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

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Wild Voices.

From Thomas Berry, in the essay “The Wild and the Sacred”, from the book THE GREAT WORK.

As one woman told a group assembled in Florida after Hurricane Andrew, she did not consider herself a victim but a participant in this wild event in all its creative as well as its destructive aspects.  The hurricane, she insisted, was telling us something.  It was telling us how to build our houses if we wished to dwell in this region.  It was telling us to consider well the winds and the sea, to mark well the fact that if we live here we must obey the deeper laws of the place, laws that cannot be overridden by any type of human zoning.  We might live here if we wish but on terms dictated by powers other than human.  (…).  For it is out of the wild depths of the universe and our own being that greater visions must come.

Like the hurricane, earthquakes and the resulting tsunamis and nuclear meltdowns have much to tell us.   The question is -- are we listening, and if so what is our vision?

Monday, March 14, 2011

Living Planet

Linda Wertheimer speaks with Captain Mike Coats, pilot of the space shuttle Discovery’s 1984 maiden voyage.

Wertheimer.  Now, what do you remember about that first flight?  What’s your thing you think about when you think about it?

Coats. Well, when you first get into orbit, looking out the window and seeing the earth from space, you just, you can’t take your eyes away. I mean, we have a living, beautiful planet – spaceship earth we call it here. And you see this living planet that’s green and blue.

And then you see it going through the blackness of space – the utter void of space. And every astronaut and cosmonaut has this same reaction when they first get up there is – you want to put your arms around this little planet that we all live on, and protect it. And it’s – everybody has that same feeling.

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

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".  

Friday, March 4, 2011

12 Principles of Spiritual Leadership

Some bits of wisdom to chew on from a condensed version of an adaptation of a presentation given by Will Keepin at Schumacher College, Totnes, England, July 17, 1997.  

1. Motivation transformed from anger and despair to compassion and love. We seek to work for love, rather than against evil. The Dalai Lama says, "A positive future can never emerge from the mind of anger and despair."

2. Non-attachment to outcome. To the extent that we are attached to the results of our work, we rise and fall with our success and failures, which is a path to burnout. Failures are inevitable, and successes are not the deepest purpose of our work.

3. Integrity is your protection. The idea here is that if your work has integrity, that will tend to protect you from negative circumstances.

4. Unified integrity in both means and ends. Integrity in means cultivates integrity in the fruit of one's work; you cannot achieve a noble goal using ignoble means. The end does not justify the means.

5. Don't demonize your adversaries. People respond to arrogance with their own arrogance, which leads to polarization. The ideal is to constantly entertain alternative points of view so that you move from arrogance to inquiry, and you then have no need to demonize your opponents.

6. Love thy enemy. Or if you can't do that, at least have compassion for them. This means moving from an 'us-them' consciousness to a 'we' consciousness. The 'them' that we talk about is also us.

7. Your work is for the world rather than for you. We serve on behalf of others and not for our own satisfaction or benefit. We're sowing seeds for a cherished vision to become a future reality, and our fulfilment comes from the privilege of being able to do this work.

8. Selfless service is a myth. In truly serving others, we are also served. In giving we receive. This is important to recognize, so we don't fall into the trap of pretentious service to others' needs and develop a false sense of selflessness or martyrdom.

9. Do not insulate yourself from the pain of the world. We must allow our hearts to be broken-broken open-by the pain of the world. As that happens, as we let that pain in, we become the vehicles for transformation. If we block the pain, we are actually preventing our own participation in the world's attempt to heal itself.

10. What you attend to, you become. If you constantly attend to battles, you become embattled. On the other hand, if you constantly give love, you become loving. We must choose wisely what we attend to, because it shapes and defines us deeply.

11. Rely on faith. Cultivate a deep trust in the unknown, recognizing the presence of "higher" or "divine" forces at work that we can trust completely without knowing their precise agendas or workings. It means invoking something beyond the traditional scientific world view.

12. Love creates the form. The mind gives rise to the apparent fragmentation of the world, while the heart can operate at depths unknown to the mind. When we bring the fullness of our humanity to our leadership, we can be far more effective in creating the future we want.

In closing, as we enter the third millennium, we are urgently called to action in two distinct capacities: to serve as hospice workers to a dying culture, and to serve as midwives to an emerging culture. These two tasks are required simultaneously; they call upon us to move through the world with an open heart-meaning we are present for the grief and the pain-as we experiment with new visions and forms for the future. Both are needed. The key is to root our actions in both intelligence and compassion-a balance of head and heart that combines the finest human qualities in our leadership for cultural transformation.