Chris Maser

Did you ever think about a ditch? Just an ordinary roadside ditch. Most people probably don't even notice them, much less contemplate them. Nevertheless, there was actually a time in the world before ditches, a time when water itself decided where humanity would dwell. Then the ditch was invented, and that changed everything.


The first ditch was likely an idle scratch in the surface of the ground made by some child playing in a puddle after a rainstorm or perhaps along a stream in the land of the far memory. That first child's play—of leading water from one place to another—has continued through the millennia; I, who am seventy, still cannot resist leading little trickles of water from here to there by scratching the surface of the ground with a stick, or for the want of a stick with my finger or the toe of my shoe.

Somewhere in time that first ditch became a conscious thought that translated into a conscious act. As the one ditch became the many ditches, humanity and plants and animals moved into areas heretofore uninhabitable by those who needed water in close proximity and thus was expanded the human sense of place.

The first ditch irrevocably altered humanity's sense of itself, its sense of society, and its ability to manipulate Nature. Ditches gave rise to agriculture and eventually led to such feats of engineering as the Panama and Suez Canals, each of which physically connects one ocean with another.


A ditch is just a naked furrow in the skin of the Earth until Nature takes over, molding and sculpting the furrow with erosion, using wind and water and snow and ice as her implements. Slowly the gapping furrow begins to round and crinkle as flowing water moves jousting grain and shifting pebble here and there. Little by little the ditch bottom loses all sign of human tool, and the once-raw wound becomes a labyrinth of nooks and crannies, each with a pair of eyes silently watching the world.

As the ditch's bottom transforms, Nature plants seeds of grasses and herbs along its banks. Each seed, be it as large as a giant lima bean or as small a gnat's eye, has locked within it the secret code of shape and color for leaf and flower, the height of stem and the depth of root, the season of bloom and the season of fruit. Each seed, millions of years in the making, is a crowning achievement in an unbroken chain of genetic experiments that began when life was born.

Now a dandelion seed drifts ditchward, suspended from its gossamer parachute. Where will it land? Will it germinate? If it germinates and grows, will a grasshopper or a mouse eat it, or will it mature and add its encoded link to the genetic chain? Of the thousands of seeds that fall on the fertile soil of the ditch's banks, each is an open question.

Relative few will survive to maturity. The rest will disappear from whence they came into the Eternal Mystery. So Nature creates a backdrop of swaying grasses and brightly colored flowers, of protecting shrubs and stately trees. On this stage unfolds her play enacted with the animals that live along the ditch, that burrow in its banks, and visit with the seasons.


If by now you have divined that I love ditches, you are correct. The only thing that saved me from the brutal horrors of growing up was my intimate connection with Nature, which began to bloom consciously in a roadside ditch.

Because the ditch of my youth became at once my surrogate family and my classroom, it was a place of reverence and awe, a place for me to reach safely beyond social dysfunction and touch the innocence of the Eternal Mystery reflected in Nature. As such, my ditch was a place of wonder, a place of mystery and of boyhood imaginings, a place to touch the earth, the water, and the sky. It was a place where the green arms of cattails, sedges, and rushes, and the tall, swaying grasses enfolded me, hid me, and bade me stay while I learned the songs of the seasons.

It was a place where the water spoke quietly of the harmonious cycles of life, where grasshoppers and crickets trilled, and gray-tailed voles scurried along their secret runways. It was a place where wandering breezes carried the perfumes of flowers and the melodies of birds, where gaily colored butterflies dotted magical afternoons. It was a place brimming with life, with the cycles of the sun, moon, and stars, with a constant becoming, as life flowed through death into life and the seasons melded one into another.

But most of all, it was the place where I first began to understand that the smallest piece of anything was still a part of the whole; that to understand the whole, I must value the pieces; and that I must see the piece in the whole and the whole in each piece. I thus began to glimpse the eternal flow between the sum and its parts, and I began the long, slow process of being born unto myself in the greater context of the Universe as one of Nature's pieces reflected in the spiritual and ecological perfection of the ditch.

