Log Paradise and Put Up a Parking Lot

Some of the most striking—and depressing—visual images I have seen of the wetlands surrounding New Orleans are satellite photos taken of the areas on the northwest shores of Lake Pontchartrain that were once cypress and tupelo swamps.  The ancient cypresses with their flying buttress knees made a formidable barrier that protected lakeside towns from devastating storm and hurricane surges.  I’ve paddled in the area between the small village of Akers, Louisiana and Lake Pontchartrain, following the straight line of Galva Canal from where it dumps into Manchac Pass on the shore of Lake Maurepas all the way to Lake Pontchartrain.  It’s a long paddle, and the cypress forests are gone now, all of them, and what remains is a vast denuded wetlands marsh, engraved with radial logging ditches—“pull-boat canals”—that make the marsh look, from the sky, like a series of overlapping wagon wheels laid out flat on the ground.   Or like a Martian landscape, with evidence of alien activity.  It was almost exactly one century ago that these forests were strip-logged for their valuable cypress, which was used to build homes in New Orleans as it expanded and grew.  My own home, built in the first decade of the twentieth century, is built of cypress, undoubtedly removed from this very swamp.

First Canal

First Canal, south of Manchac Pass, between Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Maurepas (click on all photos to see enlarged version)

Galva Canal

Galva Canal from satellite with view of radial “pull-boat” canals and denuded cypress swamp, now marsh.

Lower altitude satellite shot of Galva Canal and radial "Pull-Boat Canals"

Lower altitude satellite shot of Galva Canal and radial “pull-boat” canals

Galva Canal 104

Ground view of logged out marshland around Galva Canal 2012

Similarly, the space between the northern fringes of the French Quarter in New Orleans and Lake Pontchartrain was also once a vast cypress and tupelo swamp.  Around the same time that the wetlands I’ve just described were being stripped of their cypress (between 1895 and 1920), the city’s northern cypress barrier was turned into lumber, the land was “reclaimed” as a potential residential district through the strategic placement of new drainage canals, and our current metropolitan footprint was established.

Hardee Map of 1878 New Orleans

Hardee Map of 1878
New Orleans with its still intact northern fringe of cypress forest and swamp

Just across Interstate 55 from the Galva Canal marshes, in the narrow stretch of land between Lake Pontchartain and Lake Maurepas, you can still see what the ancient cypress forests looked like.  Shell Bank Bayou meanders through the forest here amidst still surviving cypress, tupelo, swamp maple, elm, oak, and younger invasives like Chinese tallow.  Though this surviving swamp has no doubt suffered its own ravages, most recently from salt water intrusions caused by land subsidence and storm surges pushing out of Lake Pontchartrain, which is a brackish cut-off bay of the Gulf of Mexico, it still allows one to see what a cypress-tupelo swamp looks like.

Louisiana or Tri-Colored Heron

Manchac Swamp, a natural cypress-tupelo swamp

West Pearl River with Marie and Katherine 004

Cypress-Tupelo Swamp

Shell Bank to Maurepas 139

Cypress-Tupelo Swamp

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Lagoon/Lacuna

The Mermaid Lagoon by zymoglyphic

The Mermaid Lagoon
                                                by zymoglyphic

The Oxford English Dictionary traces the etymology of lagoon to the French word lagune, from the Italian laguna, from the Latin lacuna, which meant pool.  And of course my City Park lagoons are pools.  But the Latin lacuna has other meanings as well, which have been handed down to us in the English word lacuna:  a hole, a hiatus, a pit, an opening, a cavity, a hollow, a cleft, a gap, a void, a defect.  Lacuna also is a word with literary or textual significance: it is a blank space in a manuscript.  And it also has a psychological sense:  a lapse, as of memory.

These root meanings are also retained, as ripples, in my City Park lagoons, which are full of lapses and blanks and gaps and openings, as well as voids and defects.  That is, in fact, what my lagoons are about—the beginning of a journey into gaps in consciousness; a peering through an opening—a hole—in the everyday world; an exploration of clefts in memory.

