Monday, November 5, 2007

Lower 9th Ward

We visited the Lower 9th Ward today. I expected the devastation and desolation, but not the beauty. It was gorgeous. As we all have heard, the entire ward is below sea level, bounded by a canal on two sides and the Mississippi River on another, surrounded by ineffective levees, on damp and unstable ground, and has (not surprisingly) been frequently flooded. What I had missed amid all of these facts was the obvious: left to it’s own devices, the ward is a natural flood plain, a marsh. Having been wiped fairly clean and then left alone for two years, it’s of course quickly returning to its natural state. There were gorgeous rushes and reeds, marsh grasses, flowers, shrubs, and vines. And the birds: stalking egrets, skulking osprey, tiny timid doves, swallows darting and skimming about, a miniscule stripped bird of prey that was hunting grasshoppers with the intensity of an eagle, and more. Since many of the human residents were killed or displaced, and those who we saw were quiet and dignified, there were blissfully few noises except for those of the birds. It was as if we were spending the afternoon in a park—one with a looming tragedy.

The details of the human drama that played out on this “ground” (mud, really) of course were ever-present, and made my throat tighten with grief, but this did not translate into any antipathy toward nature’s force here. What it brought to light more than anything was how weak our claim on this earth is, and how unimaginably strong the forces of nature (both large and small) are. Water toppled steel, fire melted glass and wood, ivy shunts off siding, birds unravel cloth. The real tragedy is not the hurricane, which was an unfortunately-located natural phenomenon after all, but our inability to live in a more sustainable place in the natural world.

I hope to visit the ward often again before we leave. I know I have only just begun to explore this beautiful neighborhood. It is so full of life.

themes and variations

There should be signs at the New Orleans city limits saying “Abandon Expectations, All Ye Who Enter Here.” To function here requires a certain suspension of disbelief. At first it seems that you can never know what you’ll find around the next corner, or what you’ll hear when the next person opens his or her mouth. But we’ve started to notice some recurring themes:

I’ve always heard that New Orleans has great live music—it’s what the city is most famous for. However, I suspect that it’s impossible to understand what that means without experiencing it. Obviously the jazz bands are incredible, but the excellence is not confined to this local specialty. Strolling down Bourbon Street on Wednesday night, we stumbled upon the best bagpipe player I’ve ever heard—in or out of the British Isles! After listening for several minutes in a state of delighted incredulity, we continued down the street, pausing to appreciate the fantastic 12-piece jazz band that had set up a few blocks down. The fact that none of these musicians looked older than 20 years old made their performance all the more impressive. Later that night, we stopped by the weekly open mike in the bar around the corner from our bunk house. (The bar is called the Buddha Belly, and is a combination watering hole and laundromat.) Every act was good, and our favorite was a crusty old man singing sweet gravely blues. We’ve been trying to figure out what accounts for this phenomenon. It’s not just that the musicians know how to play, it’s also that everyone knows how to listen. The good music has an appreciative audience and lots of community support. Furthermore, people’s tolerance for bad music is very low. Since coming down here, we’ve hardly heard any of the manufactured top 40 insipidness of the week that peppers the radio back home. This is more refreshing than we could have anticipated. We hadn’t realized how much canned poor music had poisoned our souls.

New Orleans is also famed as a welcoming and friendly city. We have found this to be overwhelmingly true. In passing encounters, people are genuinely nicer, warmer, and more polite than we ever are up north, even with our dearest acquaintances. The city also seems much more racially integrated than New England cities, though people tell me that racial tensions here have increased in the wake of the storm. We have certainly felt much more comfortable being in the racial minority down here than we ever do in similar circumstances at home. This is really good, since most of the time here we are the only white people around. We will sorely miss this relaxed camaraderie when we come back up north.

Live Oaks grow throughout the city, arching their branches over the boulevards. They are a favorite feature of our morning jogs. We wonder if there were other trees around before the storm that didn’t weather it, or if Live Oaks have always reigned supreme.

One strange thing we’ve notice is an absence of scent. Boston is always smelly in one way or another, whether you’re smelling the sea air, the nearest garbage bin, or a passing urbanite’s expensive cologne. Mostly New Orleans smells like nothing, even to Erika’s perceptive nose. It’s disconcerting—we feel deprived of a sense. Even scrabbling around face-first in rotten houses produces no smells. Our recent trip to the city dump was delightful for many reasons, one of which was the slight sulphurus scent that reminded us that we have noses.

Perhaps the saddest thing about New Orleans (at least in our stomachs’ opinions) is the diet’s remarkable lack of vegetables. Not even a collard green or brussel sprout in sight. It’s all chicken, sugar, seafood, sugar, rice, sugar, and beans (with sugar!). And some rum. All very tasty, mind you, but not conducive to digestive comfort or nutrition.

Tomorrow, I’m back at the library. I hope to have the new shelving system in place by Wednesday. The kids are adorable, and I’d love to gush on proudly about them for hours, but won’t now. Maybe next post.