It was here, between the ages of six and twelve, that I was simply open to the mysteries of the Universe, and they were revealed to me in all their splendor. Here, within the banks of a humble, roadside ditch, I saw the crowning jewel of the Universe unfold. I saw life and death and change. I saw Creation, and I found God.


Today I think a ditch in terms of its evolution, be it natural, intellectual, or spiritual, for a ditch is all of these to me. A ditch starts out as a raw, naked wound in the Earth, for whatever reason it has been dug. Over time, it becomes clothed with vegetation that begins with grasses and herbs and, left alone, progresses to shrubs and trees. Meanwhile, the water sculpts the ditch's bottom and sides, and the animals living along its banks add a touch of their own creativity to the overall effect.

Intellectually, I have grown from seeing a ditch solely as my playground at a child's-eye level to seeing a ditch in relation to its surroundings and its function from an adult's-eye view. How I perceive a ditch depends on how big I am. As a child, for example, I could sit or kneel in some parts of our ditch and not be seen by someone on the outside; today, at six feet one inch in height, I can no longer do that. Further, when I was a little boy, I felt protected by the ditch, but now, as an adult, I might not feel so protected.

From a spiritual view, how I see a ditch depends on my age and experiences as a human being, how connected I feel to the land, and what stage of evolution the ditch is in. I may also have a different sense of connectedness with a ditch in different lightings, depending on the time of day and season of year. In addition, as I contemplate the origins of the first ditch, or visit an old ruin, where ditches of the Ancient Ones are still relatively intact, I feel a deep, spiritual connectedness both with those who have gone before and those of today who are united in various degrees by their use of and dependence on this simplest of human inventions.

With respect to spirituality, much of the religious literature of the ages portrays life as a journey along a path. But to me, following a path without the splendor of a mature ditch to keep it company is a far lonelier journey than needs be, because the presence of a ditch somewhere along the path adds an inspired dimension unsurpassed by all of the artistic endeavors of humanity.

Savoring the warmth of memory and knowing that my childhood ditch introduced me to the concepts that would ultimately become my profession, natural history and ecology, and would start me on my spiritual quest for wholeness, I wonder how many children of today have such a glorious ditch as I had. How many ditches are even clean enough, healthy enough to rear frog's eggs? I wonder, because the ecological health of roadside ditches reflect the state of our social consciousness, and the ditches I see today are too often but conduits for humanity's sewage and toxic wastes, linear roadside dumps for society's materialistic offal.

And as I walk along ditches in Spring enjoying the gathering array of grasses and flowers, I pray that, by the Grace of God, I may forget for a moment that come Summer the grasses and flowers will be mowed down along the sides of the roads, as they have been for so many, many years, and that those of the ditches will be sprayed with herbicides. I pray also that I may forget the county's circular saw on its maneuverable extension, which is operated from the back of a truck—a saw whose blade does not cut, but rather rips and frays every ditchside shrub and tree it touches. But too soon I see mile after mile of mutilated and disgraced roadside vegetation, and I once again question the consciousness of such a one who would use this reprehensible instrument of destruction that steals the dignity of everything its metal blade touches for what useful purpose I cannot fathom.

To me, a road is just a road without a mature ditch to glorify its borders. But who today notices the passing of grasses and flowers under the mower's blade, or the passing of habitat for little creatures wild and free under the toxic rain of the county's tanker trucks, or the ensuing silence as song-bird habitat is shredded by the circular blade with its thoughtless metal teeth. Who notices the loss of Nature's innocence as ditches are heinously defiled in ways unimaginable to most people? Alas, I notice.

And because I notice, I again wonder where would I be today if hadn't had such a beautiful ditch as a child? I don't know. But I am here now, wherever here is, because of the legacy my ditch, which instilled in me the seasons of birth, growth, maturation, and reflection, seasons that ultimately led me safely beyond its confines into a wider world. And it is in this wider world that I learned about the stream-order continuum, of which ditches are an integral, but unrecognized and ignored, part.


I titled this section "The Stream/Ditch-Order Continuum," because, while the continuum concept was devised for streams, I find many of the same processes in ditches. The stream/ditch-order continuum operates on a simple premise:  Streams are Nature's arterial system of the land, and ditches create culture's arterial system. As such, they form a continuum or spectrum of physical environments, with associated aquatic and terrestrial plant and animal communities, as a longitudinally connected part of the ecosystem in which downstream processes are linked to upstream processes.