The Door in the Garden

Stairs

When Henry David Thoreau went to Walden Pond in 1845, he had, I think, a fairly good idea what he was about.  As a first-generation Transcendentalist, he had a zeal for Romantic doctrine every bit as red-eyed as the zeal of first-generation Puritans for Calvinism.  He knew what his Nature meant, and he was eager to convey that meaning to the world.  But it is not so with me.  A recurring dream of a night journey by kayak across black water roiling with glossy bodies is what brought me to the City Park lagoons, and that dream is what keeps me coming back.  I’m not an habitual dream reader, but these dreams were like a door into a dark basement, and like the hapless protagonist in a thriller movie, I felt the compelling urge to walk through the door and descend the stairs.  It’s possible that giving in to this compulsion will end badly, but it’s also possible that I’ll find out what I need to know down there.  Were the water creatures simply embodiments of fears or instincts that I had repressed?  I didn’t know, but I did know that the lagoon’s surface, that plane that separates my world in the thick hazy air of New Orleans from the darker water world beneath my kayak, was an open invitation to cross the boundary.

The New Orleans City Park lagoons are a good site for this journey into the basement—there are parts of them that are wild, or that suggest a wild not to be found in other, similarly situated urban parks.  It is, in short, an anomaly among parks.  When public parks were first being constructed in the nineteenth century in Europe, they were created with the democratic purpose of providing for the common man and woman, your everyday citizen, a natural landscape that mimicked the pleasure gardens of aristocrats and royalty.  And public urban parks on that continent are, therefore, imitations of aristocratic pleasure gardens.  Some of the more famous, in fact, are actually gardens that once belonged to royalty and blue bloods who gave them, noblesse oblige, to the people:  Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens, and Saint James Park in England were all once upon a time royal gardens that became public pleasure grounds in the 1800s.  Although Americans like Frederick Law Olmstead, the great proponent of public green spaces in this country, spoke of bringing nature into the heart of the city, his idea of nature was borrowed from the European model; it was nature controlled and cultivated, nature as a garden.  New York’s Central Park, which Olmstead himself planned and executed, is the American version of this ideal—a pleasure garden where regular New Yorkers, middle class and working class, could have a picnic and a stroll on a Sunday afternoon.

That was clearly the intention with New Orleans City Park as well, but some parts of it have managed, in spite of that, to escape the gardener’s controlling hands and to retain a measure of wildness that still allows one glimpses, however illusory, of an unhandselled nature, disinclined to serve as the grassy bower of a Sunday picnicker.   No doubt, the peculiar conditions of this park’s size, geography, climate, and history account for this.  New Orleans City Park was first established in 1854 with a mere 100 acres of swamp land donated by John McDonogh.  Additional acres were purchased or donated later, over the next 100 years, all reclaimed from what was originally wilderness on the edge of the city, a huge cypress swamp that stretched between City Park Avenue and Lake Pontchartrain, on the city’s northern  verge.  The park is now 1300 acres, half again as large as New York City’s Central Park, and surrounded on all four sides, like its Manhattan cousin, by residential neighborhoods.  Although the swamps were drained and the land hemmed in by a protective levee and canal system, the openness and size of the park, together with the ever difficult task of paying for its maintenance, almost guarantee that some sections will suffer neglect.  The lushness of our climate and the subtropical conditions of southeast Louisiana also ensure that plant and animal incursions are nearly impossible to control.  On top of this, of course, are the periodic destructive binges of hurricanes, most recently Hurricanes Katrina in 2005 and Isaac in 2012, from which large sections of the park have still not recovered.  Many of the northern portions of the park, in fact, have been left nearly entirely on their own since Katrina.

