Posted by: cctracker | April 2, 2012

NOLA and Me

I had a chance to spend a few days in New Orleans recently.

New Orleans Skyline

New Orleans Skyline (Photo credit: joseph a)

Rode clattering, unpretentious streetcars from the Garden District to the Quarter every day.

Photo James Burton

Had meals in six or so restaurants, each place its own funky or elegant world of a few square feet 10 paces from the world next door I’d never see, each dish served so hot and well-seasoned it didn’t matter how much food was on the plate. I was chewing slowly and savoring every bite because I couldn’t help it, not because it was good for me.

We walked the along the low-slung strip of Frenchman Street north of the Quarter, ducking into clubs where  joyful brass arpeggios and bluesy guitar licks flowed around us and out to the sidewalk as naturally–and plentifully–as the rivers of bourbon and beer.

In short, we had a really great time. Part of it was  how much I needed the break. Part of it, of course, was the utterly unique and constantly surprising flavor of NOLA. Part of it was the company of my wonderful companion.

But even with all of the pleasures, textures, endlessly engaging distractions and requisite tourist activities (yes, we had beignets and coffee at the Cafe Du Monde) to keep me occupied in the Big Easy, I still found myself, underneath it all, being drawn into territory that often engages me most when I travel: the drama of  how human communities establish themselves on a natural landscape. Driving the interstate I am moved by fields, farms and pastures. I think about them. In New Orleans, I thought a lot about water.

So we took a swamp tour.

The folks at Cajun Encounters picked us up in the Quarter and, after collecting passengers at a few irresistibly quirky and cool  small hotels and B and B’s, drove us out across the I-10 bridge south toward the bayou. The lower 9th Ward was too far off to the west to really get a sense of it at ground level, but as we passed through West Lake Forest we saw mile after mile of abandoned shopping centers, upscale suburban tracts and business parks. The devastating aftermath of Katrina was still in evidence at a scale I couldn’t absorb. Some neighborhoods were trying to come back. The Home Depots and Lowes were certainly up and running; our tour guide and bus driver made sure to point that out.

Image at Collin Kelly: Modern Confessional Blog

Then it was out across the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge and into the town of  Slidell where the tourists cue up at a boat launch on the Pearl river to see live gators, have a few close encounters with real Cajuns and experience the absolutely magical world of a silent Cypress-Tupelo swamp. Tourist trap or no I was completely entranced.

Photo James Burton

The Cajuns, descendants of the  French “Acadians” from Canada  who’d been kicked out of the old original settlement of New Orleans and had to invent a life for themselves in the swamps, exist on mighty close terms with their biological niche.

Photo James Burton

Our guide was second generation Cajun and though I could tell he wasn’t a “naturalist” at all by temperament, it was also clear that he was on intimate terms with the land, the water, the birds, the plants and the trees. He knew a lot about all of them and he wasn’t really showing it off. He was just talking about home.

He didn’t mention it at all on the tour, but his home is profoundly at risk.

—–

I remember the first time I traveled to New Orleans. I was in a high-powered choir and we had a gig at St. Louis Cathedral. I knew almost nothing about nature or geography, but I guess I was still hard-wired for interest in them because all I could think about as we drove south that night was: When would I see the first palm tree? Would we catch a glimpse of the gulf?  Would I at least be able to smell the open sea?  I did see palms eventually and was mesmerized by them. I never saw the Gulf, of course, because the land where the Mississippi meets the ocean is a vast maze of swampy islands, marshes and streams extending down about 130 miles before you reach open water. I think I would have been shocked if I’d looked at a map back then to see where New Orleans actually sits on the edge of all that swamp land.

By the time we got back in to the city, my reflections on this place were beginning to crystallize a bit.

There is, of course, no way to articulate something as complex and multi-layered as the unique culture–“the feel” for want of a better phrase–of a particular city. Cities, even the blandest and most homogenous, are worlds within worlds and everyone is entitled to their own inexpressible take on whatever slice makes it real for them.

Photo of Springfield, Mo, at Kevin Flynn's Inside Lane site

Nevertheless New Orleans is so special and unique that people across the country and around the world do seem to share common impressions and narratives about it. A German couple sat next to us for dinner one night. My partner struck up a conversation with them. At one point the gentleman said something like: “We come from a beautiful village in Austria and we’ve been to many places across Europe and America…but we’ve never been anywhere like this.”  We were in the Quarter so part of their comment was surely a reference to the sheer number of restaurants and bars within 16 or so square blocks. But it’s not just the Quarter–and it certainly isn’t just Bourbon Street–that have made New Orleans into an urban symbol for so many Americans. How else can we account for it? Mardi Gras is a good place to start.

Photo at LA Times Photo Framework Site

I’ve never been in the city for the actual celebration of Mardi Gras, but for most visitors isn’t it always Mardis Gras in New Orleans? And wherever we are when Mardi Gras rolls around each year, don’t the beads, masks and fake plumage suggest that we are all pretending to be in New Orleans? It seems that Mardi Gras has expanded to become one of those second-tier national holidays–like St. Patrick’s Day– in recent years. It wasn’t like that 20 years ago.  It’s a festival that invites us into riotous joy, into spontaneous and often excessive and irresponsible expressions of our passions. It celebrates diversity, too, implicitly tolerating almost every lifestyle.

