence. 

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Challanges of a Changing World

It was about a year ago that I started the Ecological Leadership Blog.  My goal in writing the blog has been mainly to give me a place to delve further into two topics that interest me – leadership and ecology.  My hope has also been that along the way I inspire some other folks who stumble upon my ramblings to experiment with their own combination of ecology and leadership to find out if it might be possible to create a more meaningful life for us human beings.  It has been my experience that undertaking something based on a hope for outcomes, can more often than not result in huge feelings of failure -- when in fact the practice is valuable in and of itself, despite the outcomes.  So with that reminder, I venture into another year of the Ecological Leadership Blog, trying to let go of the hope and focusing instead on the practice.

One of the first posts on the blog introduced a paper I stumbled across titled “The Ecology of Leadership: Adapting to the Challenges of A Changing World”.  The paper does a great job of laying out a foundation for why combining leadership with ecology holds great potential in improving our relationship to the world that supports us.  In the interest of continuing my own practice, I thought I would revisit this inspirational paper by Kathleen Allen, Stephen Stelzner, and Richard Wielkiewicz.  Reverting back to hope, for those of you who may be interested a copy of the text from the paper can be downloaded here, by entering the name of your local library.

The authors lay out what they call “five adaptive challenges” that are forcing us to reconsider our outdated concepts of leadership.  My summation of these challenges follows:

1. We need to look at things from a global perspective, instead of the typical local or national perspective.  We need to act according to the reality that our actions have far-reaching consequences.  
2. We need to acknowledge and live within the limits of our ecosystem and acknowledge we are part of the ecosystem and it is the ecosystem that sustains us.
3. We need to move from lives driven by information, and instead strive for guidance from wisdom.    
4.  We need ethics that will keep our science and technologies from destroying our ecosystems and us.   
5.  We need to adapt our social ecology – our families, communities, institutions, economies and cultures – to be in harmony with our natural ecosystems.

Finding better ways to face these challenges is the call for all leaders in our world today.  So what will your practice for the day be?

Friday, April 1, 2011

Ditched IV - Going Back

The neighborhood has changed a lot since I moved away. It was eventually bought up by a developer, the houses were moved away, or bulldozed over and burned. The swamps were filled and storm sewers were put in place where life used to flourish in the ditches. A strip mall containing a mass merchandise retail store, a large grocery store, and even a McDonalds were built where woods, wildlife, swamps, homes, children, and ditches used to coexist. The water that runs off the roofs and parking lots of these stores is quickly drained away through inlets located strategically along the pavement — dumping the once life giving water into storm sewers that seem to carry it magically away. 

Ditches may in many ways serve the same purpose as the storm sewers, but the life in the buried concrete pipes is not quite as inviting or as accessible as the life of the open ditch. The impervious parking lots and buildings made the clay sod that had covered our yard seem like a sponge in comparison. The old ditches required close attention to what was dumped in them, for if overloading of pollutants occurred, the odors generated were a quick reminder that changes in management practices were needed. The out of sight, out of mind nature of the buried storm sewer likely resulted in more unknowns being dumped ultimately into the Flambeau River watershed that drained and sustained the community.

It was around the time that my old neighborhood was paved over that Kennecott Mining Company built an open pit copper mine just downstream from where the stormwater from my old stomping grounds reached the Flambeau River. I wonder what Aldo Leopold would have written had he known about Kennecott borrowing the rivers name for the Flambeau Copper Mine they operated in the 1990’s in the downstream Town of Grant. At one time the company had even proposed diverting the river through what was essentially a large constructed ditch to allow them easier access to the copper and gold ore that lay below the existing river bed. Fortunately those diversion plans were never approved, but the mine was dug and the hole it created was eventually backfilled. 

In the late 1960’s I recall being told that the influx of airplanes that filled the sky over my old neighborhood was because of the copper rush that had come to town. The airplanes were using geological sensors to search for copper buried deep in the ground. I never imagined back then that someday a copper mine would come to town. From a child’s perspective, the probability of a mine being built in Rusk County seemed about as likely as a McDonalds being built in our neighborhood, but the outcome for both overcame my na├»ve ability to predict the future.

