Heading back from the Atchafalaya we had to stop to get gas. The gas station at the exit had a big sign which said “TIGER,” which I presumed was just a local filling station’s way of copying Exxon, which used (uses?) a tiger as its mascot. But this was Louisiana, of course, so it had to be more insane than that. ”Oh my God,” Randy said. ”I’ve heard of this place. I never knew it was here.”
At the gas station, in a large cage, was a live tiger. Of course there was. It was Louisiana. The tiger was called “Tony,” and apparently it had been the subject of political controversy: animal rights activists wanted the tiger out of there.
Everywhere there were signs claiming that Tony was happy and loved and so forth. He certainly didn’t look abused – he was fast asleep when I saw him – but of course a cage at a gas station is no place for a Bengal tiger. (Then again, a Manhattan apartment is no place for a kitty-cat either, nor is alone all day in an empty home any way for a dog to live). Tony had apparently become a flashpoint for the “culture wars”: you could get t-shirts that said
ANIMAL RIGHTS ACTIVISTS
taste like chicken
THERE’S A PLACE FOR ALL GOD’S CREATURES
right next to the biscuits and gravy
and so forth. Angry signs told the story:
Animal Rights Organizations Like ALDF, PETA, And HSUS Want To Ascribe Equal Rights To Animals. We Will Lose Property Rights To Own Any Animals. Animal Rights Terrorists Are Anti-Hunting, Anti-Fishing, Anti-Circus, And Anti-Caging. We Will No Longer Be Able To Use Animals For Entertainment, Horse Drawn Buggies, Hunt Or Raise Them For Food, Cage Them, Or For Medical Research. Animal Rights Activists Are Vegetarian And Their Ultimate Goal Is No Meat On Our Plates.
The anger, the sense of victimhood, the demonizing of the other side – all very interesting. For more visit their site.
Heading back to New Orleans from the Atchafalaya I spoke with Randy about the possibility of the Corps opening distributaries from the Mississippi in order to build the coastline back up. The way he spoke had been encouraging. He spoke of the current model – channeling the river so it flows fast and deep straight to the deep water of the Gulf – as being great for navigation (which was what the Corps had been empowered by congressional mandate to engineer the river for) but wasteful of an important natural resource – the sediments carried by the river. “Like I told you, once they get shot into deep water, they’re unrecoverable,” he said. “It’s a waste.”
“So what has the Corps been doing?”
“Well,” he said, looking behind him to merge onto the highway and dropping into high gear, “this is all very new. But we have several sediment distribution pipelines that we’ve been putting into the river, so we can dump the sediments into the swamps and marshes.”
“I saw some coming up, I think. What do they look like?”
“They’re just pipes. You see them coming up over the levee?”
“Precisely. Well, the idea sounds great.”
“Well, there’s been opposition,” he said. “See, here in Louisiana there’s always opposition. There’s so many interests all around the river; some people have homes, some people have businesses, there’s crawfish fishermen, oyster fishermen, shrimp fishermen, and they all want different things. And basically, no one wants it in their back yard. We have another big spillway, which you’ll see as you bike up, the Bonnet Carre spillway, which enters Lake Pontchartrain. People don’t like us using this, because when we dump all those sediments into the lake you get a big algae bloom which kills the fish in the lake. And it’s not very pretty, and people have all their lakeside homes right there.”
Atchafalaya Basinkeeper was an example of this. They were complaining that the Atchafalaya basin was silting up – in other words, it was receiving sediments. This was changing the ecosystem, and in particular turning swamp into bottomland forest. This was bad for the existing forest. But the other options were probably worse. If the river came down the Atchafalaya, it would completely alter the existing ecosystem, flooding out some parts and dumping huge banks of silt and mud elsewhere. And the only way it would not come down the Atchafalaya is if the Corps kept on doing what it was doing: by putting sediment there, it was slowly building up the level of the basin – plugging the hole, so to speak. Lake Pontchartrain was another good candidate for receiving sediment: it was the ocean lapping right at the edge of New Orleans. It was dangerous. “I think Lake Pontchartrain should just get filled in and turned into swamp completely.”
“Right. You can imagine how that would go over with the people who have their houses there. ‘We’re going to take your nice lakeside property and turn it into a mosquito hole.’ It’d be safer for New Orleans, although I’d say that New Orleans really does benefit from having all that navigable water on its north side. There are tradeoffs. There are always tradeoffs.”
“I read about the Corps sediment diversions online, and read that some of the opposition was for environmental reasons: the water is not clean – it contains pesticides and agricultural runoff and pharmaceuticals and all sorts of other things in it, and there was a study done suggesting that diversions from the river will kill the swamp vegetation, making the coast even more vulnerable to being ripped apart by storm surges.”
“Right. That’s possible. And that’s why the Corps projects are small. We’re just running pipelines. It’s nothing like the Atchafalaya. The Atchafalaya is thirty percent of the water.”
“What are the diversion pipelines?”
“Oh, less than one percent. Much less than one percent.”
“Is that going to be able to do anything?”
“Probably not,” he said. “But you have to start small. The Corps has never rebuilt a coastline. That’s never been part of the mission. We don’t have experience doing this. No one really has any experience doing this. So you can’t just rush into it.”
“But isn’t there some kind of urgency on this project? The coast is losing thirty square miles every year.”
“Well, that’s why we’re doing the pipelines, despite the fact that some people say we shouldn’t even be doing that.”
I found myself thinking of the lady at the post office in Pointe a la Hache, who said that it was too late and everything should have been done fifty years ago. Sero sapiunt Phryges, the Trojans are too late wise.
“Are there any thoughts of opening up the old distributaries like Bayou Plaquemines, or building a new spillway for the area south of New Orleans?”
