Resurrection Fern August 24, 2015Posted by The Typist in Back of Town, je me souviens, New Orleans, postdiluvian, Remember, The Journey, The Narrative, The Typist, Toulouse Street.
Tags: Grandfather Cypress, oaktrees, resurrection ferm, spanish moss, The Federal Flood
How long their beards have grown in ten years, the oaks along Roosevelt Mall. The wind, such as it was and the coast got the worst of it, stripped away much of the Spanish Moss from the oaks that stood through it all. Ten years, and now it hangs in long, Confucian threads, the oaks like monks who have stood in long silence on the high ground on what was once the spoil bank of Bayou Metairie. The Great Depression, the men who came and built much of the old park around them, the hump bridges that gave a thrill to the stomach, the widely spaced row of chiseled concrete eagles along the Mall, were as the brief passage of a gnat.
The moss is back, the Resurrection fern that lines the branches–taking its name from its habit of drying brown during dry spells but coming back after a grain, and some small fan palm has rooted in the crooks of a few where the wide base trunk divides into the branches, the lowest of which tend back toward the ground as they lengthen, granting easy access for adventurous children to scramble into the trees. The oldest oaks, the ones with names and stories–Dueling Oak, Suicide Oak, and another name I heard the other day and have forgotten because it has not been repeated since childhood–are old, older than any building in the city, older than the arrival of Europeans.
The idea that the oldest grow on the spoil bank of Bayou Metairie, the last bit of which is the one natural lagoon in the park, the one south and parallel to City Park Avenue, came to me the other day walking out for cigarettes from my girlfriend’s house in south Metairie. The crazy job of which you have heard too much of late in these virtual pages, the one that keeps me trapped in the house rather than out noticing the oaks, has started me smoking again. It was Sunday morning, and I have developed the habit of going out for a really dark cup of coffee, not the weak store-brand Colombian she buys. I needed cigarettes and set out first down toward Dolly’s gas and cafe, taking the next cross street to Canal Boulevard and there I found a cypress of incredible girth, and a crown the size of a hot air balloon, which I immediately christened Grandfather Cypress. My arms (not the longest) stretched out encompassed a third a best, perhaps only a quarter of the trunk. This tree, I thought, was so much older than south Lakeview, older than the spur track just south that grew up along what was once the Lafitte Canal toward downtown, older than Metairie Road when it was a farm-and-cattle track before the bayou was filled in ,older than the cemeteries sited at the back of town to bury the yellow fever dead far out-of-town. I have never seen a cypress of such size but I am a city boy. This tree clearly predates the city.
On my way back from coffee (in the opposite direction, up the boulevard and back toward the L&N line), I went out of my way and passed the shortest cross-street home in spite of the early morning heat of a record-setting August to see this tree again. The current owner of the house was out watering her front garden, and we spoke for a bit. The crown was once even larger, and she had called an arborist to have it cut back a bit, to make sure it would weather any storm. She told me once she described the three she didn’t have to give her address. The man know it well, a tree familiar to those whose care for trees. I did not kneel as I had meant when I broke open a cigarette and sprinkled some tobacco as an offering and said a silent prayer, much as I had on my way out when I stood in silence several minutes, my hand against its trunk. I explained before I started how I had come back to do just that, and she just smiled. She had bought the house, she said, because of that three.
Ten years since the last Great Flood, what I once called the Federal Flood for the failure of the levees, but to Grandfather Cypress and the old oaks on the river end of the park it is simply the last great flood. They have weathered many, no doubt, and survived. The City survives as well, rebuilt by what I called the 200,000, those who came back in the first year and rebuilt it with their own hands and the help of a flood of immigrants from Latin America, the children of people who built even greater cities and saw them abandoned back to the forest, or destroyed by Spanish conquistadors, the bricks of their temples taken to build the new cathedral and palaces. i wonder if they think at all of the transformations their ancestors underwent, or if they just think of the beer and dinner at the end of the day, of a weekly remittance to family back home wired from the corner store now well stocked with familiar baked goods and tubs of iced, cold Modelo.
We have our own conquistadors in our own small way, the influx settling into and transforming the old neighborhoods in the sliver by the river, the high ground running down from downtown toward the mouth of the river, come to bring us Yankee ingenuity and industriousness while they take the pleasure of an entirely different culture which does not care so much of such things, and which may or may not survive their arrival, the resulting dispersal from their old neighborhoods of the people who made that culture. That is all the worry these days, in the bands of land from which the old trees were cleared hundreds of years ago.
I don’t live down there, and while I find it regrettable that they come as the Spanish came, greedy and bearing an alien religion in which the dollar sign supplants the cross of the Jesuits I live in the back of town, where the oldest trees survive, and now think more of them. The culture of the dollar at all costs has pushed nature too far, and I walk past grandfather oak in the warmest August since records began in the 1880s. Worse, the best minds tell us we have pushed the oceans themselves past the tipping point already. These will steadily warm, the distant arctic ices will melt and the water rise as sure as Noah’s flood. Other’s argue about whether the levees are really any better but I know that New Orleans is doomed, if not in my life time than in my children’s and their children’s. A greater flood is coming than the old oaks and cypress have ever seen, one that will not recede. Even the resilient cypress, accustomed to flooding, will not survive. Grandfather Cypress has seen his day in which the minutes are decades, in which we are less than the passing buzz of a mosquito.