Ditches might be making a comeback in our world. As we become more aware of the impacts of our developments on our waters, we look for new ways to manage the stormwater runoff that flows from our land. As pavement and roofs cover more and more of our land, the resulting increase in stormwater flow flushes more pollutants into our rivers and lakes. A new technology for dealing with this runoff is actually a going back to the old ways of dealing with stormwater. This technology is often referred to as low impact development. 

Some of the more effective and low cost low impact development techniques are actually just new names for our old ditches and gravel roads. Examples of these new names include rain gardens, vegetative swales, and permeable pavements. These practices revolve around designing our developments to take advantage of natural systems that utilize the stormwater. Landscaping practices can allow stormwater to once again nourish aquatic plants and animals, and recharge groundwater rather then running off site. As is so often the case in our world, the answers to so many of our problems can be found in our past.

Going back to simpler more in-tune ways of living, rather then attempts at paving over or piping away our problems, is a sustainable solution. We will always need places to live and create the things we need, and roads and pathways to connect us with our communities. But we need to be aware that we impact the life around us — the life that sustains us. Life in our ditches can remind us of what is important, if we allow it to. 

A lifetime of hanging around in ditches has helped me to find new meaning in them — they are a source of life. They have helped me to understand that I am simply a part of the world around me, not the pinnacle of life. The simple ditch is a reminder of the importance of keeping life simple. Spending time in our ditches may just be the way to ensure our sustained future. To ensure our future, it may not be so important to be able to predict our future, as it is to remember and learn from our past. And through this remembrance, there comes hope that we will make sure that there will always be wild places for our children and their children to roam. 

The End or Is It?

Saturday, March 19, 2011

DITCHED III – Progress

Progress eventually came to the neighborhood in the form of a black top road. The paving crews with their machinery and trucks brought out the neighborhood residents to watch the work and admire the fresh coating of asphalt that would change the character of our neighborhood forever. We gathered along the ditches — kids, parents, and grandparents all breathing in the fumes of hot asphalt, thinking about how much faster we could drive down the road — and then I stepped on a yellow jacket wasp nest invoking their wrath as they stung me repeatedly. The ditches once again brought relief in the form of cooling mud from the ditch bottom being placed on my swelling stings by an older wiser neighbor. The ditches always seemed to be a source of healing in some way or another.

The ditch in our back yard was a different type of ecosystem. The septic tank waste that was pumped out there made it difficult for any of the creatures in the relatively pristine upstream ditches to survive. But the excess fertilizer produced bumper crops of sewer grass that would overwhelm the ditch as the growing season concluded. Plenty of water, fertilizer, and sunlight created what would become our own sewer-grass tobacco plantation. In the fall the grass would dry up and we neighbor kids would gather to harvest it. We would cut a stalk, light the hollow stem, and take turns attempting to inhale the pungent tasting smoke. Our attempts at smoking the crop resulted in burning coughs. It was likely these experiences that got sewage cursing through my veins — a curse I still carry with me today.

It was from this curse that I eventually found myself working in the field of wastewater engineering. That field taught me that our back yard ditch management practices were similar to the wastewater land application treatment system known as the ridge-and-furrow. These simple systems utilize the natural purification process that occurs in a wetland to treat wastewater. They consist of a series of furrows separated by high ridges, hence the name. Wastewater is evenly distributed throughout the furrows and slowly soaks into the soil or evaporates. Water tolerant grasses grow on the ridges and through evapotranspiration take up additional water and nutrients. Remaining wastewater filters down through the soil where bacteria and other microorganisms break down the organic materials and if the system is properly operated and not overloaded a relatively clean effluent is discharged to groundwater. When plant growth along the ridge-and-furrow dies off and dries up in the fall, controlled burning releases the nutrients into the air and keeps the plant growth balanced. The neighborhood practices of dosing the backyard ditch with septic tank effluent once a week and allowing the sewer grass to grow along the banks of the ditch mimicked the ridge-and-furrow. Despite our best attempts at smoking the sewer grass, we were never able to keep the plant growth in check on the ridges next to our ditch.

