Sunday, September 09, 2007

Crescent City Snow

This morning Invest 90L in GOMEX is showing some signs of high level circulation. For those who have not succumbed to the urge to read every single line published by the National Hurricane Center, an invest is an area of weather interest which might or might not become a tropical storm. GOMEX is of course the Gulf of Mexico.

While many New Orleanians pay no mind to such things until one of the television forecasters calls it to their attention, some of us watch the postings to the National Weather Service NHC in the same way our ancestors checked at the Western Union office daily or more often to learn the price of cotton. Our lives, like theirs, are greatly influenced by the telegraphic postings, the numbers marking out coordinates which spell rising or declining arcs of risk. In our, later case these abstract constructs might be given a name, might coalesce into walls of wind and rain towering miles into the sky.

The peak of the hurricane season straddles what the calendar tells us is late summer and early fall. Looking instead at my thermometer, it is not easy to tell September from August, not in the way I could when I lived far to the north. In Fargo, N.D. this morning the temperature was 42 degrees Fahrenheit, a coolness we will not see in New Orleans until well into winter. It is cold enough up there that soon all of the deciduous trees will begin to turn color and drop their leaves.

My wife misses Fall more than any other season, here in the subtropics where the Four Seasons are a group featured on Time-Life retrospectives on late night TV. Neither of us would easily return to the hard winters at the Canadian border, but for all the city has to offer we feel cheated of the sudden coolness, the promise of a hard freeze that will finally kill the mosquitoes, the color show of the trees turning red and golden before they cover the lawn in a crunchy brown carpet.

Down here we have more than our share of pines, and the palm trees of course do not shed their branches come fall. Many trees seem to suddenly shed their canopy without any sort of color-coded warning. The disconcerting trees are the ubiquitous lives oaks, which shed leaves all year and are never bare. These evergreen monsters lend a certain never-never-land-of-the-lotus-eaters quality to those visiting or returning from the north. If you've lived somewhere that large deciduous trees should go bare at some time and stay that way until Spring it is subtly disorienting. When I moved to Washington, D.C. I was bothered all spring in the growing heat by something I couldn't quite put my finger on, until I realized it hadn't rained--not a good soaking thunderstorm of a rain--in months.

The trees I look forward to seeing change (and the ones I pointed out to my wife when the fist bits of cool Canadian air finally reached us like a relief column late last year) are the cypress. These trees combine knobby and stately in a way the aging British monarchy might wish to emulate. The leaves are delicately lacy branchlets with serrated edges. When I took an interest in Japanese gardens and built a small karensansui space of rock leading to our door, I thought to carry the theme all through the yard. I was smitten with the idea of getting one of the Japanese maples with their own delicately divided leaves which turn multiple colors through three leafy seasons.

The only impediment is that a decent sized specimen of those Japanese maples, anything larger than Charlie Brown's Christmas Tree, cost several thousand dollars. Needless to say the closest I got to that tree was visiting the unsold one at my local garden center to admire it. What I realized when I came home is the similarity of the leaves and the bright changes of colors to the cypress tree of Louisiana. Perhaps that expensive Asian maple wasn't so much an expression of my new found affinity for the Japanese garden as it was an unconscious echo of my distant home.

The Japanese take a particular interest in the natural seasons and their cycle. Here in New Orleans we tend to measure our year by the great festivals and holidays. Perhaps that is because one needs an almanac to note the precise arrival of Fall or Spring, would need to take a theodolite to the sun and moon to actually note when the astronomical seasons pass. When I lived at the northern end of the central flyway at this time of year the sky was literally filled by flocks of geese and ducks heading south. You could turn in any direction and see them by the hundreds, and the urgent honking was audible indoors. Fall arrived like the invasion of Normandy.

