Key To Life

written by

Drausin Wulsin

posted on

July 20, 2023


The key to building a sound dam is the trench beneath it.

We are building a 400-foot dam to create a small lake for wildlife and irrigation. Mike, our contractor-artist, explains a dam needs to have a "key" of clay beneath it to arrest percolating water. Water has a mind of its own, and will find the weak spot in a structure sooner or later, unless the seal is foolproof. So, a key is excavated about 3 feet deep to make sure no lenses of sand are lurking underneath the dam. It is then refilled with packed clay, layer by layer, to the height of the dam. This dam will be about 15 feet tall at the lowest point of the topography. It tapers off at each end, as it ties into the two hills it is connecting. 

Topsoil is scraped off in search of clay, which is painful to witness. We have invested so much effort to build topsoil over the years, that it is counter-intuitive to remove it. But all is not lost, as it will be spread over the top and backside of the dam. 

We are also hauling dirt from the nearby streambank for the backside of the dam. We are embarking on another effort to renovate more streambanks on the property. This involves taking out the trees, hauling them away, pulling dirt back from the vertical bank to a 45 degree slope, hauling that dirt to another location, and finally replanting the streambank with willows and sycamores. Previously we hauled the dirt to a nearby hillside. We are currently hauling it to the backside of the new dam just across the field. The picture below shows topsoil and bank-fill being inventoried before it will be pushed forward to join with the dam.

We can see the dam taking shape, as the streambank supplies much of the dirt. This represents about a week of work so far, involving multiple pieces of equipment. 

Pictures of raw dirt are not becoming in themselves, but we are adding another compelling dimension to the vision of our landscape. This lake will be the deepest body of standing water on the property, serving purposes a wetland does not. It will harbor fish year around and will have enough capacity to provide drip irrigation for growing vegetables during the heat of summer. 

Several young Mennonite families will be moving to our property in another year or so to grow vegetables. That will be a new and welcome enterprise, and this lake will be central to their success. 

In contrast, below we see a handmade dam of willow stakes and branches. This has been installed by Gary Stauffer and his team, in less than a day. It will impede flow in one of the tributaries to our larger creek, hydrating fields to either side. It will be interesting to see how this holds up under heavy flows of water.

Recent reading is of Wendell Berry's new and epic tome: The Need To Be Whole, Patriotism and the History of PrejudiceThis is magnificent in every way. His prose is precise and spare; no sentence is wasted. Reading his words is like listening to beautiful music; the effect is sublime enough that content seems almost secondary. 

This content, however, is extraordinary, in that he stares at and reflects upon the root of prejudice in our culture. What a quagmire, about which he does not hesitate to opine. His underlying thesis is the great ills of our society, whether prejudice, global warming, or political divide, reflect upon one basic phenomenon: a lack of community. And no force has been more responsible for dismantling small communities over the past 50 years than industrial agriculture. This has had all sorts of unintended consequences, which we are only now beginning to understand. His eloquence on the subject is breathtaking.

His thesis sets the background perfectly for Chris Smaje's recent book A Small Farm FutureSmaje makes the case that the only way to establish sustainability on the planet is for much of the populace to return to small-scale, agrarian living. Such culture is where cost of living is low and quality of life is high. This too is a compelling presentation, that is hard to dispute.

We recently enjoyed a gathering of young entrepreneurs and their families at our farm. They brought their adorable children and we talked about the opportunity of turning the larvae of Black Soldier Flies into commercial products of: fertilizer, animal protein, and oil. To stimulate conversation, we fed them smoked leg of lamb and mango chutney, among else, as above.

We recently decided we have to bring our delivery of food to conclusion, reluctant as we are to do so. Thus, October 1 will be our last day delivering to Madtree. This, of course, is not something we are happy about, but it is inevitable, as it is time for our next step in life.

We will have more about that next step later, but we will make every effort to stay in touch with you through periodic blogs. I will be sending them from the website for our wetlands:

If any of you would like a tour of our evolving farm and wetlands, we thought we'd set one up for Saturday October the 7th. Let me know if that is of interest.

We still haven't fully explored the "key to life". Research confirms that physical and social activity are central to a life of well-being, as is maintaining passion, and realizing sufficient rest. Might we add another dimension, which is insuring the life-giving force of our ponds are rooted in keys of clay! And let us further include feeling inspired by the younger generation that brings creative ideas and adorable children to the fore. 


More from the blog

Big Muddy

Here is the Lower Mississippi River, 45 feet below normal pool. Over Thanksgiving, Susan and I shoehorned ourselves onto a cruise ship to learn about the lower Mississippi and its bayou. We started in Memphis and ended up in New Orleans, with stops along the way to explore river towns. This river is the third longest on the planet, providing drainage to 40% of North America. It has historically deposited silt yearly in its floodplains, producing topsoil 120 feet deep, making these soils some of the richest in the world. Vast wetland forests grew beside its banks, of cypress, oaks, and sycamores, populated by a rich array of black bears, deer, bobcats, alligators, and aquatic life. This was the legendary bayou.

Streams & Souls

Streams and souls seem to share character. They are life-giving, they are coveted, they can be impeded, they can be channelized, they can be overwhelmed, they flood, they dry up, they flow downhill, they are a force of both change and constancy, they lie at the center of a community, they will not be denied, and because of this great complexity, they attract periodic resistance. So, it seems that streams may serve as a metaphor for the journey of the soul.


Biodiversity depends on the neighbors. We feel like we live on islands, at times, but even islands are connected by surrounding rings of activity. Every organism that travels through our wetlands is in transit. Some stay longer than others, but all are in motion. They came from somewhere and are going somewhere. In the meantime, they stop for respite and nurture, adding to the richness of the ecosystem.