In memory of Billy Savage, who not only lived by the best ditch in the world and who shared it with me when we were children but also started me on a journey to maturity beyond fear.
William Arden Savage (July 1938 – September 1950)
THE FIRST DITCH
The first ditch was probably an idle scratch in the surface of the ground made by some child playing in a puddle of water after a rain or perhaps along a stream on some faraway afternoon in the dim past of humanity. The child had no grand scheme in mind while digging the little trench that allowed water to flow where it was to where it would not otherwise have gone. It was a simple, innocent act with no outcome intended, but once the outcome became clear, the next little ditch had a purpose—to see if water would behave the same a second time, and then a third, and then to see how far water would follow a ditch, and so on. With each experiment, the inquisitive, beginner’s mind of the child enriched the child’s knowledge of cause and effect and thereby gave the child a sense of control over water within the bounds of specific circumstances, circumstances that would be continually tested to find their limitations.
Somewhere in time a man or a woman had a budding idea and then the conscious thought of leading water from one place to another for a specific purpose—a purpose beyond play and mere curiosity. That one thought, that one experiment in the control of water for a specific, practical end forever changed the world and humanity’s relationship to it. With the first purposeful ditch, water became a commodity that could be owned in the human sense, as well as moved from place to place, stored, bought and sold, stolen, and fought over, thus leading to the concept of water rights: who had the first “right” to get the available water, how much, when, where, and for how long. With control of water, land became more and more valuable to individuals, family groups, communities, and ultimately to the nations of the world.
As the first ditch became the many ditches, it allowed humanity and plants and animals to live in places that had previously been uninhabitable by those who needed water in close proximity. It helped give rise to agriculture, and eventually led to such feats of engineering as the Suez and Panama Canals, each of which physically connects one ocean with another. Thus, the first ditch irrevocably altered humanity’s view of itself, its sense of society, and its ability to manipulate Nature.
And that first ditch, the precursor to the ditch of my childhood, connects me with all children who have ever stopped to examine, create, or play in a ditch—as well as to the child who made the first ditch by scratching the surface of the ground, thereby leading a trickle of water from one place to another. And I suspect that as long as there are children and ditches, especially in rural settings, the lure of the ditch will prevail, even with “grown-up” children, like myself.
Finally, much of the world’s literature 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 it needs to be. I shall therefore rectify this omission by describing for you the oft-hidden beauty of a ditch as I have seen it, because a path is just a path without a ditch somewhere along its length to add that inspired dimension unsurpassed by all of the artistic endeavors of humanity.
Billy Savage, my first-grade friend, lived just below the golf course at the bottom of a long hill about a mile and a half from my house and just a stone’s throw from Squaw Creek, a small, deep, quiet stream south of Corvallis, Oregon. Although Squaw Creek, with its deep waters, was no place for us to play at age six, the ditch, paralleling the far side of the paved road, which separated the front of Bill’s house from the bottom of the golf course, was lovely and flowed most the year. The road was infrequently traveled in those days (1944 -1950), so Madge, Billy’s widowed mother, gave us permission to play in it.
I didn’t know what to make of the ditch, the first day Billy showed it to me. I stood for a time looking at it, feeling uncertain. The water’s surface caught sun sparkles, which it tossed playfully about as it flowed in and out of shadows. It rippled and bounced in shallows and gurgled under overhanging banks. Swinging around a bend, it entered a deep hole, where in silence it caused submerged grasses to sway. Enchanted by their green hypnotic dance, I knelt for a closer look, and something happened deep inside, a feeling I can’t explain but which to this day holds me captive.
Drawn closer, ever closer to the laughing water, I began crawling slowly along the bank peering into its ever-changing depths. Time slid by, silent and unnoticed in its passing, as I looked at this bug and that flower, all of which were new to my senses. So engrossed was I in my discoveries, I barely noticed the soft marshy place, where my hands sank into slimy ooze and my knees got wet. Then it was too late!
Tall brown-headed sentinels with long, flat, dark-green leaves, like medieval broadswords, closed ranks about me, creating a subdued, murky light. I began to panic, as lofty dead seed stalks rattled in the breeze like tiny demonic voices whispering in my ears.
