Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Little Miracles

The neighbor's crepe myrtle trees are blooming, and it seems to me as miraculous a gift as the olive branch delivered to Noah.

Last year this time I counted my time home in days, not months or years. It was a time marked not by the flowering of trees like magnolias and crepe myrtles and sweet olive but a period filled with visions of trees dead and dying, the grey and broken limbs which haunted each street like the frightening claws of a dark Disney forest. What clearly stands out in memory from summer of 2006 is seeing every single magnolia on Broadway taken down in July, even those few that were clearly leafed out in part and trying to recover. In that time, if the crepe myrtle bloomed, I was too busy looking at the ground for roofing nails and debris piles to notice.

Roofing nails still spontaneously appear in the grass alongside my house like toadstools after a soaking rain, and the neighbors’ house is about to sell and will be gutted, so it will be another summer of sitting on my porch and looking at debris. There is no escaping the reminders that we still live in a city as much a ruin as not even 22 months after the Federal Flood. I have to remind myself that the debris and nails are just a byproduct of rebirth, no different than the leaves or brown petals that the crepe myrtle will scatter on the sidewalk, the price of the persistence of life.

I was reminded of the way life insistently returns to the scene of disaster as I drove down Marconi between drowned Lakeview and the feral north end of City Park, all of the street lights extinguished so that the middle of a large America city seemed as dark as a country lane. I passed the routinely flooded expanse between the road and the Orleans Avenue Canal levee just south of Robert E. Lee Boulevard, and slowed to a crawl with the windows down in the steamy dark to listen to a raucous chorus of frogs bellowing lustily in the dark. Last summer seemed eerily quiet, as a single cicada struggled to make a decent noise on my street. That night on Marconi it seemed all of Frogdom has assembled for their own Mardi Gras in this pocket swamp, and the street (deserted at just after 10 at night) was filled with ducks waddling over from the park to see what all the commotion was about.

Tomorrow I must call someone. There was routine and ignored seepage under the levee along the 17th Street Canal in the years before the floodwalls failed, and this persistent wet spot concerns me. That's tomorrow's worry. On this night I come to a dead stop on a once busy four-lane suburban artery, turn off the headlights and listen to the singing of the frogs. Just as my neighbor's house is coming back, and just as sure as I know there is new framing on the many demolished lots just over the levee, these frogs insist on coming back here at the toe of this questionable levee. The frogs, it seems, have not gotten the memo that its just too dangerous here, that we have no right or sense to be here.

All of us here cling to life --people, trees, frogs--as tenaciously as sea worms in a cauldron of boiling sulfurated water at a sea bottom vent: life where reasonable minds might not expect it. In the deep of the ocean it is considered miraculous and treated with glossy photos in National Geographic. The people of the hurricane coast are treated by the same publication to a gloomy article predicting our imminent doom behind failed levees facing carbon-exhaust boiled seas. And yet, like those sea worms, we live in a colorful and improbable world of our own making.

The frogs and ducks crowing this little sinkhole of a wetland, what I learned to call a slough when I lived in north-west Minnesota, reminds me what a fecund place these marshy bottom lands are. There is good reason that people have settled the most easily flooded places, thick with wildlife for the taking and built from fertile alluvial soil. Where there is food or the promise of it, people since pre-historic times have gone and lived. Given a modicum of civilization, rivers and other watercourses are a bonus, allowing for trade in the easily acquired surplus of such a fertile place. Of course there's a city here. We've been building cities on the alluvial banks of rivers since man first piled mud-brick on mud-brick along the Tigris and Euphrates.

Orleanians may seem as odd as something dredged up from the sea bottom, but it is a good life in spite of the heat and the threat of the odd hurricane. I spent a decade in the upper Great Plains and have to wonder at why people persist in living up where the weather can kill you not once in a decade or a generation, but once a week or so through the seemingly endless months of winter.

Ours is a different sort life, conditioned by the sultry climate and 300 years of a relatively easily life off the fertile land and convenient waters. You may think us as indolent as the fabled grasshopper but like the people who settled into sod houses to wait out howling blizzards, we've just adapted. Like life everywhere, we've found a niche where we can live and learned how to do it. Just because we don't march down Poydras Street in a "tropical" wool suit like it’s an Olympic event doesn't make us lazy. It makes us sensible, unlike the mad dogs and Englishmen on a forced march from hotel to meeting.

At first I wrote easier instead of different to open the last paragraph, but life here is not easy, not anymore. The fact that we find cause to celebrate and relax in the way we have for 300 years, in spite of being a continuing disaster zone, is as miraculous as the blossoming of the crepe myrtle or the festival of frogs reveling in their permanently flooded bit of New Orleans. The way we chose to live is part of the equation that makes life on the sultry hurricane coast irresistibly attractive to those of us raised to it, or the odd visitor who becomes hooked.

The imperatives of commerce, like the imperatives of life, would repopulate some sort of city here if only to serve the port. Commerce is just an expression of our species, no different than the hunting of a predator or the mating dance of a bird. The return of life to the city is less miraculous than the sort of life we all returned to make here, a life where the blooming of a crepe myrtle or the reopening of a restaurant is as important -- no, more important than mere commerce or the earning of our daily bread. We prefer our daily bread to be fresh and French and eaten under the flowering trees, and as restaurants and crepe myrtles alike bloom in Mid-City hope is reborn that for all our challenges, the newest incarnation of New Orleans will be very much the city we feared we had lost forever.

beautiful, Mark. Just beautiful.

Thank you.
I love reading your thoughts here.

"all frogdom"?

You continue to blow my mind with your prose. Just wonderful.

(It will become Reality, never fear.)
I never thought of myself as akin to a sea worm until I read your post. Yes, all life forms adapt and survive. Post-K, there is a form of unnatural selection that sadly has decimated us, but which has also made us more appreciative of the life-giving sustenance that bubbles up around us.
Mark, as a naitve New Orleanian, who has not lived there for a very long time, and who still misses the city every single day, I say ,"Thank you for these lovely words."

We folks who love New Orleans are all a little mad, but it's a wonderful madness, and one that I would not want cured by a pill.

I won't say "if", I'll say when New Orleans comes back, as it is already on the way, it'll be a better place if the coming back is planned and executed by New Orleanians and friends.
I'm so happy to be "the odd visitor who becomes hooked." Another amazingly beautiful post. Thank you.

We had the serenade of a very vocal tree frog from the woods behind the 1B dugout in our last two playoff games (the semis & the finals), my twentieth and final spring as a baseball parent (unless he surprises me and chooses to play on after high school). I hear your frogs.

There is such good news in your post. That you, the sort who prefers their "bread to be fresh and French and eaten under the flowing trees," are "repopulating some sort of city here if only to serve the port," is promising indeed for the rest of us. Again, thank you.
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"And when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcome, but when we are silent we are still afraid. So it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive." -- Audie Lorde

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