He just shook his head as if in polite condescension to someone who just didn’t understand the world very well. “Those would be big, big projects,” he said. “You have to understand, the Atchafalaya can take all this water because it’s not developed. Look around here, there’s no one here. But everywhere lower on the Mississippi, shit John you saw it as you came up, there’s houses and people and businesses all along that river. Big distributary projects would expose thousands of being to being flooded out. Projects like that are going to require a huge mandate, which we don’t have. People don’t want the Corps or the government in general making decisions as to who is going to get flooded.”
“But the coast probably does need to get flooded in order to survive.”
He looked at me and laughed. “That’s the problem. You see, it’s like I’ve been telling you, the Corps is subject to our political system. If we don’t have a mandate we’re not going to do it. The only reason we can flood Morgan City if we need to is we had a mandate to keep the Mississippi River where it was. But sediment distribution is going to be a much harder sell.”
The problem, in short, was this: we had taken over nature’s management of the river, and replaced it with our political system. This actually functioned reasonably well – I am not a pessimist in these matters – but it functioned slowly and typically lurched forward in reaction to disasters. There was, in fact, demand for rebuilding the coastline. And I think there were potential candidates for locations for replacing the levees with dams that could be opened to flood the swamps. At West Pointe a la Hache, for instance, there is a clear channel from the river to the swamp without towns or businesses; and both north and south of Pointe a la Hache on the eastbank there were several possible locations. These would be big projects, but they would be necessary. In the end, the only way forward was a more accurate imitation of nature’s system of distributaries throughout the delta. But in the meantime, it looked like the coast erosion was going to get very bad.
“One percent isn’t going to do very much, is it?” I asked. “The coastline was maintained by getting one hundred percent of the river-water in the past.”
“No, it’s probably not.”
Two, three, or five percent isn’t going to do very much either, is it?”
I think most people whose love of nature is undimmed by mechanized life fantasize about the swamp: paddling a boat beneath a dense canopy of trees; being watched by motionless reptiles and cunning panthers; feeling the thud of living motion against the hull of your boat and wondering what it is; seeing strange blooms deep in the darkness and eyes at the edge of the campfire’s light. The swamp is primal and archetypal and hence godlike, containing its opposite; it is the generator and nourisher of life, but because it is so difficult for land animals to cross and so labyrinthinely featureless in its arrangement, it speaks to us of the danger that life always poses to life.
We were now in such a place, ducking in the high water to get beneath the buttonbushes and swamp-privets that clogged the boatways, entering dark passageways beside smooth-boled cypress and tupelos. Cottonmouths darted across our paths, intent on their course; alligators peered at us from inaccessible corners of the swamp.
But my restless mind does not stay mystical for long in an obviously distressed forest, as this was. Within minutes with the help of my guide I had learned the three tree species that were there – and in the standing water there were only three: bald cypress (Taxodium distichum – by far the dominant species), swamp tupelo, and water locust. But none of these species were regenerating. The absence of young cypress was particularly striking.
“Why aren’t they regenerating?”
“The water’s too high,” was the response. “When the Mississippi flooded naturally, any one spot might flood only once every few years. Now the Atchafalaya gets water from the Mississippi every year. The young cypresses have to have a few years of low water to get established. That way they can get above the water level. They can’t get completely covered by the floodwaters for months at a time. It kills them.”
This was part of the contradiction of the area. The Atchafalaya was one of the last great cypress swamps left. But it was a fossil ecosystem: cypresses grow slowly and can live for thousands of years, and the ones growing here were relatively old (though not terribly large). But the swamp was becoming a river – a river a third as big as the Mississippi, in fact. This would not be a problem if swamps were forming elsewhere. But they weren’t. In fact, existing swamps elsewhere on the coast were increasingly falling victim to the influx of seawater, and none of the swamp species could stand salt water. The water and sediments the swamps needed were almost all in two places: in the Mississippi, where they were channeled behind levees and shot into deep water into the Gulf, where they never became part of any freshwater ecosystem, and in the Atchafalaya.
The fact that the swamp could only take a few floods per decade was indicative of the basic problem with nature: its terribly complexity, a complexity far greater than human thought, which is simple. As soon as we interrupt a natural system, we take upon ourselves the task of mimicking this complexity. We don’t typically have the patience for this kind of activity. The Atchafalaya could only reasonably serve as a floodway for the Mississippi if three or four other Atchafalayas were created, which could receive water in other years. Of course, cutting twenty-mile swaths of floodland through privately owned property would not be easy. But the Atchafalaya, big as it was, would not be able to function alone.
There was also about the place a kind of lifelessness, which I was surprised by. It was quiet – few birds, few insects, and we saw few animals. Accepting the fact that this was an unusual time – the water was very high and we did not visit a hummock where the animals might gather in the high-water – there is also simply the fact that this is a highly disturbed ecosystem. “The most important plants here are the old cypress,” Ryan (our guide) said. “That’s because they develop holes and cavities. The wood is extremely rot-resistant, so even with holes in them the trees can last for a long time. Since the birds and mammals can’t live on the ground or in the water, they need big, old trees.”
“And they’re all gone,” I said.
“They’re not all gone, but they’re mostly gone. I’ll show you one, there’s one in this way.” He turned the boat and we came up within a minute or two to a six-foot-diameter tree. “See this one here? The whole swamp was full of trees like this – and a lot bigger ones, too. There’s only one reason why this tree was left.” We circled around it and could see – it was hollow. “There was no wood inside it. It’s just a shell. Now, it’s important – trees like this are perfect habitat – but look around. There are just a few of these trees around here. I can basically take you to each one, it’s like you get to know them individually. But the swamp used to be filled with these.”
