The ditch: an excerpt from “The Mystery of Cherry Lake.”

by Elizabeth C. Creely

Santa_Ana_Delhi_Channel_@_South_Coast

OC Register photo of South Coast Plaza construction the evolution of the Orange County Flood Control District’s (OCFCD) Hydrology Manual.

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The Paulerino flood channel is a tributary flood drain to the Delhi Channel, and it drains urban runoff from Costa Mesa. The Paulerino Channel threads its stealthy way through the margins of the residential and commercial districts of Costa Mesa, including the first neighborhood that our family lived in, which was still too new and perhaps too working-class to have a name, unlike the neighborhood to the west that my family moved to in 1973, the glamorously named “Mesa Del Mar.”

Back then, in the slightly downtrodden tract, the Paulerino Channel passed right behind the houses down the street. We’d access it through the schoolyard of St John the Baptist, the private Catholic school two blocks over. We called it “the ditch”. We didn’t understand that it had been put there for our own good. We had never seen the ditch full or even half full. There was only the dark oozy water slowly tricking through the concrete channel, making sullen puddles here and there. It was a terrible place.

Paulerino_Channel

Paulerino Channel

We weren’t supposed to go there. “Don’t go to the ditch,” my Mother said, and so we went to the ditch on Saturdays and Sundays when we had exhausted every other diversion available to us. It was such an unlovely noisome place, with its fetid water, which had to be anoxic and incapable of supporting life. Even the lure of our own covert activities faded as soon as we shinnied down the sides of the chain-link fence. It was uninspiring. Shopping carts had been pushed down the sides, landing sideways in the weeds. Cigarette butts littered the ground. There weren’t even any crumpled condoms down there. No one used it for anything. It was a wasteland where no one met, as far as we could tell, to hold hands and rediscover their pasts.

And yet, there was life, as there always is on this earth. There would sometimes be tadpoles wriggling around frenetically, darting through the scant column of water and hiding from us nosey children in the puddles, in the thick cottony algae. I was too young to understand the relationship between the ocean and the engineered system of flood control and didn’t know that the Bay was a pit stop for all water in Orange County on its way to the ocean. The tadpoles knew there was country ahead. They had a destination. The great swamp-city of the Upper Newport Bay awaited them, if they could just stay one step ahead of my harassing hands, the lack of water and the occasional predator. If they were lucky, they would end their lives as full-grown amphibians, foodstuff for great blue herons and cranes or living in peace on their own terms, reproducing and croaking their throaty songs in the salt marshes. It was hopefully a good home for them; their natural home.

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Many years later, at my Mother’s house, I thought of the ditch. California had been forecast by NOAA to have an El Nino winter, and then, with its bureaucratic face turned questioningly to sky, NOAA revised the prediction into another prediction which was so conditional, it was hard to remember exactly what they were predicting.  The little boy was nowhere to be seen, said, NOAA. So don’t expect much water. And we might have a warmer winter than was expected.  This was unsettling. Orange County was in its third year of drought and California’s snow pack had been at 40% of its normal capacity the year before.

So, I was thinking about water and where I saw it growing up. Not the water in the ocean, but fresh water, the magic water, the water that was and never was, elusive, sparkling fresh water contained in creeks, streams, ponds lakes. Water that other people in different places saw and felt on their skin when they immersed themselves in these magic places that held water and had not been turned into concrete representations of themselves.

howl@the moon

My brother was in the backyard, chopping down trees and pruning shrubs. The cat was on the roof. I was standing in my old bedroom looking out. I said “Hey, Jim. You know that ditch that runs behind St. Johns?”

“Yeah? What about it?” He threw his pruning saw down and crossed to the window. The sun was setting and the lavender glow of twilight illuminated his face. The close-cropped lawn of St. Augustine grass glowed a feverish green.

I said, almost irritably, “What is that? Is that really a tributary stream of the Santa Ana River? Is it a creek?”

“No,” Jim said. “That’s just a flood channel. But I’ll tell you where a spring-fed lake is, right around the corner.’ And he did.

(with thanks to Paul Weller.)

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