April is on us by the bucketful. We've had rain all week, with three thunderstorms rolling over us today alone. It was between downpours that I decided to go for a drive due south on my street, Main Street, Route 235, to Alger and beyond. I wanted to see muck.
Alger is a fingernail of a community clinging to the northwest edge of what used to be the Scioto (sy-OH-ta) Marsh, 18,000 acres of an ancient glacial lakebed that was drained in the 1880s for farming. For about fifty years, the muck of Hardin County was among the most productive in the nation for onions. Carrots are grown here now, though I hear that one carrot farmer is thinking of switching to commodity corn and soybeans. Better prices. More subsidies. Better crop insurance rates.
State Route 235 heads south past my house straight as a string, until it hits Rt. 309, where it begins to cut a sawtoothed path to, and through, Alger. There's not much to Alger. There were 844 people living here in 2013, down from 860 in 2010. The median income is $47,000. The median price of a home, $61,000. Rt. 235 runs smack into the most notable structure in Alger: its grain elevator. It's bigger than Ada's, and spookier, especially with storm clouds coming up behind it.
I geek out on aging, rusting, industrial properties. They're our pyramids, witnesses to scenes of enormous power and force. Muscle, steam, crankshaft, pulley, piston.
Why, though, are the windows of these places always broken? Who breaks them? And who doesn't think they're worth fixing? Just wondering.
Out the other side of the little village, Rt. 235 abandons the county road grid system and starts to twist and turn around the western edges of the old marsh. I turned east to drive across the muck along Marion County Rd. 120. It was just wide enough for two cars to pass, with no shoulder to speak of. Pulling the car over to take pictures, I worried that it would slide right down into the rain-swollen, coffee-brown waters of the drainage ditch, right into the muck.
The ditches and drainage tiles that helped "reclaim" this land for agricultural production are the very things that are hastening its demise. "Exposed, then, the muck has largely disappeared," writes Tom Rumur in Unearthing the Land: The Story of Ohio's Scioto Marsh. "A century of wind erosion, but especially the oxidation of the muck, once allowed to dry, has taken an impressive toll." The muck used to be five feet deep, deep enough, as some told Rumur, that you could take a hoe handle and drive it into the black, spongey soil, right up to the blade. Now, it's only about a foot deep. Twelve inches. Hell, New York City and Boston got hit with twelve inches, and then some, of snow this winter. It's a lot, and yet, it's not a lot, not compared to what it was.
And what could it be, become? What's next for the former Scioto Marsh? Rumur, writing in the early 1990s, reported on just-getting-underway conservancy efforts, like no-till farming and tree plantings along the Scioto River, to cut down on soil erosion. I saw evidence of them in my car trip: trees along the banks of the river, windrow trees along Rt. 195, cover crops and the remains of last fall's corn harvest in the muddy fields.
There are on-going attempts to keep the muck from, um, running amok and washing away into the Ohio River. In 2003-2004, federal, state and local governments teamed up to start creating an Upper Scioto Watershed Management Plan. I could not find a more recent report online. Whatever these stakeholders have been doing, though, doesn't seem to be working. State environmental researchers last year found high levels of E. coli, phosphorus and other pollutants "at nearly every test point" in the Upper Scioto watershed, as the Columbus Dispatch put it,. The culprits are manure, fertilizer, and sewage treatment plant effluent.
I found these lines in the Ohio EPA's report a bit disturbing:
Overall the watershed met criteria for the recreation use at about 7 percent, 42 percent for aquatic life uses, 100 percent for the human health use, and there was not enough data to assess public drinking water supply use.
Just 7 percent of the test sites met the standards for boating and swimming? Only 42 percent met "aquatic life uses?" I don't know whether that means that only 42 percent of the test sites had water that fish would want to swim in, or had fish that people would want to catch and eat, but either way, 42 percent is not a happy number. If this were a letter grade, "aquatic life uses" would get, like, an F double minus. And I'm biting my nails over the lack of data regarding "public drinking water supply use." I sure would double-time the effort to get that information. I find it more of a pressing need to figure out whether I can drink my water than whether I can recreate in it.
All this -- the ancient history of this soil, what we did to it to make a living on it, what we're doing to it to keep that life viable -- just from a drive down Rt. 234. It's there, underneath the water pooling on the black fields, and it's in that water, too, on a molecular level. I don't see it when I look at the rusting grain silos and sweeping fields and lonely county roads. I just see that practical, raw barn-and-field beauty that we use to romanticize rural living.
Living here is going to teach me to see, really see, this landscape and settle into the muck.
What's left of it, anyway.