“How old is this tree?”
“You can’t take a coring of a hollow tree, but based on the way these grow, it’s probably over a thousand years old.”
“They grow slowly.”
“They grow really slowly.”
“Even though we’re in the subtropics.”
“You can tell they grow slowly from the logging industry. That’s one of the things we’re fighting against. Basically, these trees grow so slowly, and are so important, that we think they should be protected. But most of this land is private land. You can log in most of the basin and people do. But the trees grow so slowly that now most of it is either mining the cypress – that’s when they find old trees under the water, and they don’t rot, so you can pull them out and still use them – or they cut the trees down when they’re small and use them for mulch. It would take too long even to wait for them to become lumberable trees.”
“I read that your father had put pressure on Lowe’s and Home Depot and got them to stop selling cypress mulch from Louisiana.”
“Yeah, that was one of the things we did here at Basinkeeper. But we just found out there’s an operation going on in Baton Rouge where they’re chipping up the young cypress and shipping them to Europe. Europe has some new regulations coming into effect about generating a certain percentage of their electricity from sustainable sources, so they’re switching from coal to burning wood chips at some of their plants. And they can get cheap woodchips from the Atchafalaya. Cypress woodchips.”
Basinkeeper was apparently trying to put pressure on the Louisiana government, but that was an uphill battle to say the least, despite the fact that the coastal wetlands are demonstrably the only truly effective hurricane protection for Louisiana’s biggest city. Louisiana was asking for federal money to rebuild its wetlands but did not want to tell private landholders what they could do with their land – the thinking being that if they wanted to make woodchips out of the wetlands they could go ahead and do it. It’s a free country.
The more time I spent with the cypresses, the more I was amazed. Their needles resemble the needles of sequoias, and they are, in fact, related. Living in hurricane country, the cypresses could never get as tall as the sequoias, but I suspect that the cypress forests that greeted Bienville and the other first Frenchmen here were as grand as the forests of the Sierras. The sequoias were preserved while the cypresses perished simply because it was so much more practical to kill the cypresses: while the sequoias fell and shattered and then had to be lugged down dry mountainsides, the cypresses plopped softly into the water and could be floated on out almost without effort to the Big Easy, which, it is no exaggeration to say, is a city of cypress.
Inveni urbem taxodinam, taxodinam reliqui.
Cypress is the reason why New Orleans is so beautiful today: all the filigree on all the houses is cypress, and even if left unpainted and neglected for decades the stuff does not rot. It is mealy-grained and odd-colored and was never used by the wealthy for finer purposes, and so the endless abundance of the swamps was used not for furniture but for building, and building anything and everything: bridges and mansions and fences and slave-quarters and shotgun-shacks and cheap mass-produced filigree, all of which gives New Orleans the appearance of being the most meticulous city in America for preservation, when in reality it is just lucky to have been surrounded by a whole hell of a lot of cypress.
Six hundred years will not be enough to grow those forests back, and it is still not clear where they would even have a chance to grow right now. Regeneration on the Atchafalaya, the country’s largest stand of bald cypress, is currently stalled.
“You can see here, when all the trees are gone, a lot of times what comes in is willow,” our guide said, “and that creates a totally different type of ecosystem.” The willow – I could not identify it to species, but it may be an exotic invader – grows like an overgrown bush, only twenty to thirty feet tall, fast-growing, fast-dying, and not creating the kind of deep shade and old-growth forest habitat the cypress and tupelo do.
The tupelos impressed me too. They do not, at first glance, look like the tupelos of the Catskills: they get extremely fat butts when growing in water, and as flowering, berrying trees they are a crucial food source for pollinators and birds in the swamp.
We saw few other plants in the swamp, which disappointed me, but the ground was so flooded there were little forbs to be seen. There was much buttonbush and swamp-privet, and on slightly higher ground much of the palustrine senecio native to the area. But there were not too many flowers.
“You want some flowers?” Ryan asked. “Take a look at this.” He reached over a plucked some Spanish moss from a tree. “It’s flowering now.”
And there, amidst the gray links of the moss – which is not a moss but a flowering plant – was a little orange flower. I was amazed – I had seen these everywhere and never stopped to notice their flowers. I loved them as I love all the small, unnoticed beauties of life.
But coming back from the tour I was pensive and even melancholy. There are times when I wish I had some other brain, that considered and imagined and appreciated less; or that would only appreciate what was there, and not look in the forest for the young trees to check its health, or ask why so many trees were the same age and suspect that the whole place had been logged at some point. I could feel how beautiful the swamp had once been; I could imagine what an uninterrupted forest of old-growth cypress would be like – a place to make the worshipper in all of us stand dumb with awe. And we had destroyed it.
Randy and I had contacted Dean Wilson, the legendary founder of the Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, to arrange a tour of the area. Wilson is a member of one of the most exclusive clubs in the world, the Louisiana environmentalists. Conditions in Louisiana do not tend to generate environmentalists. Not only is the state, which is one of the reddest of all red states, fundamentally committed to extraction industries, but the tropical abundance creates a sense of infinite permissibility for infinite abuse. Things grow back; animals return; the whole thing seems inexhaustible. I had expected to find a dead zone out in the Gulf and instead I found porpoises and pelicans and pogiefish; this was a place you could abuse and abuse and abuse and still find living and willing later.
Or so it appears on the outside. What I saw in the Atchafalaya gave me a sense of the tremendous problems southern Louisiana faces after centuries of environmental indifference.
