Friday, March 11, 2011

Ditched II - Life

Springtime along the ditches was a time of new life. Bird and frog songs began to fill the air as these critters sought mates to start the next generation of ditch dwellers and combers. Curious to find out what all the noise was about, I was always looking for opportunities to peer into their world. One day my mom pointed out a cowbird egg that had been laid in a robin’s nest in the blue spruce tree that my parents had planted next to the ditch in our front yard. She told me how the cowbirds would lay their eggs in other birds nest’s and then let the foster parents rear their young. Since the cowbirds were apparently not too particular on who parented their offspring, my mom approved of my idea of becoming a cowbird foster parent.

I placed some old rags in a glass jar, rigged up a small light inside the jar for a source of heat, and put the cow bird egg into the improvised hatchery. I placed the hatchery on a shelf near my bunk bed where it served as a nightlight. I would go to bed at night with the glow from the light radiating out from the jar and look forward to the day when I would wake up to find a new baby cowbird looking out at me for its first meal. After several weeks of incubation and no sign of life in the egg, I lost my patience and took the egg outside to our front steps where I cracked the shell to see what was going on inside. Much to my dismay I found that the egg contents had solidified, with no sign of a chick inside. My incubator was either to hot or to cold to maintain life in the egg. The cowbird mothers were obviously more discerning in their choice of foster parents then I had given them credit.

Come March and April, the warming temperatures outside filled the ditches with snow melt, and the frogs joined the birds in song. As May turned to June, I could never resist cracking my bedroom window to let the warming spring air and the sounds of the frogs into my room as I went to bed. The frogs seemed to be calling me out to come and explore the consequences of their tunes. The next day a short hike north to the ditches bordering the neighborhood with a bucket produced a harvest of a glob of hundreds of frog eggs cemented around an old cattail stock. After carrying my harvest back home, I would place the eggs in an old fifteen gallon galvanized wash tub filled with water from our well and wait for the eggs to hatch.

Unlike bird eggs, the clear flexible membrane of the frog egg allowed an unobstructed view into goings on within the egg. This window into the egg allowed the onlooker to feel like a part of the whole process. In a few days the black dots in the center of the gelatinous eggs evolved into creatures squiggling about in their house of jelly. In several weeks the tadpoles would break out of what was left of the egg and swim freely around the tub. Unfortunately the tub wasn’t the most hospitable environment for tadpoles to grow-up in, not as good as the ditch anyway. Few of them survived through the summer to the point of sprouting legs along side their residual tails. Patience paid off eventually when the few tadpoles that made it to that stage could be netted from the tub and bucketed back to the ditch of their origins to complete the final morphing from tadpole to frog. Returning them to their place of conception brought a good feeling to the soul of a boy.

I killed a frog on another adventure to the ditches of the south of the neighborhood. The frogs of these ditches seemed tamer or more trusting then the frogs of the wild north ditches. With a steady supply of gravel from the shoulder of the road, the frogs seemed like good targets for practicing the fine art of rock throwing. Most of the frogs would quickly jump away or were too small for my inaccurate throws to ever hit. But one rock found its mark and I watched in horror as the frog floated belly-up with guts protruding from its broken body. I had taken the life of the innocent frog and I felt shaken. I knew there was something seriously wrong with taking the life of a creature who had given me so much joy; the joy of song, the joy of tadpoles, and the joy of life from the ditch. That was the last rock I ever threw at a frog.

The field next to the northern ditch of the frogs had not been cleared or ditched to drain the land, so it remained a wetland complex free of human houses, but not of life. Wintergreen plants could be found there — I could not pass them by without bending over to pluck a waxy leaf, place it in my mouth, slowly chew it in order to release the wintergreen oils into my mouth, and enjoy the natural flavor. Ants had colonized the higher drier knobs on this field — I could not pass them by without giving their hills a kick to find out if it was a black ant or a more aggressive red ant hill. There were many times an angry red inflicted a painful pinch on my leg to remind me where my feet did not belong. The hills would become a frenzy of life, as the ants went to work to repair the damages. I talked my dad into making me an ant farm out of some Plexiglas and scrap wood, as a hopefully less painful and intrusive way to observe ants. I filled the structure with some soil from a hill, placed some ants and their eggs inside, and brought it home to watch them go to work. I envisioned peering into the clear structure watching the ants building and navigating intricate tunnels that would colonize their new community. The ants however had other plans and soon found a way to escape the enclosure into our own house, much to my mother’s dismay. I suppose I can’t blame them too much as being cooped up in a wood and glass concoction was never my first choice when there were ditches and fields to explore.

As spring moved into summer, a bucket of water from the ditch harbored another miracle of life, free “sea monkeys.” Sea monkeys used to be advertised for sale on the back of my favorite comic books. Being an inquisitive kid, I couldn’t resist saving my money and then ordered away for my own foil packet of sea monkey powder. After the pack finally arrived in the mail, I anxiously opened it and dumped the powder contents into an old jelly jar, added water, and a few days later was rewarded with a homemade aquarium full of sea monkeys. The monkeys grew to about a half-inch long, had a reddish-orange translucent body, two black eyes, and numerous finger like structures along their sides that propelled them through the water. The instructions that came with them claimed that these critters could be trained to do somersaults if you shined a flashlight on them. I can’t remember if they actually did summersaults, but I do remember how much more amazing it was to find these same critters in my free bucket of ditch water. Sea monkeys I later learned were not some magical creation that came only in foil packets from some far away factory, but brine shrimp – a natural creation. Their look alike freshwater cousins the fairy shrimp inhabited the vernal pools I knew as a ditch.

The ditches dried up in July due to warmer temperatures and reduced rainfall, which provided an opportunity for new challenges — jumps for our bikes. My bike was an early 1970’s Schwinn Sting-ray with a banana seat and monkey handlebars with streamers hanging down. Attaching a playing card to the bike fender with a clothespin resulted in powerful roar as the card strummed the passing spokes of the wheel. Building up a head of steam by peddling down the gravel road and then steering into the ditch would send the bike and its rider flying as the wheels left contact with the earth. I knew what Evel Knievel must have felt like as he launched his “sky-cycle” on his Snake River Canyon jump. Unfortunately I also learned what Evel experienced when his landing didn’t go off as planned — I still have scars on my knees from the impact of the jump landings. Those scars joined earlier versions that came from “hitting the ditch” before I learned how to use the kick brakes on the bike. The vegetation that lined the ditches provided a relatively soft place for crash landings after barreling down the gravel road on my Sting-ray. 

Coming soon Ditched III - Progress

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