Tonight, I’m in the northwest corner of the park, and I’m about to open that basement door again.  This time, the door is my kayak launch from beneath a large cypress on the bank of a narrow mile-long lagoon running parallel to the road that marks the western border of the park. There is a bridge across this lagoon that pinches its length midway, making it look from the air like two links of sausage.  My plan is to penetrate the southern portion of this lagoon, just north of the park’s soccer fields and a stone’s toss from the New Orleans Police horse stables.  To make the launch, I straddle my 12-foot kayak, the bow of which protrudes about three feet into the lagoon.   I squat backwards, and drop into the seat.  With five back-and-forth thrusts of my hips, I slide the hull off the nearly flat edge of the lagoon—there is a drop of only a few inches—and out onto the smooth surface of the water.  The lagoon’s shores in this area are lined, just beneath the surface, with highway detritus—large chunks of asphalt and concrete that are apparent stopgaps against erosion. I think of the launching site as a laguna dentata and finding a gap that allows me to slide into the dark water always poses a challenge.  If I pick the wrong entry point, I can do serious damage to the kayak’s underbelly, which is already scarred from previous bad choices.

But this time, the launch is an easy glide and I slip over the surface effortlessly toward the far shore.

Carpet, Rug, or Hardwater

Maurepas with Nepali Mafia 079.CR2

Water Hyaciinth

You’d think that the appearance of the City Park lagoons’ surface would be fairly consistent, taking into account cloudy and sunny days, wind and calm, rain and drizzle, day and night, but actually the changes that the surface undergoes are rather complex.  Watching them over time, they call to mind a fussy home owner who can’t decide what kind of floor covering he wants in his domestic space.  In early spring, he thinks a high standing deep green plush with blue highlights would be good.  So he rolls out the invasive water hyacinth and begins to carpet the entire surface of the eleven miles of water ways with lush green leaves that protrude six inches above the water like thousands of emerald donkey ears.  In the midst of every hundred or so ears, he sticks, for effect, a phallic green stalk topped by brilliant blue and purple flowers with bright yellow stamens.

But then, of a sudden, he experiences buyer’s remorse and changes his mind.  To remove the donkey ears, he calls upon the park rangers and their chemicals to roll back the carpet before it reaches its full wall-to-wall glory.  The chemicals do their slow work and the hyacinth carpet turns an ugly sere brown, as the leaves and flowers rot.  Eventually, the sun dries it out and the carpet slowly sinks back into the lagoon.

While that hyacinth carpet is in the room, however, paddling through it is either very hard work or a flat out impossibility.  Snakes like to sit in the hyacinth, too, and that makes putting your paddle down through the donkey ears particularly discomfiting. You never know if you’re going to bonk a moccasin in the head.  And even if a harmless broad-banded water snake should suddenly leave his perch in the high plush carpet and launch himself into your kayak, your involuntary reflexes might convince you to leave the boat before your mind can say, “whoa, no need to panic!”

Broad Banded Water Snake in Water Hyacinth

Broad Banded Water Snake in Hyacinth

Now there are several linking lagoons in the north end of the park, like so many rooms in a house, and the hyacinth carpet didn’t extend to all of them this year.  In one of the middle lagoons, the invisible home owner preferred a different sort of flooring altogether, and now chooses a vicious vegetation that bass fishermen call snot grass, which is every bit as unpleasant to look at, or paddle through, as its name implies.  It’s a kind of green slime, made up of a filamentous algae whose official name is spirogyra.  The green of this mucilaginous plant, unlike the music produced by the band that took the plant’s name for its own, is offensive to anyone with minimal aesthetic sensibilities.  It’s a glowing, almost orangey green, of the sort that used to be found in bad psychedelic art posters and sixties shag rugs.  This flooring material is tricky.  In the early spring, you can’t see it at all, because it grows on the bottom of the lagoons.  But when the weather heats up, the algae produces oxygen, which adheres in the form of bubbles to the slime and raises it to the surface as a thick mucous mat.

Alligator wearing Spyrogira Jacket and Pants

Alligator wearing Spyrogira Jacket and Pants

That’s when what was a pain only for deeper reaching bass lures becomes a major challenge to kayakers and top water fishermen.  When you put your paddle into snot grass, you will wish that you hadn’t.  It wraps itself around the paddle and weighs upon your soul like a millstone.  It doesn’t reach heavenwards like the beautiful, but noxious and impassable, hyacinth, so one can get through it with very shallow paddling, taking care not to allow the paddle blade to descend more than halfway into the mat.