The positives, however, cannot be overlooked. The Atchafalaya is in many ways an example of what could be. It is enclosed by levees, but whereas the Mississippi levees begin at river’s edge and limit the river’s width to something under two miles, the Atchafalaya is twenty miles wide, a wonderland of swamp in its upper reaches and marsh by the coast, filled with fish and birds and raccoons and alligators, and even bears and panthers. It is the single most significant wild area at the base of the Mississippi Flyway, one of the continent’s great corridors for migratory birds; because it receives a substantial percentage of the Mississippi’s water, it is almost the only wetland area in southern Louisiana whose existence is not fundamentally threatened. In fact, it is growing: the swamps are silting up, marsh is becoming swamp, and open water by the Gulf is becoming marsh.
But this growth is, in itself, something of a problem. Thirty percent of the Mississippi’s water, even spread out over twenty miles, is an incredible amount of water and sediment. The existing ecosystems are shifting rapidly. Swamps are forests whereas marshlands are grass, but it takes decades for forests to pioneer new territory. The Atchafalaya is hence gaining soil depth but losing forest cover, not least because of the fact that most of its land is in private hands and is logged.
Randy and I drove through Morgan City on our way, one of the chief cities of the Cajuns. It is the home of the Louisiana Shrimp and Petroleum Festival – an event which seems to sum up the contradictions of this part of the world fairly well. An image of a shrimp wrapped around an oil rig greeted us as we drove into town.
“Morgan City has a kind of strange relationship with the Corps,” Randy said. “It’s a city of about ten thousand people. New Orleans, including the metro area, is over a million. Part of our official protocol in dealing with a major flood on the Mississippi is that we will open up the Morganza Spillway, which is one of the structures connecting the Mississippi and Atchafalaya. In essence, if things get too hot for New Orleans, official policy is that we’ll just send the water to Morgan City. Morgan City is right in the middle of the Atchafalaya – on an island right at the mouth of the river. And its levees are nowhere near as high as those in New Orleans. And in particular the levees facing the Atchafalaya are pretty weak. We opened the Morganza Spillway in 2011, and the Atchafalaya was able to handle the water, but still it was touch and go. If we had more water come down when we opened it that would have been the end of Morgan City. And of course if the Old River Control Structures keeping the Mississippi from the Atchafalaya ever fail, Morgan City will get completely destroyed for sure.”
“On the other hand,” I said, “if the Old River Control Structure weren’t there, Morgan City would be gone already.”
“For sure. We almost lost control of the river in the flood in 1973 – the Old River Control Structure very nearly failed and collapsed. If that had happened, we’d be floating in the middle of the Mississippi right now.”
McPhee writes about that event – he says that a camera was put down into the water by the dam to inspect the foundations under the water. All the camera saw was fish. The foundations were almost completely gone. The Corps poured everything it had into the breach to save it for the time being, and then build a new structure.
We came into Bayou Sorrel, where we were meeting Dean Wilson’s son. We met at a little convenience store, where I stopped in to use the bathroom. In the bathroom two pairs of white rubber boots – Coonass Reeboks – hung on a rack. Over the toilet was a sign: DO NOT THROW TAMPONS, PAPER TOWELS, OR TOILET PAPER IN TOILET PLEASE PUT IN TRASH CAN!!! Someone wrote over this: “What about a Pigeonite without his white rubber boots and a 12pk of Natural Light under his arm?” A Pigeonite is a Cajun from nearby Bayou Pigeon. None of the Cajuns are known for their good taste in beer.
Behind the counter was a pretty young brunette, who looked like she could dance the fastest zydeco numbers around; the liveliness of these people is always amazing to me, sweltering in their tropical heat.
The young Mr. Wilson was in place. He was dark-haired and wiry, a bit more angular than the average Cajun, and still in college, studying ecology and environmental science . Like so many in Louisiana he did not seem to have any problems about following in his father’s footsteps: he was proud to be doing what his father did, though he acknowledged he had a ways to go before he could equal his father’s knowledge. ”I’m sorry he couldn’t take you out himself. He really knows the stuff like you can’t believe. But I’ll do my best.”
He led us over to the boat launch where we boarded a little pirogue, he fired it up and off we went. At first we followed one of the main channels of the Atchafalaya, whose water was high – springtime – and with a good current. This channel is part of the intracoastal waterway, an inland water route allowing boats to move up and down the coast without ever entering open ocean. Boats heading west come up the Mississippi and then come through a canal to the Atchafalaya. We saw typical river traffic here, including a large number of barges. We then pulled off the main channel and plunged into the swamp.
As a person who thinks about things as opposed to just doing them, I generally understand human catastrophes. Human catastrophes are typically the result of thought – the result of some kind of understanding of the world. Any understanding of the world is necessarily limited, and when people act enough on such limited apprehensions, catastrophes are a common result.
Not that long ago, the Mississippi River was thought of as the source of the water for southern Louisiana. And it is. And since southern Louisiana is prone to flooding – flooding being an excess of water – the thought was that flooding could be controlled by controlling the river. I understand systems of thought like this perfectly well, and I understand how people fall right into them. The Mississippi is now tightly behind levees, which have not been breached since 1927. And yet if you look at a map comparing the Louisiana coastline of 1927 with that of today, you see that the entire southern part of the state is falling into a permanent state of flood – vanishing bit by bit into the ocean. The total loss is around 30 square miles every year – an area larger than Manhattan island getting bitten off from the coastline every year.
This was not happening until the river was effectively encased behind levees. So what happened? The problem, as so often, lies in the basic premise. Stand on the bank of the river and watch the river flow by: it is easy to apprehend that the Mississippi is the source of the area’s water. It is less easy to apprehend that the Mississippi is also the source of the area’s land. When the river does not flood the land – and it is currently not allowed to – it drops no sediments on it. Over time the goopy land compacts and subsides, and the ocean eats away at it, and there is less and less land every year. Lower Louisiana is getting flooded by the sea because we do not allow the Mississippi to flood it anymore.