The backyard ditch was not one you wanted to have its contents soak your pants leg or fill a boot, so my dad had made a bridge across it out of the old metal slide from the swing set we outgrew. This was a bridge into another world of adventures — crossing this bridge was entering the woods of the east. These woods were a mixture of poplar trees, tag alder, a few maples, and swamp. My parents owned about an acre of land, half of it was in the high ground that made up the yard to the west of the ditch and half was in these lowland woods to the east. There were probably a total of three or four acres of undeveloped land in this backyard retreat. The woods and swamp were allowed to just grow and flow, except where the power line crossed through the middle of the woods. There a swath of trees and brush was mowed down every few years by the power company to keep the trees from over taking the power lines. A sleeping horned owl could often be seen perched on top of one of the power poles. Sphagnum moss grew in the swamp and these patches of moss where a portal into a whole separate ecosystem within the woods. At times I would walk back to the woods by myself, lie down, and peer into the mossy world below the grass. The musty, earthy smells of the moss, the varieties of green colors, and the calls of the chickadees in the trees behind me could carry me away from all of my childhood concerns. I can’t pass a patch of sphagnum moss today without being carried back to the memories of that magical place of moisture and life.

The animal graveyard for the “road kill” we found dead in the ditches that lined the roads of the neighborhood was also located in these eastern woods. This cemetery contained the birds, frogs, toads, snakes, red squirrels, and other creatures we found that had collided with cars in their attempts to cross our roads. Stones and bricks with Robin, Barney, or some other simple name marked the locations of the graves and reminded us what lay below this hallowed ground. Barney was our neighbor’s dog who ended up in the graveyard after an accident one fall morning. The golden retriever like mutt was struck by our school bus as he chased after it. We looked back out the bus window numbed as we saw Barney dieing in the ditch — while the bus driver sped us on to school. Spending time in ditches next to roads made us aware that death was part of the cycle of life.

Winter in the ditches was an experience dominated by snow. The plow would come through pushing the accumulated snow from the road, filling the ditches with huge piles of the white stuff. As the piles grew larger and larger with each new snow fall, these frozen glacier covered eskers became havens of new exploration. We neighbor kids would grab snow shovels and begin carving out rooms, forming houses, which were linked by tunnels to construct a village of snow caves. On dark nights we would walk down to the highway at the end of the road, hide behind the huge snow banks that lined the highway, and lob snow balls at the cars speeding by. Crossing the ditches to the west in the winter led us to more opportunities for fun on the frozen water — sliding down the neighbors “big hill” or skating on the pond which was actually just a wide version of a ditch. Water’s amazing ability to become a solid when the temperatures dropped provided us with a chance to spend more time interacting with it in the coldness of winter.

Winter came to an end and warming temperatures began to melt the frozen white stuff. This flowing liquid would accumulate in our front yard ditch where it would re-solidify in the culvert under our driveway where it was exposed to the still frozen ground. An ice dam was created and we had water front property. Ice would form over the flowage during the cold nights, creating ice burgs to play on the next day. We would venture out onto the ice and attempt to slide across the frozen water without breaking through. This was the time of year when I recall many a cold wet leg, as more often the not the ice was not quite thick enough to support a growing boy. Mom was also doing more laundry as a result and the extra water in the ditch from the washing machine was always a welcome site.

Eventually when the water looked like it might overflow the driveway, my dad would call the township workers to come out with their steam truck to unthaw the culvert. The truck driver would punch a hole in the ice, lower his steam hose down into the frozen culvert, and pump the hot water vapor in to melt the ice obstructing the culvert. Water would eventually begin pouring through the culvert, allowing a raging stream to flow down the ditch below until the flowage was drained. This was a time to get out the plastic toy boats or better yet to build some homemade versions out of scraps of wood from dad’s workshop. Races were held, communities built, and more boots were filled, all in tribute to these spring flows.

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