Photo at NOLA Imports website

I think that approach to diversity is an important element of what makes New Orleans unique. Unlike San Francisco, for example, where you walk from one contained ethnic niche right into another in just a few steps, the cultural, musical, ethnic, even linguistic traditions of New Orleans taste intermingled like flavors in a gumbo: Cajun, Southern, French, Creole, Gay, Seafaring, River-boating, African, Haitian, Delta, even Cuban. And visitors have permission to try on any of the masks they wish.

I remember walking down Bourbon street when I was 20 on that choir trip I mentioned earlier. The mask I was being invited to try on that night, with rather aggressive invitations as I recall, was ‘the voyeur.’ I was a pretty straight arrow. I’d turned down the invitation to wear ‘the drunk’ mask earlier that night so I certainly wasn’t going to put the next one on, especially since I was already wearing ‘the seminarian’ mask. I wanted to, though. And a part of me certainly appreciates now that there is an intoxicating freedom in putting on these masks that can be a crucial part of how someone eventually works out being real. Though I’ve always felt responsible for representing the risk side of that equation, I don’t take any credit for that anymore.

On our recent visit, my wife and I saw packs of smooth-skinned 20 year-old guys walking down the middle of Bourbon street, wearing caps turned backward, leaning forward as they strode along, looking side to side as they considered invitations. They sure looked like they had their masks on.

Photo at dnjournal.com

Here are three other ingredients that I think contribute to the recipe for NOLA joy and celebration– ingredients in ample supply both in its history and its present circumstance that make it possible in very concrete ways:

The relatively low-tech, accessible, human scale of development at which much of the city exists,

Photos James Burton

The intimate and celebrated connection the city has to its natural context: river, bayou, coastal flats,

Photo James Burton

And the abundance of the celebrated, local, and mostly sustainable food resources gathered from this landscape.

Photo at Cloture Club Website: Annual Louisiana State Crawfish Boil

But finally, since it’s Lent and I am finishing this post up on Holy Thursday, I want to come back to what I saw on my way out to the swamp tour, to Katrina,  to the dramatic threat facing not only the freshwater swamps but the entire city.

New Orleans looks worn out by its struggle to survive.

And it isn’t just Katrina. There have been waves of struggles against storms and floods since Bieneville established the city in 1718.  Before that, this place was for human beings what it should be in an ecological sense: a portage between the swamp and Lake Poncetrain. Just as Mardi Gras would have no meaning without Lent, so the vibrant and outrageous culture of New Orleans can’t be separated from its relentless struggle for survival in vast, swampy lowlands. Geographically speaking the city makes no sense.  From the viewpoint of  logic and landscape, it should never have come to be at all. But as the path of biological evolution demonstrates, creating order from mistakes and accidents is the way more complex life forms and communities always come into being. This is an underlying truth for everything alive.

As I mentioned at the beginning, I felt like New Orleans was delivering some wisdom on a deeper level I couldn’t name right away. As I’ve continued reflecting, I think the city has reminded me that there are a few more precious, essential ingredients in its wonderful simmering pot that every community needs in order to provide the spiritual sustenance all of us are seeking, however differently we might name it. The ingredients? Chaos. Suffering. Vulnerability. Death.

Bones stacked in a church near Prague. Photo Andrew Linhares

Of course each of these are already in the mix of every culture and community everywhere, all the time. So perhaps the better way to name the ingredient would be an awareness of them all, an expression of them, an inclusion of them in such a way as to encourage us to remember that they are there.

Photo at toulousestreet.wordpress.com

The people of New Orleans are aware of them now more than ever.

Katrina would not have been nearly so destructive if the maze of swamplands were as substantial and protective as they were 70 years ago. 1900 square miles of  buffering wetlands–an area larger than the state of Rhode Island–have been lost in that time. As the levees and dams went up and the channelization of the Mississippi increased, the natural system for building and replenishing wetlands was disrupted. The site of New Orleans and its barrier islands are sinking, as they have been for thousands of years, but now there are no silts being delivered to build them back up. The next great hurricane, whenever it strikes, could send the whole region back to its days as a portage. The imagination boggles at the scale of the toxic catastrophe one might paddle through on such a trip in 50 years.

Photo at: 911review.org/Hurricane_Katrina/kenner.html

But isn’t that a metaphor for the whole of humanity on the planet at this point in history? Certainly there are places where cities make much more sense, but ultimately, the way we are living on this watery planet is not sustainable. A persuasive case can be made that we are in the early stages of an ecological collapse that will cause terrible disruptions to human communities,   unimaginable suffering. New Orleans may not be at the cutting edge of how we ought to confront this challenge in terms of politics or science, but it is more intimately in touch than most places in the U.S. with the truth of our situation.  And I believe even that degree of honesty bears good cultural fruit.

Though you could say that they haven’t had much choice about reflecting these terrifying ingredients given its history and geography, I give the city  and its inhabitants credit for the way they have created a life-affirming and joyful culture in their midst.  New Orleans celebrates the joy of being alive but at the same time always reflects the truth of its impermanence back to the eye and the soul of the beholder.

Christianity and many of the world’s great wisdom traditions speak to the point: abiding joy–and even true artistic creativity–like deep faith and true love, must be built on an awareness of our impermanence our vulnerability before chaos, on the inescapability of death.  Only then can an experience of Resurrection have any meaning for us.

Thank you, NOLA. And Happy Easter!


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