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?

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