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Resurrection Fern August 24, 2015

Posted by The Typist in Back of Town, je me souviens, New Orleans, postdiluvian, Remember, The Narrative, The Typist, Toulouse Street.
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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.

Postdiluvian Afternoon Manscape with Bulldozer April 5, 2015

Posted by The Typist in Back of Town, Bayou St. John, City Park, Federal Flood, geo-memoir, Hurricane Katrina, levee, Louisiana, postdiluvian, The Narrative, The Typist, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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This was once bottom land, he says with the practiced eye and assurance of a successful environmental engineer. He is probably right. This recently mown rough at the edge of this former fairway is not far from the ridge of Bayou St. John and less than a mile south of Filmore Avenue, the line your grandfather told you was once the start of the softly indeterminate shore of the lake, the gradual transition from bottom land to open water, before the concrete seawall, the back fill and subdivision, when the land followed the natural contours of water.

Across Harrison Avenue snowy egrets play tag with a bulldozer returning another feral fairway to its appointed state of gracefully sculpted landscaping. They have carefully fenced off the trees they elected to keep just outside their crowns, but they have not bothered to put up runoff barriers along the lagoon. The other trees, the once mature oaks and cypress older than the park, did not fit into the new PGA-caliber design and were themselves bulldozed, cut and chipped into mulch (one hopes), the thicker branches and trunks, the massive root balls hauled off to some dump itself perched at the edge of useful bottom land, to cycle back into muck, the gumbo mud of marginal land that will suck the boot off a man’s foot as if to say: careful where you tread. You do not belong here.

This was all bottom land in flood a decade ago when the lake toppled the less-than-carefully designed levees, the work of a hundred bulldozers sculpting golf and parkways and neighborhoods, the labor of decades, was undone in a few hours. How we clamored to rebuild back then, even as we and the water birds reclaimed the ruins of golf for our own pleasure in spite of the lurking coyotes, after the hired guns had cleared the park of ill-tempered feral hogs washed in from the East, that last failed attempt to fill and subdivide marked by exits to nowhere on the highway out of town.

We follow a well-worn but little used path this beautiful afternoon until we find a shaded spot to plant our beach and Jazz Fest chairs, crack open the cooler filled with rare ales and settle in for a beer tasting. We used to do this in the Couterie Forest, another bit of man-scaping which was once an open field where the local AOR station staged free concerts, but the Couterie has grown crowded since the acres of feral fairway around it have been fenced off for construction of the new golf course, the confluence of FEMA dollars and the investments of men who could not play a PGA caliber game to save their lives but who can afford $150 for a round of eighteen holes, who will crowd the sponsored tents when the golf circus comes to town. (Build it and they will come, they tell themselves).

The FEMA relief we all fought for requires the reconstruction of what was and nothing more, although the men who run the Park have found a loophole big enough to drive a bulldozer through, to try to steal away the local PGA stop via a “public-private partnership,” that popular euphemism for privatizing profit while socializing risk; a great racket if you can get in on it, and our carefully-groomed and well compensated politicians love these sort of arrangements. Without them the contributions would dry up and instead of campaign billboards they would litter the landscape with solicitations for litigation, become just another schmuck lawyer grafting a living off of our ridiculous insurance rates.

In the middle distance is a beautifully bifurcated cypress, rising out of the roots of a clump of dying, non-native palms planted by some long-ago golf architect. The land here takes its revenge slowly but surely, as slowly and certainly as the land upon which we sit and the cypress prospers gradually subsides from bottom land to bottom of the lake. In another hundred years the furor over golf versus a carefully manicured wildness will be settled not in court but simply settled, back into the Back of Town, more wetland than bottom land. The golfers will move north as the water moves back in. Anyone who treads this path along the spoil bank of the artificial lagoon down which this afternoon past three women in a rented canoe, two paddlers and one lounging beneath an orange parasol, will likely find a very different landscape, too boggy to mow and covered in water-loving grasses. The lone cypress in the middle of the field, suited by temperament to flooding, will perhaps have grown into a stand, safe from bulldozers which will have moved on long ago to more certain and stable investments, far from the gulf that will someday reclaim this all, when my imagined stand of cypress will stand as denuded grey ghosts, victims of the relentless salt sea from which we all came and to which all this will return.

Waiting for Godot on the Road Home October 17, 2012

Posted by The Typist in Back of Town, Gentilly, je me souviens, New Orleans, NOLA, Treme.
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A new post up at the Treme blog Back of Town, on the scene from Waiting for Godot and my own experience of the play.

I thought it was my house. A left-side double with a carport on the right attached to the next door neighbor’s single-level ranch. My stomach knotted convulsively. The panic bands tightened around my chest. A wave of Permanent Traumatic Stress Disorder, the tension of being transported into a scene I didn’t quite remember, being among the hundreds turned away every night from the Gentilly production of Waiting for Godot in 2007 but I knew the play, knew the text, knew the essential and painful rightness of it like a necessary amputation. I had only been there in spirit but had gone home the last night and after dispirited drinks at the Circle Bar I wrote in the small hours of the morning my reaction to a play I had just not seen.

That could be my house.

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Keeping the Beat on the Street September 24, 2012

Posted by The Typist in Back of Town, New Orleans, Toulouse Street, Treme.
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A new post is up on BackOfTown.com Treme blog discussing Episode One, Season Three. See y’all over there.


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