To the Japanese sensibility aspects of nature and the seasons are reflections of our own inner moods and cycles, almost an opposite of the pathetic fallacy, a projection not outward but inward of falling leaves or drifting snow onto our own interior landscape. In western culture, we tend instead to project ourselves out with all of the force of manifest destiny. Yet even in a pop music setting an image of weather or the seasons can still be a metaphor as delicate as those traced with brush and ink on rice paper.

In the song "Crescent City Snow" by Orleanian Susan Cowsill her juxtaposition of the Christmas Day snow of 2004 with the Federal Flood and the terrors that followed is a mingling of nature and emotion any Samuri poet would recognize. When she sings of her Katrina and flood experience "And in the other hand we pray/That the wind and the panic and the rain/Will all turn to a/Soft and quiet, gentle peaceful snow..." the healing and peace that is invoked is that anyone who has lived in a snowy climate recognizes immediately, the white world/white noise hiss of falling snow as it hits the snowy ground, the intensely bright stillness of an early morning of glaringly fresh snow.

I encountered the song when I purchased by download the entire New Orleans Musicians Relief benefit CD ReDefine 8/29. Its a fabulous record and probably the best of all of the Katrina/Flood-related compilations I've found. Cowsill's song is arguably the best of the lot, alternating a quiet guitar and fiddle supported first verse and chorus (quoted above) with following verses cataloging what it means to be New Orleans. The songs seques into the lilt of a Jacobin marching song and transforms ends on a second line parade that together brings to mind the vision of thousands of Orleanians marching, and ultimately dancing home.

Numerous songs have been offered up as anthems for the 200,000 (the name I still keep for the returned even as we push closer to 300,000). While Randy Newman's Louisiana 1927 (and reworkings changing the lyrics to reflect a flooded city) still resonate, and the replays of the Green Day/Bono "The Saints Are Coming" still rung true at this year's opening Saints game, I don't think a single song has combined the pain of loss, the longing for home and the triumphal insistence on return as well as Cowsill's. It is the anthem we have all been waiting for. To hear it is to want to buy it.

N.B. Published an early draft full of typos. Reposting. Sorry. God I need an editor!

Another beautiful post, Mark. I read it some days ago and it's stuck with me as I see the signs of fall beginning to show here.
Believe me, I can relate. Here in the tropics (as opposed to the "semi-tropics") it is nearly impossible to tell the change of seasons merely by looking around. Even the day length varies by only about an hour between solstices; this is why we don't have daylight savings time.

Nevertheless, subtle seasonal clues are out there...

Spring: Fairly easy. Plants flower. In particular, the shower trees all over town blaze a bright, almost cadmium yellow.

Summer: Used to be easy. Kids were out of school. Then they went to a year-round calendar... well, college kids are still out of school.

Fall/winter: Not too difficult. The key here is to look for external signs, like Christmas decorations at the mall, or ads for cold and flu remedies popping up on network TV.

Winter: All too easy. Look for the hordes of tourists clogging up everything from the bus to the food store to church. Ai-yi-yi! (Y'all should have such problems. Really.)
I saw her do the song live at one of my friends' shows and I had to buy it. It really was a great moment.
I love that song, and the Christmas that it snowed was the first Christmas my husband and I spent here. We had moved because we were sick of snow, so on the day it snowed, we laughed ourselves silly at the little dusting on the hibiscus. The kids in the neighborhood were thrilled, they had never seen snow before. Laughter and screams filled the street as we sat on the porch drinking wine. One of the kids came over and asked if it was "okay if I take some of the snow off your car?" He wanted to make what we called "snow walnuts" as they were definitely not big enough to be snowballs. We were nearly in hysterics by then. "Please, by all means," we said to the kid, him not knowing how many freaking times we'd scraped through the snow on that windshield just to encounter ice underneath! It was one of the most wonderful experiences of our lives, the day the snow fell in New Orleans. So the first time I heard that song, I just sat and cried. We had no idea that day what we would encounter less than a year later.

We are still here, and here we will remain until the next snow comes or they scatter my ashes in the Mississippi.
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