I tried to back out, but I couldn’t. The swords were between my legs. All about was a green and brown wall, under and through which water seeped. Where was I? All I could see was green and brown and water. I was getting wetter and wetter.
Where’d the ditch go? I wanted out! Which way’s out?
I felt confused and lost. I had no sense of direction. Fear clawed its way into panic, and inside my head a child’s voice screamed: “Which way is out? I want out! I want out!”
What’s that sound!? Crunch. Scuffle. Crunch. Silence. My heart pounded as the silence deepened.
“Chris, where are you?”
“Here,” I answered weakly.
“Well, come out of the cattails.”
Turning, I crawled toward the sound of Billy’s voice. The green and brown wall opened suddenly, and there was Billy not ten feet away on the side of the road. Relief flooded through me as my stifling surroundings gave way to open, airy sunshine.
I looked at Billy and realized that I had never had a friend before, so I couldn’t let him know I was afraid. If he thought I was afraid, he might not let me come back to his ditch, and I would lose my only friend. Therefore, because the ditch was important to Billy, I decided it would become important to me too.
THE DITCH AND ME
The ditch and I became friends as the days passed. I told it what I could tell no human being, not even Billy. The ditch was the only one I could trust and really talk to, the only one with whom I felt safe.
“My stomach doesn’t hurt when I’m here at the ditch,” I thought. “Maybe this is what it means to be safe. Maybe the ditch even loves me.”
As time passed, I began feeling safe, really safe at the ditch—something I never felt at home. Here I could hide from the world. I could crawl into the ditch itself during late summer and disappear into little alcoves carved by winter’s floods and hidden by over-hanging grasses. Here I could rest for a time and let the outer world go by unnoticed.
Hugging my knees, I made myself as invisible as possible while listening to the murmuring water and watching its play of light on the moist, chocolate soil of the opposite bank. Overhead, the grasses swished and wispy-white clouds whisked across the blue sky. Somewhere a bird sang. Golfers, without an inkling of my presence, talked to one another as they walked by but a few yards away. A car passed on the road. Someone rode by on a bicycle. But I was safe. No one could see me, hear me, or find me. And, so the seasons passed.
SPRING, THE SEASON OF GENTLE DAYS AND SOFT NIGHTS
Spring had the unmistakable odor of new life from all the little hidden places where it had survived winter. There was a new, gentle warmth in the sun’s light. The faint perfume from opening flowers and unfolding leafs was carried softly on the breeze, as were the melodies of robins, spring’s first songsters. And in two little boys there was restlessness, a need to get outside in the sunshine, to be part of the day.
Flowers greeted me under the protective umbrellas of giant Douglas-fir trees as I step over the wire fence separating the fourth tee of the golf course from my back yard. The flowers were so thick that it was difficult to walk without crushing a delicate bloom.
Leaving the trees, the golf course over which I walked lay open and was paralleled mid-way to Billy’s house by a field in which myriad bright-yellow buttercups greeted me in my passing. The buttercups were not just in the field, however; they and other flowers brought the first colors of spring to the ditch’s banks. These delicate flowers of spring were starkly surrounded by the various shades and hues of green and brown still worn by last autumn’s grasses and herbs. The sudden appearance of the new among the old was both the surprise and the eternal promise of spring.
With spring came a sense of release from school’s daily shackles. Standing in Billy’s kitchen, we would wash down peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches with gulps of milk before heading for the ditch, our imaginations atingle at what we would find: a meadow mouse dashing along its runway; a treefrog peeking out of the water; the lilting melody of a song sparrow. What was spring, after all, if not a song in the heart and the freedom to sing it?
SUMMER, THE SEASON OF BLUE SKIES AND BUTTERFLIES
Summer was that time of year when warming breezes carried the perfume of flowers and the pungent odors of mature leaves. It was a time of butterflies and buzzing bees, of fluffy clouds and warm nights. It was the time when the young animals of spring left their birth sites to seek places of their own.
