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.