In the northern lagoons of the park, once the hyacinth is eradicated with chemicals that also kill all of the low hanging foliage on oak and tallow trees, the ponds are clear for a week or two.  The pond surface then reminds me of my newly urethaned heart of pine floor, deep brown and slick as pomaded hair.

Hardwater Flooring

Hardwater Flooring

But then our fickle homeowner, uncomfortable with the idea of unadorned hard water, rolls out the duckweed rugs, having a clear surface to work with and having made up his mind that neither hyacinth nor snot grass were to his taste.  The duckweed is aesthetically inoffensive, peppering the water’s surface with millions of tiny button shaped pads, each one less than an eighth of an inch across.  But when it gets thick enough, it can choke off light and oxygen to the life below, and is therefore environmentally noxious.  For the kayaker, too, duckweed, when it is augmented by a base of milfoil and coontail weeds, is an unpleasantness and getting through it can be as harrowing as getting through the snot grass.  It’s mid-July now, and the duckweed rugs, first scattered randomly over the surface of the lagoons adjacent to Marconi Drive and abutting the abandoned north golf course, are spreading out with ambitions to carpetdom.

Duckweed carpeting in place

Duckweed carpeting in place

Mardi Gras in the Back Lagoons of City Park

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One of my favorite times to come through the rabbit hole into the back lagoons is Mardi Gras, when the hundreds of thousands of maskers and carnivalians who pour into the city and flood its streets make solitude virtually impossible.  By the weekend preceding Fat Tuesday, their numbers and bacchanalian fervor reach a critical mass of human desire, and the very atmosphere of the city seems to throb and vibrate with anarchic animal energy.  But in the back lagoons, though I feel that throbbing and even hear the sounds wafting from the parades when the wind is right, I am almost out of range of the vortex of energy that seeks to suck me in. The waxing and waning sounds that do make it through—the pleading crowds, the brass bands, the booming drums—almost seem to be coming from the surface of the water itself.

It is not that I have something against Mardi Gras or that I think it too wild.  The city tries to sell it as a “family event,” something one can bring one’s kids to see and experience, and by this they mean that all of the behavior traditionally, historically associated with Carnival—nudity, iconoclasm, bawdy social satire, flaunting of social convention and churchy morality, disrespect for authority, the throwing off of inhibitions, masking as a means of discarding one’s everyday self—is no longer part of the public event.  Happily, that is not true, though Disneyfications of Mardi Gras are certainly available throughout the long carnival season.

I’m intrigued by the undomesticated Carnival, which I take to be a very adult holiday, requiring an adult sensibility and knowledge of good and evil and of our fallen natures, and insofar as New Orleans preserves it well—in the Krewe de Vieux parade and masked ball, for example, I like it, or at least I like the idea of it.

For me, however, the back lagoons are themselves a masked ball, and I wonder who it is that flirts with me from behind the green mask.

Reilly’s Shamrock Island

Reillly's Shamrock Island

In New Orleans City Park, at the far end of a lagoon that runs alongside and away from Zachary Taylor Drive, just north of Interstate 610, is an islet, wild and overgrown with tangled vines, palmettos, ancient oaks, and various invasive plants and trees.  It has no bridge to the park grounds that surround it and remains inaccessible except by boat. On the north side of this islet, amidst the chaos of its vegetation, hurled down among the brambles and weeds, is a mysterious concrete tablet about four feet by five feet, with bas-relief lettering announcing “Reilly’s Shamrock Island.”  It lies face up, split down the middle like Moses’s tablets at the base of Mount Sinai.  How it got there no one seems to know, not even the local know-it-alls whose job it is to research and publish the city’s past.  Was this heavy concrete monument the product of a hustling Irish entrepreneur, the now deceased and forgotten Mr. Reilly, who sought to commercialize the islet?  Is Shamrock Island an Americanized form of the Gaelic Tír na nÓg, that island in Irish mythology of eternal youth, where sickness and death do not exist, and happiness lasts forever?  And was the splitting and casting down of the concrete tablet the work of swamp gods, angered by intruders and their desecrations?  It gives me pleasure to think so.  Given the sorry state of our city’s efforts to commercialize the lagoons, the broken tablet serves as a clear reminder of the nature of nature and of our own mortality.  Finally, after all, the wild that lurks patiently beneath the crumbling golf shelters and rotted piers and shattered announcements of the happiness awaiting us on Shamrock Island, inaccessible across the unbridged water, is the wild of our own slow decay.