Summer was the season when Billy and I seemed to fall most easily into the ditch. Like a magnet, it drew us ever closer within the confines of its banks, where rank vegetation enfolded us and hid us from both golf course and road. It was a comfortable time, a time in which I felt especially keenly the excitement of anticipating the unknown adventures lurking in each day.
These days seemed both unending and too short, and the ditch seemed somehow friendlier and more protective then at any other time of year. And it was in summer, freed from the fetters of school, that I had the few truly golden, carefree days of childhood I would ever know, days spent with Billy playing in our ditch, the concrete watering trough in the cow pasture next to his house, and the creek.
Summer brought a sense of change to the ditch and a different cast of characters to our experiences, not necessarily because it was the only time they were there but because it was the only time we had enough uninterrupted hours in which to find them and spend time really being part of their lives and they of ours.
I always felt a sense of the year’s maturing, as spring grew into summer, even though most young animals were just that—young. But to me, there was a sense of preparing to endure the mid-day heat, which often sent Billy and me to some cool, shady place.
Summer, like spring and autumn, was its own special season, a season not only of warm, carefree days but also of certain animals that typified our sense of freedom because, to us, they were “summer animals.” I guess it was their ability to thrive in hot weather that helped us to distinguish summer animals from those of spring.
AUTUMN, THE SEASON OF FLOATING SPIDER WEBS AND FALLING LEAVES
As summer drew to a close, I would awake one morning and know it was autumn. The morning stars were a little brighter, and there was a crispness in the air. Oh, some of summer’s things still lingered, but autumn had arrived. I could feel it. Feeling autumn was like touching the Earth and suddenly knowing that it was getting ready to sleep.
Autumn was the season of maturing and harvest, of beautiful spider webs, and southward-bound geese. It is the time when living things got ready for winter.
Autumn was heralded by crisp nights and warm days, by foggy mornings and smoky afternoons as fields of stubble following the harvest of ryegrass were set ablaze by farmers. In the gray diggers’ triangle, which was “wild place” next to the golf course near Billy’s house, it was the time of pungent aromas from Queen Anne’s lace, senile grasses, and ripe, sun-warmed fruits, which we enjoyed with utter delight. And it was our time to contest the eating of an apple or pear with a league of yellow jackets, ants, and bald-faced black hornets, each claiming the same right.
Autumn was a time of transition in the ditch, a time when the flow of water slowed to a trickle and occasionally dried up all together, a time of dying for many of summer’s flowers and grasses, a time of maturing seeds, and a time of falling yellow, orange, red, and brown leaves. For me, it was also a time of impending sorrow because school would soon begin, and my time with Billy at the ditch would become limited.
WINTER, THE SEASON OF SLEEPING TREES AND RAIN
Winter was a season of leafless trees and bare-limbed shrubs, of withered, bygone flowers and dead grasses. It was a time for hibernating, for being snug and sleepy in a cozy nest as wind-driven rain and sleet and snow buffeted the outside world. Winter was a time of flooded ditches and swollen creeks, of gray skies.
Winter, my winter, was a time of rubber coats and overshoes, of rain in the face and splashing through puddles. It was a time of remembering the games of summer and inventing new ones with which to pass rainy days when mothers—too often in our opinion—keep us indoors out of perfectly good mud.
In winter, our ditch was often a raging torrent. The roiling current looked much like chocolate milk as it carried top soil into Squaw Creek, then into Marys River, the Willamette River, the Columbia River, and into the Pacific Ocean. In this way, our unassuming roadside ditch carried the soil of the land to the floor of the ocean in the age-old ritual of taking and giving, of erosion and change and building, for the land’s loss was the ocean’s gain.
WHEN THE MAGIC WENT OUT OF THE DITCH
Winter came early in the year 1950. It was not the seasonal winter, however, but the winter of my soul, for a change was about to take place—a change I could never have guessed was imminent.
The passing years of grade school were filled with brief moments of joy scattered throughout the terror of my home life. Those moments were the ones I spent with Billy playing in and around “our” ditch and later the creek near his house. As best friends, we were virtually inseparable for five years, from the first day of grade school in September 1944 until the first day of the sixth grade in September 1950.
