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Notes on the valley landscape: Life's a ditch
Kim at work
Kim at work

I’m the punk in the gutter – The Who, Quadrophenia


It’s a national holiday at my El Jebel place on that special day in May when a trickle of water starts flowing in the Arlian Ditch. Since mid-October of 2018 this historic ditch ceased coursing through the lower reaches of the old ranchlands where some subdivisions and remaining pastures now reside. 

Last year at this time the valley was fairly parched, and the first ditch water was a huge deal. My grass was barely hanging on and I sparingly watered my spring flower beds with a hose. We are fortunate this year to be blessed with abundant natural precipitation, but first ditch water is still a welcome sight. It promises hay for grazing, vegetables, flowers, turf and a cool haven for my Labrador retriever.

My fascination with water flowing downstream began as a child in suburban Chicago, where one of my favorite activities was playing in the paved gutters on our street after a rain. I loved creating little dirt dams which impounded strings of tiny ponds. Popsicle sticks were boats. Stones, leaves and grass were foundations for various miniature forts. After a storm I had hours of purposeful fun saving worms and other hapless small creatures from certain doom. 

Speaking of worms, do you know why they emerge after a good soaking rain? It’s not because their burrows flood and they try to escape drowning. Nor is it because they have a death wish and crawl onto pavement to await robins and magpies. They do it because the world is wet and they can slime-crawl their way to new territories, perhaps to get lucky and find a one-night(crawler) stand. Now you know.

So here I am for the last 30 years, an adult playing in ditches. How lucky I have been! My childhood memories re-lived with a real purpose. I’m not a rancher, but I kind of play one for one day every three weeks when it’s my turn to flood irrigate (forgive me Tony Vagneur — I don’t hold a candle to your true ranching exploits.)

The rhythm of the spring and summer seasons begins with a trickle. Hip waders secured, trusty four-pronged rake in hand, I walk to the upstream boundary of my two acres (too small to farm and too big to mow, according to the late Guido Meyer). I look for obstructions and fork them out. Besides the normal sticks, leaves, plastic bags and such, I have pulled out a litter of drowned baby skunks whose mother chose the wrong culvert to give birth in. 

I set the first dam to push the water down a lateral ditch. This first set is the trickiest because the ditch is deep right here and will “blow out” if not super fortified with big rocks placed perfectly on the orange or grey woven plastic ditch dam material. It takes a quick pair of hands to grab large rocks while standing on the plastic in the ditch bottom as the water pressure immediately balloons the dam like a full sail in a stiff wind. Meanwhile the rising water promptly laps over the top of my waders. Damn it’s frigid! In June and beyond I am fine with shorts and Crocs during the heat of the day, but in May the cool morning air and ice-melt water are numbing.

More than a couple of times I have smashed my cold wet fingers between those large rocks. Hazards of the sport I suppose and another reason why manicures and I are not good friends. I have bad hay fever and when the grasses are in full flower and the pollen hangs heavily, I still must get down into the ditch to set dams. This puts these pollen sacs right at my face level. For six weeks my drug of choice is generic Zyrtec. After July I’m cruisin’ without that dulled antihistamine head.

On my irrigation days I love that I “must” walk my field and orchard and happily see so many cool things. I find deer beds in the tall grass, new noxious weeds (to be chopped with my shovel), birds swooping down to feed on insects floating up in flooded areas and spiders climbing up tall grass until the water recedes in a few hours. I strategize the next few dam sets, mindful of the clock, in order to change sets to maximize the water and precious time that I am allowed. Sharing irrigation along the ditch allows us to know our neighbors, knitting a group together which might not exist otherwise. 

We swap irrigation hours if someone is out of town or pull/set dams if another person isn’t able. It takes a village on occasion. And I’m happy to share the fruits of my labor with fellow ditchers – literally the plums, pears and apples the water helps provide.

Kim Bock is patching the holes in her waders in El Jebel, enjoying the art and science of flood irrigation. She can be reached at kimbock.treedoc@gmail.com.