John Muir never came to City Park

2-4-12-Saint-Anthony-Tormented-by-Demons;-Schongauer

The spotted gar I spoke of earlier, and all the other ideas in these waters, are, I now realize, why I come to the City Park lagoons, though some of my purist kayaking friends disdain them as too close to people, cars, picnickers, soccer players, tennis courts, and music festivals. And there’s no denying that the lagoons are a far far cry from pristine wilderness.  But the wild comes to us in many forms, doesn’t it?  My friends are devout fans of John Muir and the Sierra Club, and enjoying wilderness for them requires a removal from all the trappings of civilization.  When I kayak with them in the sprawling Maurepas Swamp, some thirty miles to the west of the city, we prefer to do it on days when the wind is blowing east, so that the sounds of the interstate highway don’t waft in on us and remind us how close we are to industry and pollution and the howl produced by the incessant traffic of consumer capitalism.  That swamp’s 103,000 acres dwarf the Park’s 1300, but even there we have to work to enjoy the illusion of a wilderness escape.

In any case, I bring another mind to nature when I kayak in City Park.  The idea of wilderness that I have in the park is not John Muir’s slightly diluted transcendentalism but an idea handed down to me by my Calvinist forebears, who saw the wilderness as a place of temptation, devil worship, demons, savagery, and spiritual desolation.  Believing that the wilderness literally embodied these qualities, they spent their lives trying to conquer and domesticate it, even though in their more lucid moments they knew that the wild they saw in nature was also the wild within their own hearts, the wild that haunted their dreams.  We have somewhat improved on the Puritans, I think, by jettisoning their habit of projecting their inner darkness onto the natural world—their literalism, their conviction that Satan controlled and inhabited the wilderness that surrounded their clearings.  That belief, passed on to us and transformed into the modern notion that nature was created solely for us to exploit, has led to all sorts of evil, and we do well to resist it whenever and however we can.  But I want to keep their projections as my metaphors, knowing them for what they are, not direct expressions of the spiritual or moral nature of the wild and its inhabitants, but as signs and symbols of our less conscious spiritual and psychological states.   The gar, though perhaps not as pretty as some, is a fish like any other, with its rightful and necessary place in the complex ecology of the riverine waterways, and to believe, as the Puritans would have, that its visage is a good indicator that its rightful place is somewhere in hell, is wrong headed and downright dangerous.  It’s a belief that has ended in the alligator gar’s presence on a number of endangered species lists.

But humans are, for better or worse, a metaphorical species, and we cannot help but read the world around us as symbolic and meaningful of something other than itself.  If we—or I—can read those metaphors as reflections of our own inner states and conditions, we do well, for while nature itself is happily free of moral and psychological complexity, we are not.  And the lagoons, I’ve come to realize, are replete with metaphors reflecting those inner states and conditions.  Staring at its semi-opaque surface, I am gazing into the semi-opacity of my own mind, vaguely aware of the galumphing forms below the level of my conscious awareness and half wishing, half-fearing they’d break the plane that separates their world from mine.

My notions about City Park are partly a concession to the realities of modern life—which encroach on nature everywhere we turn—and partly an escape from those realities.  My journeys into the back waters of City Park still retain the mark of the child who once upon a time found a world of wonder in the landscape beneath the bedcovers, but in exploring this spot in the very heart of the city, I am also opening a path to the wild that never completely excludes an awareness of the city, and of the grown up person who now inhabits it.  The metaphors that I see in the lagoons are almost all metaphors whose meanings depend upon the stark juxtaposition of city and lagoon—air/water, day/night, outside/inside, tame/wild, waking/sleeping, conscious/ unconscious—and nowhere are those meanings more apparent that in this urban park.