Although Billy and I enter the sixth grade together, only I finished it. Billy died in the evening of the first day of school. I had left him at his house at four o’clock in the afternoon, which was my time to start walking home if I was to arrive by five o’clock—the appointed deadline. I had no inkling, as I said good-bye, that I would never again see him alive.
Madge, Billy’s mother, called that fateful evening and told my mother that Billy was dead from of a gunshot wound, and my mother told me. Even though I understood the words, their meaning escaped me. How could Billy, to whom I had said good-bye only hours before, suddenly be gone—dead? What did it mean to be dead?
The Sheriff’s report in the newspaper the next morning said that Billy had been playing Russian Roulette with an old 22-caliber pistol and shot himself through the left temple, dying instantly. Even knowing this didn’t help me understand why Billy was dead.
Sure, Billy and I had killed grasshoppers and earthworms on hooks to catch fish Squaw Creek, and we had then killed the fish to eat them. But this was different. Although we had loved grasshoppers and earthworms and fish, we hadn’t had a personal, long-term relationship with any individual. We couldn’t carry on a two-way conversation with them, although we had often carried on a one-way discourse. They hadn’t played games with us when we were sequestered on rainy, winter afternoons; and they hadn’t dreamt with us about the pending freedom of summer when school was out.
But Billy and I had done all this, and more. We had played together, caught frogs together. We had caught grasshoppers and earthworms and fish together. We had challenged the “ol’ coon tree” together. But most of all, we had spent many an hour dreaming together about the freedom of summer, about where we would go fishing, how we would fish, and about the big ones we would catch when school was out. Now Billy’s death shattered our childhood dreams.
With the sudden disintegration of our next summer’s dream, my inner world fell into total, incomprehensible confusion. The order of my life was instantly a shambles. Where was I to go? What was I to do? My whole existence was suddenly riddled with uncertainty, and I had no idea of how to fix it. I was too numb to think or feel. All I knew was that I wanted my friend back. God, how desperately I wanted the safety of my friend back!
Like the winter’s flood along Squaw Creek, leaving everything permanently out of context and changed, Billy’s death washed from my life all that was known and knowable. His death forever changed my entire frame of reference for being. How could one person’s exit alter life’s play so completely, so permanently?
Where was I going? I didn’t know. I couldn’t know. I was simply going. Blinded by tears and numbed by pain, I was simply going.
I saw Billy one more time, silent and cold in his casket. And still I didn’t understand. Billy, who had been a friend and brother to me, a part of myself, would never again open his artificially closed eyes, would never again catch a grasshopper or a fish, would never again talk or laugh. Billy, who had shared his ditch and watering trough and creek with me, Billy, who had shared everything he had with me, most of all himself, was gone. And still I didn’t understand. I couldn’t understand.
With Billy’s death on that first day of school in September 1950, at age twelve, the magic went out of the ditch, and I never again visited it. As I left the ditch behind, I was cast outward into a wider world, one of open vistas and myriad contrasts and apparent truths, and the safe, known microcosm of the ditch drifted away with my headlong rush into adolescence. Would I survive? God alone knows how often I asked that question. Without Billy, I had no one with whom to discover and share the wonders of Nature, and the solitary years of my teens and early twenties began—years that were a constant struggle to survive emotionally, years that relegated me to an inner solitary confinement, years that were very much a journey of one alone.
It was during my adolescence that the memories of the ditch dimmed almost to oblivion—but not quite. Over the years, I was somehow reminded each time I saw a frog or a garter snake, each time I saw a butterfly, dragonfly, or cattail—anywhere in the world—that I had seen them first along Billy’s and my ditch.
Photograph of Billy is courtesy of Madge Savage, Bills mother. Photograph of the Robin is courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Text and the rest of the photos © by Chris Maser 2012. All rights reserved.
This piece is excerpted from my complementary ebook, Of Ditches and Ponds: A Journey Through the Metaphors of Childhood and Maturity. To access the book, visit “BOOKS” on my website.