The idea of the stream/ditch continuum begins with the smallest stream or ditch and ends at the ocean. The concept centers on the resources of available food for the animals inhabiting the continuum, which range from invertebrates to fish, birds, and mammals.

As organic material floats downhill from its source to the sea, it gets smaller, while the volume of water carrying it gets larger. Thus, small streams feed larger streams and larger streams feed rivers with partially processed organic matter, the amount of which becomes progressively smaller the farther down the continuum of the river system it goes. The same is true for ditches.

This is how the system works:  A first-order stream is the smallest, undivided waterway or headwaters, a description that fits most ditches. Where two first-order streams join they enlarge as a second-order stream, again a description that fits ditches. Where two second-order streams come together they enlarge as a third-order stream and so on.

The concept of stream order is based on the size of the stream—the cumulative volume of water—not just on which stream of what order joins with another stream of a given order. For example, a first-order stream (or ditch) can join either with another first-order stream (or ditch) to form a second-order stream (or ditch) or it can enter directly into a second-, third-, fourth-, fifth-, or even larger order stream. The same is true of a second-order stream, a third-order stream, and so on.

In addition, the stream/ditch-order influences the role streamside and ditchside vegetation plays in controlling water temperature, stabilizing banks, and producing food. Streamside vegetation is also the primary source of large organic debris, such as tree stems at least eight inches in diameter with their rootwads attached, or tree branches greater than eight inches in diameter. Ditches, on the other hand, are usually stripped of their trees long before the latter mature.

Forests adjacent to streams supply wood in the form of stems, rootwads, and large branches from trees, while ditchside vegetation supplies grasses, herbs, and occasionally branches from shrubs, but rarely from trees. Erosion also contributes organic material to the stream or ditch.

Wood in streams increases the diversity of habitats by forming dams and their attendant pools and by protecting backwater areas. Wood also provides nutrients and a variety of foundations for biological activity, and it both dissipates the energy of the water and traps its sediments. All these functions in ditches are usually performed by non-woody vegetation.

Processing the organic debris entering the aquatic system includes digestion by bacteria, fungi, and insects, as well as physical abrasion against such things as the stream bottom and its boulders or the ditch bottom and its pebbles. In all cases, debris is continually broken into smaller pieces, which makes the particles increasingly susceptible to microbial consumption.

The amount of different kinds of organic matter processed in a reach of stream or ditch (the stretch of water visible between two bends in a channel, be it a ditch, stream, or river) depends on the quality and the quantity of nutrients in the material and on the stream's or ditch's capacity to hold fine particles long enough to complete their processing. The debris may be fully utilized by the biotic community within a reach of stream or ditch or it may be exported downstream.

Debris moves fastest through the system during high water and is not thoroughly processed at any one spot. The same is true in streams and ditches that do not have a sufficient number of instream or inditch obstacles to slow the water and act as areas of deposition, sieving the incompletely processed organic material out of the current so its organic breakdown can be completed. So small streams feed larger streams and larger streams feed rivers, just as small ditches feed larger ditches, which eventually feed streams and rivers.

As a stream gets larger, its source of energy is derived more from aquatic algae and less from organic material of terrestrial origin, which my observations suggest is comparable for ditches. The greatest influence of terrestrial vegetation is in first-order streams and ditches, but the most diversity of incoming organic matter and the greatest diversity of habitats are found in third- to fifth-order streams and large rivers with floodplains.

Small, first-order, headwater streams (and where applicable, ditches) largely determine the type and quality of the downstream habitat. They, and second-order streams and ditches, are influenced not only by the configuration of surrounding landforms but also by the live and dead vegetation along their channels. This vegetation is called "riparian vegetation" and interacts in many ways with the stream or ditch.

The canopy of vegetation, when undisturbed, shades the streamside or ditchside. The energy of the flowing water is dissipated by wood in stream channels and by grasses, sedges, rushes, and cattails in ditch channels, slowing erosion and fostering the deposition of inorganic and organic debris.