Human beings have lived with floods for thousands of years, but someone apprehended that they were inconvenient at best and extremely dangerous at worst, and now not even in Egypt are rivers allowed their normal cycles of flood and dryness when people can help it. But it is now recognized that the people of the true Mississippi Delta – i.e. the land south of Baton Rouge, not the area between Vicksburg and the Peabody Hotel – will have to find some way to restore or artificially mimic the ancient floods of the river in order to have a land at all.
Going about this will be exceptionally difficult. We are talking about an area comprising thousands of square miles, which cannot survive as land without being periodically flooded – an area, moreover, which is thickly populated now and is also home to “the American Ruhr” or “Cancer Alley,” several hundred miles of chemical plants, oil refineries, grain elevators, coal transfer facilities, and all the other dirty businesses that can use the Mississippi’s ample water and ocean access. None of these homes or businesses are built to be flooded. The political problems involved in flooding out people’s land – and it is almost all privately owned – are almost infinite. Nor can sediments possibly be trucked in in sufficient supply to make any difference to the coastline. Only the river can possibly provide what the area needs in order to remain land. But the river is hemmed in, and kept there – by act of the U.S. Congress, and its enforcers, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
So I decided to take a trip out to the Atchafalaya Basin with Randy Perrin, an engineer for the Corps, who happens to be one of my friends from my days in New Orleans. The Atchafalaya – a river running to the west of the Mississippi, reaching the sea right in the middle of the Louisiana coast – was a quiet, natural area, a perfect backdrop for conversation, first of all, but also more than that. The Atchafalaya is a comparatively healthy river ecosystem. In fact, it is one of the few areas on the Louisiana coastline which is growing – land is being added, because the Atchafalaya still floods relatively normally.
But it also represents the single greatest engineering problem on the Mississippi river, a problem so brilliantly and thoroughly dissected by John McPhee in his 1987 essay “Atchafalaya” that no one has bothered to talk about the problem much since. When people think about the problems of New Orleans, they think of Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures on the Industrial Canal, Lake Pontchartrain, and the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet. But those are small problems compared with the danger the Atchafalaya poses. Storm surges recede. But the Atchafalaya has the potential to destroy New Orleans entirely by severing its connection to the river.
The Atchafalaya is, by itself, a tiny river, draining part of Louisiana. But several hundred years ago, the Mississippi eroded a bend for itself which touched the Atchafalaya. At the point of contact, the rivers were at the same level, but the Atchafalaya reached the sea in half the distance the Mississippi did. Do the math: that means its slope is twice as steep. In times of flood, when the Mississippi was high, the differential was even greater. Slowly but surely, the Atchafalaya started to capture the Mississippi, each year taking more and more water. By 1950, the Atchafalaya had captured one-third of the water of the Mississippi and the process was accelerating. It was headed for complete capture: a new river, the Mississifalaya.
This would be a complete disaster for all the river towns south of Baton Rouge, and primarily New Orleans. The riverbed at New Orleans is 180 feet deep, and the only thing keeping the ocean from rushing in and turning the riverbed into a sluggish brackish estuary is the constant pressure of the water coming downstream. Without fresh water in the river, the city would lose its water supply, and without flow, its sewage system. Cancer Alley would suffer the same fate – without access to the garden hose known as the Mississippi none of the old factories and refineries would be able to function. They would be abandoned within years.
The Army Corps of Engineers stepped into the gap, building a series of massive dams between the Mississippi and Atchafalaya, and stabilizing the Atchafalaya’s flow at thirty percent of the Mississippi. The result has become the Corps’ first experiment in distributing Mississippi water into other outlets, and an example of how the coastline could be rebuilt by using the river. In that way it has been a success. But the same basic problem remains: the river wants to abandon New Orleans, and it seems to be merely waiting for its opportunity. “The Mississippi River,” as McPhee observes,
with its sand and silt, has created most of Louisiana, and it could not have done so by remaining in one channel. If it had, southern Louisiana would be a long narrow peninsula reaching into the Gulf of Mexico. Southern Louisiana exists in its present form because the Mississippi River has jumped here and there within an arc about two hundred miles wide, like a pianist playing with one hand—frequently and radically changing course, surging over the left or the right bank to go off in utterly new directions. Always it is the river’s purpose to get to the Gulf by the shortest and steepest gradient. As the mouth advances southward and the river lengthens, the gradient declines, the current slows, and sediment builds up the bed. Eventually, it builds up so much that the river spills to one side.
A glance at the map shows the extent of the problem. The Mississippi has, in fact, become a long narrow peninsula reaching into the Gulf of Mexico – I had biked and seen precisely that, with open water on both sides – while nearer parts of the Louisiana coastline are nutrient-starved lowlands just waiting to capture the river. The most obvious spot is West Cote Blanch Bay, the northernmost intrusion of open Gulf water on the coast. If you were charged with distributing sediments along the Louisiana coast, this would be the place you’d start – it looks like the hungriest spot. It is also almost precisely the mouth of the Atchafalaya. Nature was working perfectly. But man had changed nature’s workings – or perhaps just postponed them.
Whether or not this project of attempting to make the Mississippi do something it had never done before – stay in one channel – would work is a question which we can leave until I got a look at the dams I found upriver, the Old River Control Structures where the Mississippi and Atchafalaya touch. As Randy Perrin said, “If you’re asking me if we can prevent the Mississippi from going down the Atchafalaya, I’ll say of course we can. Until we can’t. It really is just a question of mathematics. If you have a big enough mountain, the river will take a long time to get through it. If you have people to maintain that mountain, the river will never get through it. Unless there’s something you can’t predict. Something that’s not in anybody’s equation. And generally, something you can’t predict happens eventually.”
