Ditch suggests a waterway dug out by human labor to serve a specific purpose. A ravine or gully seems natural in origin, whereas a ditch or trench is artificial. Webster’s Dictionary of 1828 defines ditch as “a trench for draining wet land, or for making a fence to guard inclosures, or for preventing an enemy from approaching a town or fortress.” A ditch is a utilitarian device, then, that alters a landscape. We dig ditches in cities for laying pipes and cables. Irrigation ditches serve farmers’ needs for water. We excavate ditches to drain off swampy land, to make it productive for agriculture. Conversely, after draining off much of the water, say along the bottomlands of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, we might then dig ditches to carry water from wells and lagoons to flood these fields in the fall, to attract wild fowl for hunters. In the agricultural Midwest, drainage ditches are often lined with perforated tile after they’re dug, then buried and smoothed over. Ditches flow both ways; they can denature a habitat or restore it to its near-original condition.

Conger Beasley, Jr.