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.

Click here for Ditched IV - Going Back


  1. We smoked the same stuff as kids. Our septic tanks drained down the embankment to the creek, along with everyone else. The only bright green spots come early spring and late summer were at the end of the discharge pipes from every ones house.

    The tall hollow tubed plants that grew to amazing heights worked great for gently packing hickory leaves into and trying to smoke. Later we discovered a much better ditch weed that was not as harsh, but sure made you hungry.

  2. Anonymous,

    Your smoking attempts were more sophisticated then mine, but glad you could relate to the experience and recall your hunger. Sometimes I think that the "hunger" is a reminder that our attempts to find "satisfaction" through "smoke and mirrors" can't replace the unclouded experiences of the natural world. Thanks for sharing.