But it might be possible that the big dam holding the Mississippi off from the Atchafalaya might be too successful – here was something which did not enter the equation at all. The Mississippi was being held off from the entire Gulf coast, and its sediments were being routed out to sea and shot into deep water. The result was the collapse of the coastline. This made the entire area susceptible to storm surge – a process which would work gradually, but eventually eat the whole coast away if some solution were not found.
And the Corps was now looking into solutions. “Basically the buzzwords now around the Corps are sediments, nutrients, capturing sediments,” Randy told me as we drove away from Johnny Angel’s house. “We’re looking at that as a resource that we’re supposed to conserve. Right now, we’re shooting all those sediments into the Gulf. They can never be recovered there. They’ll be lost. We’re seeing that as a problem now.”
“Why wasn’t that seen as a problem before?”
“Well, you have to understand the way the Corps works. The Corps really was never here to manage the river in some holistic sense. The Corps has very specific mandates from Congress. First it was navigation – the Corps was involved with improving navigation on U.S. waterways. You can see that making sense from a military standpoint, the same way roads are a military concern. Then it was flood control. Really it was the Great Flood of 1927 that got the Corps involved in flood control and the levees. Basically, they saw that state agencies were not reliable during a big flood, because one state would fight against another state trying to get the river to flood somebody else’s land. There had to be someone impartial – or at least less partial – involved. If you want to read about there’s a great book, called, Rising Tide, about how the Corps started really paying attention to the river after that flood. That flood was a disaster, and it was clear that something had to change.”
And the Corps had, in fact, changed things. In 2011, the Mississippi River had the greatest flood it has ever had, and yet you have probably never heard of it. The river was carrying twenty-five percent more water than the 1927 flood, and yet very little damage was done. The Corps had managed the situation brilliantly – including making politically difficult decisions to blow levees. This had been done in Missouri and Arkansas, in sparsely settled farmland. Those farmers, of course, did not like the situation, but the needs of the many had outweighed the needs of the few.
“So anyway, that was what the Corps did, navigation and flood control on rivers. Shipping and the economy. That was our mandate from Congress. We didn’t really do anything else. So people who complain about building up the coastline, that wasn’t part of the mandate. If it was part of the mandate we would have a program. But that has to come from Congress. So the environment has always been something of an afterthought for the Corps. And hey, you can blame Congress for that. But in recent years the Congress has given us a new mandate to also do projects for environmental restoration.”
And the fundamental environmental restoration work that had to go on was restoring the relationship of the river to the wetlands around it – a relationship where the river nourishes the whole coast. And so we were headed for the Atchafalaya, to take a look at the one part of the Louisiana coastal wetland that was growing. The Atchafalaya had been seen as a problem: it might just be the solution.
Looking over John McPhee’s masterful essay Atchafalaya – which if you’ve never read you should just go and do – I am struck by the improvements made by our computers’ optical-recognition software. Presumably the New Yorker will fix this at some point, so we must enjoy these nuggets while we can:
Very early in the morning, a low fog had covered the fields. The sun, just above the horizon, was large and ruddy in the mist, rising slowly, like a hot-air baboon.
McPhee is fabulous, but no one is expecting him to have been great enough to come up with “rising slowly, like a hot-air baboon” without electronic assistance.
When I woke up on Sunday I realized I had another busy day before me: I was going to stay one more night with Johnny; and during the day I would be heading out to see the Atchafalaya River with an Army Corps engineer. But I didn’t want to leave New Orleans without seeing the Lower Ninth Ward, so I hopped on my bike and headed for the east end of town.
I was surprised by what I saw: the Lower Ninth Ward was recovering. Five years ago, there was nothing there; two years ago I had seen a few homes financed by Brad Pitt. Now there were quite a few houses, with cars parked in the driveways and mowed lawns and everything. It was actual progress – visible progress.
Of course, like all earthly things of substance, it cast a shadow. The complete destruction of the Lower Ninth Ward – one of the very lowest and least desirable building-areas in the region – had suggested that perhaps that area should not be redeveloped. New Orleans did not even come close to filling its footprint, and it would be desirable for the city to take certain streets off the grid: this would mean a savings of pavement, sewer pipes, and lighting. Since the city had only half the population it had fifty years ago, contraction had to occur someplace, and the areas that were most dangerous to build in were probably the best places for contraction to occur.
But the Lower Ninth Ward became a symbol, and people live by symbols. To give up on it seemed like defeat, not prudence; and the city would not accept defeat. The fact that it was a symbol was the thing which convinced me that I did not want to leave New Orleans without seeing it: would the city give up on it as a hopeless endeavor, and put its energies elsewhere, or continue the rebuilding?
Now there is a real neighborhood there. It is, of course, not filled in – honestly, you can go three blocks from the French Quarter, the heart of the city, and find empty lots and abandoned buildings – but it is functioning. I did not see a bearded lady there, but that was probably because I was looking this time.
All in all, I felt it was foolhardy – I would have put an alligator park there – but I have to admit, I was glad to see it thriving. New Orleans was making itself hard to kill – and I admired it for that. And my next stop would be a thorough investigation of the thing most likely to kill New Orleans – something not even most New Orleanians are aware of. It was the Atchafalaya River.