These small streams and ditches arise in tiny drainages with a limited capacity to store water, so their flow may be scanty or intermittent during late summer and autumn, but during periods of high flows in winter and spring, they can move prodigious amounts of sediment and organic material.

What I have just described is the beneficial aspect of the stream/ditch continuum. There is, however, a sinister side to the ditch portion of this story as well, a tragically human side.

Remember that ditches form a continuum or spectrum of physical environments (the same as streams) along a longitudinally connected part of the ecosystem in which downstream processes are linked to and influenced by upstream processes. Remember also that the stream/ditch continuum begins with the smallest stream or ditch and ends at the ocean. Thus, little ditches feed bigger ditches and bigger ditches eventually feed streams and rivers, which ultimately feed the ocean. Remember further that as organic material (food energy) floats downhill from its source to the sea, it gets smaller—more dilute—while the volume of water carrying it gets larger.

But what happens to the continuum concept when a ditch is polluted? To pollute a ditch means to contaminate it by dumping human garbage into it or by discharging noxious substances into it, both of which in one way or another disrupt biological processes, often by corrupting of the integrity of their chemical interactions.

While Nature's organic matter (food energy) is continually diluted the further down the continuum it goes, pollution is continually concentrated because it gathers its potency from the discharge of every contaminated ditch that adds its waters to the passing flow. Thus, with every ditch we pollute, the purity of stream and river is to that extent compromised, and the amount of pollution that humanity is dumping into the estuaries and oceans of the world through the stream/ditch continuum is staggering.

I say this not only because I have seen ditches in North America, Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa discharging their foul contents into streams, rivers, estuaries, and oceans but also because in 1969 I found a population of montane voles (meadow mice to most people) living along a ditch that drained an agricultural field. The voles, whose fur was an abnormally deep yellow when I caught them, lost the yellow with their first molt in the laboratory when fed normal lab chow, whereas those along the ditch retain their yellow pelage.

But no matter how hard I tried, I could find no one in agriculture chemistry at the local university to acknowledge this color deviant, let alone examine it in a effort to find the cause—undoubtedly some agricultural chemical compound. They all turned their backs, even when I presented them with the evidence:  live, yellow voles. Hence, I learned that chemical pollution in ditches is not visible to the human eye in the flowing of their waters, but it may become visible in the sickening of the environment. And in 1984, as part of an committee called to Washington, D.C., to helped the United States Congress frame the ecological components of the 1985 Farm Bill, I learned in far greater depth of the incredible non-point-source chemical pollution of our nations surface waters (ditches) and groundwater (aquifers) from today's chemical-intensive agricultural.

How, I wonder, can we learn to care for rivers and oceans if we continually defile the ditches that feed them? The answer is:  we cannot!

We must learn to care first and foremost for the humble things in our environment, such as a roadside ditch, before we can learn how to care for the mighty things in our environment, such as a river. Defile the ditch and we will defile the river, estuary, and ocean; protect the ditch and we protect the river, estuary, and ocean. Thus is Nature's lesson taught, a lesson that begins when we are children.

It is therefore with a great deal of humility that I offered my observations on ditches, because I strongly suspect that few children of today have nearby a healthy ditch in which to play. If I am correct in this assumption, then I must sadly ask:  How many children will never touch Nature and see their faces reflected the many facets of her mirror for want of a healthy ditch in which their undirected exploration can unlock the Eternal Mystery's unconditional gift of wonder? What part of the innocence of our collective soul are we losing as we poison the ditches, making them no more than substitutes for garbage dumps, euphemistically called "sanitary landfills?"

What will we lose of Nature's artistry when the glory of her seasons can no longer be reflected in the ditches along the nation's roads? How bleak will be life's journey when there exists neither grass nor flower nor butterfly, neither cricket nor bird along a roadside ditch to comfort and revive a weary traveler with color and song? And finally, how long will it take for society to kill the mighty oceans of the world by poisoning the humble ditches of the land?

We need not lose any of these things. It is, after all, only by choice that we defile our environment. We can, therefore, always choose to choose again, to honor the humble and thereby protect the mighty.

©chris maser 2008. All rights reserved.

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