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The Dirt | Ditch | A Poem about Mill Race


May contain: person and tunnel
Mill Race culvert © R. Southworth

Mom told us not to play in the creek by our house

The old ephemeral channel turned permanent ditch

The one dug by Chinese laborers in the 1850s

Put there on purpose for wealthy white men to run mills

And get even wealthier


Don’t go in there she would say

It’s dirty

It smells

And there was an old bum who crooned half-crazy songs

Part yelled, part mad

Fully sunk in sorrow of some lost life

But did mother listen to the song sparrow’s quilted call

Its notes sewn into a patchwork song?


In summer, the creek ran dry

Yellowed grocery bags gaped on nearby branches

Dirty laundry on a line

Fir tree needles and junkie needles

Thorned thickets of Himalayan blackberry

The crosshatch of willows on steep banks


In winter, water filled the trench

Slow and brooding

Skimmed by iridescent oil

Topped by torched-out ash leaves, unable to hold color

Then sometimes the water hurried by a storm

By concrete roads and driveways swooshing the rain in too fast

Cutting the channel down to the blue clay

Away from our feet and cares


Out of site, it can be so easy to ignore

In the creek by our house, we never touched the water

Or caught crawdads and periwinkles

Or followed the tracks of nutria

In the soft mud of this ditch dug on purpose

The absence of experience bears a

Stronger mark on my youth

Than a creek itself


Don’t go in there, mother’s words still echo

But not as strongly as the stalking curiosity

Of what might happen when I do.


They say there’s a Chinook in those still waters

They say the creek could be something more

And now as my child awaits the world

Born into the same place I grew up

By the ditch dug by Chinese laborers

What will I tell him?

May contain: outdoors, water, nature, creek, and stream
© R. Southworth