Johnny had turned his place into a kind of refuge for the various flotsam and jetsam that floated down the river, of the male kind; I had been one of Johnny’s Boys for awhile, when I came down to New Orleans after my divorce. I had money in my bank account and had spent six months in my cabin pretty much just thinking – watching the trees sway in the breeze in the summer, and watching the leaves fall in autumn. But when winter came it turned bitterly cold, and I found that I had not cut enough wood. And I was unhappy, in general. Then there were four consecutive nights when the temperature hit twenty degrees below zero, and the waste-pipe for my toilet froze. I decided to just pick up and leave – and that is exactly what I did. When a friend came to check up on the house a few months later, he said, “Boy John you weren’t kidding when you said you just picked up and left. There’s a half-eaten sandwich and a frozen bottle of Pepsi on the table!”
I kept on driving south, unhappy all the while, with no particular plan except that I knew I needed warmth; I hit the Gulf Coast at Panacea, Florida, and then hugged the coast west until I hit New Orleans. When I got there I knew I should stay. After a few days I found someone advertising a room for rent. It was Johnny. I went to meet him, and left with a keychain with a little angel on it. I stayed there three months, with another one of his boys, Danny, who was living in another bedroom. Danny was on drugs of some sort – maybe cocaine, maybe heroin, maybe something else, I’m not good at telling – and he worked as a waiter or busboy around town. He would miss work from time to time and get fired. “That bitch,” he would come back saying. “I missed like two days of work and the bitch fires me, just like that.” He had a girlfriend, so I kind of envied him. At first I thought she was nice, but I got the sense over time that she was a highly talented liar and so could easily fool a dupe like me into thinking she was nice: she was probably a fair amount of trouble. Her pupils were very oddly large and her body very oddly skinny, so I think she was on some kind of drug too. They’d have terrible fights in the middle of the night, and once or twice I intervened because I thought he was going to hurt her. For whatever reason, men hurting women makes me angry enough to kill – I can’t bear even thinking about such men.
I caught him stealing money from my room one day when I was in the shower, and I also loaned him some money at one point. When I came back to New Orleans a few years ago I thought maybe I might get the money back, because I had no money then myself; and maybe Danny’s affairs had prospered a bit (who knows). When I went to see Johnny I asked him about Danny, and he just looked at me from across his kitchen table and said, “Morte.”
“Morte.” Something about the way he avoided the word “dead” in English made it all the more forceful and impersonal and weird and cosmic. ”Some place opened up for him down in the Quarter, and he wanted to go down there. I told him, ‘Don’t do that, Danny. You got a problem, that’s a bad place. In the Quarter you can get anything anytime. You can’t go down there.’ But he wanted to go. So I called his parents. I said, ‘Get down here and get your son. He’s trying to move down into the French Quarter and he’s gonna end up dead. I’m tellin’ you he’s gonna end up dead.’ They didn’t do anything. Six months later he was dead. Overdose.”
This was Johnny to me – he was wise, he knew what he was talking about, and when things came to a head he could figure out what was right and try to make it happen. He cared too – he was really a good human being with real substance. But some things require the cooperation of the world, and they just don’t make it through. He tried to save Danny, and it hadn’t worked.
It was terrible to think about – one of the many, many New Orleans stories that don’t have any redemptive ending.
“What happened to that girl he was dating?”
“I don’t know. Which one? There were a few. But I wouldn’t know.”
In my old room at that time there was a young boy – he was maybe eighteen – who had run away from home. He was a skinny blond kid, and looked terribly, terribly young. He had ridden freight trains down to New Orleans. I couldn’t believe people still did that. Johnny helped get him a job working for a circus – I couldn’t believe people still did that either. The circuses wintered on the Gulf, and moved north in the springtime. Johnny had worked for them himself as a young man.
So he and I found ourselves seated at his old kitchen table – which hadn’t changed at all in all this time, of course, the same salt shakers, the same old clocks, the same dishes – and got caught up once again. We talked of our lovelives and then of people we knew.
“So what ever happened to that kid who came down here on the freight trains as a hobo?”
“The one who joined the circus.”
“Yeah, Kyle. He, uh – he had a little accident with an elephant.” The way Johnny said this – he’s an Italian from Staten Island, and he can go the gangster deadpan like no one’s business – was really pretty priceless.
“You’re kidding me.”
“Kind of sad. Yeah, the elephant really hurt him pretty bad. He was pretty messed up.”
I know I’m a horrible person, but again, I just couldn’t help laughing the New Orleans laugh – the desperate laugh against the absurd horror of it all. “An accident with an elephant! The elephant stomped him out!”
Johnny smiled a bit himself – it was absurd. Kyle was such an innocent little boy – it would make sense that he would not quite have the instincts to know when a large animal was telling him to buzz off. “Well, it was pretty bad. He was in the hospital for awhile.”
The current roommate Johnny had had been in a bad bicycling accident, and despite wearing a helmet had suffered serious head trauma, and his rehab process had been long and difficult. Speaking to each other I think we both knew that we too, because of our desire to live artistic lives – Johnny with his music, me with my writing – were exposed. We were fighting to make sure our story didn’t end this way.
Because there were so many bad stories. New Orleans seemed to gather them – all the loose-end men of the country: no wives, no children, no one to love them, no family that was there when it counted, no steady job, no health insurance, no property, no prospects. Like trees ripped from the banks of the river, they float down and pile up here, waiting for the next flood to shoot them out to sea.
I had been encouraged to go see Robert Plant by a groundskeeper at the Chalmette National Cemetery; and he had picked the right guy to sell me on, because I always lean towards the epic, and when you give songs titles like “The Battle of Evermore” you’re certainly at least aiming big. I’ve enjoyed some of the highlights of Plant’s later career too, songs like “Shine It All Around” or “Please Read the Letter,” so it seemed he still had at least something left. Rock music seems to be like poetry: souls involved in it have a brief shelf life, and it is rare to find someone doing vital new work after forty; those who do typically require tremendous amounts of self-reinvention and a willingness to get multiple transfusions from other artists, often from very distant artists.
