Monday, March 7, 2011

DITCHED I – Ditch Defined

Ditch as a noun is defined as “a long narrow channel dug in the ground, usually used for drainage or irrigation” and as a verb “to get rid of.” The ditches and connecting stormwater ponds that drain the City where I live fit these definitions — they were dug to get rid of excess water so that homes and businesses could be built where wetlands once existed. Walking along these ditches I have seen plastic bottles and bags, sediment laden stormwater runoff, and even an old car engine dumped into them. When I look beyond this obnoxiousness I can escape to these places of water from the noise of the sprawling suburb that is my latest home.

During these times I find remnants of wilderness where ducks and geese raise their young; beavers, muskrats and mink traverse the waterways; osprey and hawks soar over the ponds — and I find peace and contentment. Use of ditches as places to get rid of our wastes distracts us from learning from their more natural contents. As a child I was less distracted, and found that the ditches in my childhood neighborhood were full of life. It was experiencing that life that helped me to understand the source and meaning of my life. The origins of life on earth perhaps began in some primordial ooze in a ditch, billions of years ago. The ooze of ditches has always been a part of my life anyway and when I take the time to explore them, I come to appreciate ditches for more then just trenches for draining the land or places to dump waste. I begin to appreciate the life they sustain.

I grew up in a neighborhood that probably encompassed about fifteen acres in the Town of Flambeau, located in Rusk County, in northern Wisconsin. The township was named after the Flambeau River that flowed through the Township. The small city of Ladysmith bordered the township. The name Ladysmith came about in 1890 from attempts of the City founders to draw Charles Smith, his new bride, and their company Menasha Wooden Ware to town. The company purchased timberland in northern Wisconsin around that time to meet it needs for lumber to construct the pails, barrels, clothespins, and other wooden products they produced. The City’s attempt to lure the Smith’s failed, but lumbering made its mark on the surrounding community. The community was created in response to the logging and lumber industry that dumped logs into the tannin stained river for transport to saw mills located further downstream along the Chippewa and Mississippi rivers. According to the September 2008 Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Flambeau River State Forest Property Analysis, the French name flambeau (torch), was given to the river in honor of 17th century accounts of the Chippewa Indians practice of using torches to light up Muskellunge Falls where they speared muskies, sturgeon, and other fish for sustenance. Treaties of 1837 and 1842 forced on the Chippewa’s and other Indians who inhabited Wisconsin paved the way for loggers and settlers to lay claim to the land. The falls, located in my mother and father’s hometown of Park Falls, were eventually inundated by a dam.

Aldo Leopold lamented the loss of the wildness and damming of the upper river in his essay “Flambeau” included in his book A Sand County Almanac. He began the essay by recalling a canoe trip he had made down the Flambeau through the Flambeau River State Forest where he came across two young men on a similar adventure before they entered the Army. Leopold believed that it was through wilderness experience that we learned the real lessons of life and got a taste freedom. His encounter with the young men prompted him to write, “Perhaps every youth needs an occasional wilderness trip, in order to learn the meaning of this particular freedom.” He went on to describe the political fight that took place over a proposal to dam the lower reaches of the river in order to generate electricity for dairy farms that filled the land cleared by loggers. Local power companies formed an REA power cooperative to push for building a dam on the river adjacent to the Town of Flambeau above Ladysmith. The Legislature approved the proposal and Leopold wrote, “It seems likely that the remaining canoe-water on the Flambeau, as well as every other stretch of wild river in the state, will ultimately be harnessed for power. Perhaps our grandsons, having never seen a wild river, will never miss the chance to set a canoe in singing waters.”

The ditches of my neighborhood may not have been as wild as the upper reaches of the Flambeau (and you couldn’t paddle a canoe down them), but the lessons they taught me were just as valuable. The processes of development that shaped the Flambeau watershed also impacted the neighborhood in the township where I grew up. Ditches were a big part of the neighborhood, and like the place where I now live, they are what made life there possible. Our yard was surrounded by ditches; the thick red clay that lay beneath our yard prevented water from seeping into the ground, and without the ditches finding dry ground to build a home would have been impossible. The ditch in the front yard drained the gravel road that cut through the swampland that was our neighborhood. These ditches were also used for dumping; the gray water from the washing machine was pumped out of our basement and into the front yard ditch to try and reduce the load on the septic system in the back yard. Septic systems and clay don’t mix well, so any water that could be kept out of it meant fewer times to run the pump from the septic tank to the ditch that ran through the back yard. This reduction in water from the back yard was a relief to the nose from the obnoxious odors that were released into the air when we or the neighbors on either side of us had to pump out their improvised septic system to make room for another weeks worth of wastewater. Traversing these ditches filled my days and nights with many adventures growing up in a world full of water, life, and death. 

Coming soon  "DITCHED II - Life".  

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