Tag Archives: erosion

Living at the Bottom of a Hill

Living at the Bottom of a Hill    —by Jinny Batterson

When we first purchased our most recent home, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to its topography.  Mostly I noticed that it was within easy walking distance of the home where one of our grown children then lived. Another plus to our downsize-for-retirement condo was that it was only about 10 minutes’ drive from our regional airport—a boon for visiting further-off family and friends. It sat on a small lot on one of two adjacent loops of privately maintained road near a major interstate in the central North Carolina piedmont. 

I soon warmed to the flexibility and freedom that living in a condo afforded: exterior maintenance, including most lawn care and landscaping, was handled by our homeowners’ association for a small monthly fee. Because our unit’s previous owners had been handy do-it-yourselfers, initially we had little indoor maintenance, either. For the first couple of years we owned the place, we spent as much time away from it traveling as we did “at home,” finding it in good shape whenever we returned.   

It was not until my first year of living in the condo full-time that I discovered a few downsides to our new living quarters. Along with the maintenance provided by the condo association came a good many rules and restrictions, some of which I learned about only after violating them. Then there was the smallness of the yard—rather than the previous acre-plus I’d had to garden in, the area of land that went with our unit was tiny: a small sliver in front and another small sliver with a northern exposure in back between an overhanging deck and a common area of woodland. The worst, though, was storm drainage.

front walk in hard rain

The four-unit building where we had one of the middle units sat near the bottom of a rather steep hill. Whenever we had what my mom would have called a “gully washer,” puddles formed along our front walk. Water seeped through our unfinished basement, whose back area of concrete slab was about ten feet lower than its roughly graded dirt-floored front. Rainwater from buildings further up the slopes came rushing down, washing away sod and lawn, silting in our minuscule back yard, causing deepening gashes in the landscape, piling up gravel and debris against bases of trees in the woodland commons, accelerating disease and decay. 

front yard washing away

Walking or driving in other areas of our hilly town, I took note of large scale efforts to deal with this “bottom of the hill” effect: retaining walls twenty or more feet high, stream buffers of woodland and brush, gravel or paved greenways along creeks, truckloads and truckloads of rocks and pebbles dumped along steep slopes and into low-lying areas, retention ponds of many sizes and shapes.

I became a late-life-learner about the rudiments of smaller-scale erosion control—appropriate landscape plants, rain gardens, check dams, terracing, mulch, mulch, and more mulch. Within the confines of our HOA’s covenants, sometimes to the annoyance of my neighbors, I’ve tried to find ways to reduce storm run-off and redirect it into less destructive channels. Progress is slow and intermittent. My guess is that there will never be a permanent solution, and that as the climate continues to change, the challenges of living near the bottoms of hills will become more severe.

Still, I’ve decided, there’s no better landscape in which to live. Flat areas can be just as damaged by prolonged rain events as hills. (Remember 2016’s Hurricane Matthew in eastern North Carolina or 2017’s Hurricane Harvey in Houston?) Living on the crests of hills or mountains poses other challenges—water supplies do not arrive uphill unaided; lightning favors ridge tops. So I’ll keep working at stewarding this little plot that is mine for a time. By and by, the gullies may wash less destructively.             

Hauling Rocks Uphill

Hauling Rocks Uphill     —by Jinny Batterson

My particular piedmont town has experienced dramatic population growth in the past half century—nearly a thirty-fold increase. However, the steepest slopes of our region, sculpted as it is with lots of hills and gullies, restrict or defy human building. These areas have often been allotted to park use, with bicycle and walking paths at their base: greenways. As a recent arrival, I’m not sure, walking our greenways between tract home developments, condos, and apartment complexes, what our landscape looked like when far fewer people lived here. One thing I’m fairly certain of, though: in times past, there were fewer jagged rocks lining our freshets and streams. 

A large granite quarry sits at the north edge of town. Throughout the area, many recesses in our ravines are filled with angular mid-to-large-sized rocks trucked in from the quarry. Rocks line our bridge approaches and help terrace the steepest washes.  These rocks aren’t nearly as scenic as naturally rounded river stones would be, but they help reduce erosion and serve to slow run-off when we have sudden downpours, which happens fairly often these days. Over time, some of the stones get covered with vegetation, leaves, or mosses, and blend better with their surroundings.   

Geologists have elaborated a plate-tectonic theory of earth’s crust that goes a long way toward explaining our peaks and valleys—as tectonic plates collide, mountains are pushed up. Elevations shift. Former sea beds get elevated. Yet, over geological time, even the tallest mountains are worn down by erosion, their rocks dissolving into sand or soil or carried back still-formed into the seas.

Until I moved here, much of my context about hauling rocks came from an ancient Greek myth and its modern French retelling—the story of Sisyphus.  Sisyphus was a Corinthian king who, on multiple occasions, fooled the gods and cheated death. When he finally did die, as even tricksters must, the gods took their revenge by condemning him to an eternity of pushing a large rock uphill, only to have it roll back down again once he’d reached the top. French author Albert Camus wrote a widely quoted 1942 essay in which he claimed that much of modern life had exposed mankind to Sisyphean tragedy, but that embracing life’s challenges was a way to live fully, anyway:  “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

For the past year or so, I’ve been engaged physically in a small-scale rock hauling effort of my own, shoring up the pad surrounding our heat pump, trying to reduce erosion and run-off in our fairly steep yard by hand-carrying surplus rocks up from a nearby floodplain. My landscaping efforts are not perfect, but they seem to help a little.  This past Christmas, I visited a small mountain resort town in California and stayed at a country inn whose previous owners had laboriously hauled lots and lots of rounded stones from nearby creek beds. They used the stones to craft a huge stone-and-masonry fireplace, plus a massive interior wall that was as beautiful as the fireplace was functional.     

The present era seems to be a time when many of us also are engaged in figurative rock-hauling. Institutions of self-government that we long took for granted seem under stress, eroding, being carried downhill toward a totalitarian sea.  It can seem daunting to write one more letter, attend one more demonstration, make one more phone call, have one more discussion across ideological lines, pray one more prayer. And yet this work is just as necessary as physical rock-hauling. Even when human societies get warped by fear and hatred, it’s still necessary to continue—we, too, must stay happy in the struggle toward the heights.