Were it not for the fact that I had kept up a bit with Plant over the past decade, I would not have recognized him when he came out onstage: the curly blonde hair is there, but the face and body have so thickened and coarsened that it is hard for me to imagine him as the same person who fronted Led Zeppelin. I suppose we are all more or less sensitive to different forms of aging, as to different types of faces; and since when I look in the mirror I think my face is fleshy and graceless, I am sensitive to seeing someone age out of the grace I envy. Plant looks a great deal like an old truckdriver now, and his face looks unusually American for an old British rocker.
But you can tell he’s Plant when he sings, and I have to say, his voice is quite extraordinary, and has aged unusually well: he cannot reach the high notes anymore, but they were always screechy for him anyway, and it is just as well that he takes his songs elsewhere now. But he still has a high, powerful voice, and his lower notes have grown much richer and fuller with age.
He performed for something like an hour, his songs divided into three categories: 1) Led Zeppelin songs, usually updated with some kind of Third World flavor (the traditional Paul Simon reinvention approach) 2) covers of traditional American songs 3) his own solo music, which has a general recipe: an exotic World Music drone, a Led Zep big drum line, and some mysterious, moodful lyrics.
It’s a pleasant enough formula, and it works, though my favorite part of his show were his few ventures into the “roots” music. He sang his own version of a Bukka White song, “Fixin’ to Die Blues,” which he didn’t have to say had been in his mind when Led Zep recorded “In My Time of Dying.”
I think I sensed from him some kind of guilt at the way he and the other early British rockers plagiarized the old Blues musicians, most of whom lived and died poor while their white plagiarizers became millionaires, got knighted, and bought castles. But as Vergil said of his own thefts of Homer, people do not know how much talent it takes to steal from a master. The old Blues music was full of all kinds of material suited for the radio, but it needed a great deal of transformation before that would be possible. People like Page and Plant and Clapton added a great deal – and a great deal that was great too – and you can hear it when comparing Plant’s version of Fixin to Die Blues [embedded] and the original; some people will prefer the original, but Plant’s is different and certainly more popular in treatment. “In My Time of Dying” is even further developed.
Blues music is mostly for white people now, and the old power it had – witness Son House – is buried with those old black men who sleep in those graveyards from Mississippi to Michigan. But I had no problems listening to Plant sing these songs – oddly enough, a life of sex, drugs, and Rock n’ Roll seemed to have provided misery enough. Plant as he sang did in fact sound like he knew what it meant to be fixing to die.
The material of the song– being on one’s deathbed – is suited to the genre, and highly expressive in all its several lyrical versions.
Feeling funny in my mind [other version: “in my eyes”]
Believe I’m fixing to die.
Feeling funny in my mind -
I believe I’m fixing to die.
Lord I don’t mind dying -
But I hate to see my children cry.
Plant’s presence onstage is most impressive, and it was clear that the crowd wanted no one but him. He made strange motions to elicit applause, gently sweeping his hands down to the ground as if sweeping applause up from beneath the stage, but it was effective. He seemed above pleasing the crowd, but also above wanting to displease the crowd: being in front of a crowd was simply part of his life, and something he had to do well in order to live well. There were any number of songs I wished he had performed but didn’t – “Hey Hey What Can I Say”, or “When the Levee Breaks” – but it was a good performance, and I left with an improved opinion of the man, and a deeper curiosity about the Mississippi Delta, the cradle of all this music, where I was headed.
I will add a few notes about Jazzfest: New Orleans erupted in Jazzfest mockery a few years ago when it was announced that Bon Jovi would headline the festival – the accusation being that Bon Jovi has nothing to do with Jazz, or New Orleans, or the Blues, or anything, and his presence just showed that the festival was drifting off where all American culture was going: celebrity-worship over substance, and profitmaking above all. This accusation can be sustained, but in many ways Jazzfest has gotten so big and so popular that this is the most logical, and even the most appropriate direction for it to go. Plant and Clapton and Springsteen and Bon Jovi and all the other big-name musicians who have been at this festival in recent years are all accustomed to performing stadium music for stadium crowds; and now that Jazzfest takes place on a stadium scale, this is the only music that really works well there. The Gospel music belongs in a church; the Blues music belongs in a bar; the New Orleans brass belongs on the street. And all of those musicians do in fact perform at Jazzfest, not only at the fest itself but they perform at all sorts of venues through the city while Jazzfest goes on.
What is more, Plant and Clapton and others have also become museum pieces of a certain sort, as Rock music itself becomes another artifact of a passing cultural style. And they have much to say about the Blues and Jazz music that inspired their own styles, for they were its inheritors.
People in New Orleans were also complaining about the cost of Jazzfest – the day ticket I bought was $70 – and it was certainly the case that the crowd was upscale and almost all white. The crowd did not resemble New Orleans at all. It was mostly tourists, in fact.
I consider it one of the marks of a great Metropolitan culture to make its cultural riches accessible to its poor citizens, and I think the same should be done with Jazzfest, but I can say that there is no doubt that even as it is this great musical gathering benefits the city in myriad ways, not only as a massive local moneymaker: it employs almost all the great New Orleans acts, who are all invited, and brings them into close contact with many of the world’s great musicians, who come to perform and also to listen. And all these musicians fill the bars and clubs too, putting on all kinds of cheap shows, which all the New Orleans residents have stories about: being in the bar that night when Robert Plant came in and performed, or Mick Jagger, or Wynton Marsalis.
As for me, I pronounced myself happy with the day, and rode my bike on back to catch up with Johnny Angel.