Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Home again, home again, jiggety jig

My Daddy looks particularly cute in his grassland-old field-wetland camouflage. When he's decked out head to toe in it, I can't help pretending not to see him, bumping into him in his beautifully appointed living room, decorated as it is out of an L.L Bean catalogue (with walls bedecked in paintings of cypress swamps and canvasbacks). While it's hard to miss my daddy standing in his own house counting shotgun shells, despite his attire, I was truly surprised to see two equally camouflaged boys crouched in a corner watching one of too many televisions scattered in the house. Since Daddy's friend Rebel died a few years ago, Rebel's 20-something year old son has taken a shine to my pops, joining him on hunting excursions, fishing trips, and at clay pigeon practice in the longleaf pine woodlands nearby.

However much I adored Rebel and his genuine, infectious joie de vivre, I think he may have been a little remiss at teaching his kid the rules of outdoor recreation in Louisiana. In fact, Ricky grew up shooting everything in his line of vision, a practice my daddy calls "if it flies, it dies." That my pops has taken Ricky under his wing bodes well for Louisiana wildlife. My daddy is a very ethical hunter, one who not only obeys the lax rules set forth by the Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries, but uses his judgment and knowledge of life cycles, population dynamics, and simple outdoor rules that he was taught. He certainly won't kill anything he won't eat, and however much he loves quail, he knows their numbers are abysmal in Louisiana and so won't hunt them. He'd never shoot a canvasback, a pintail, or any other uncommon-to-Louisiana duck, however much he'd love a mount. So Ricky has a few things to learn from Mr. Vaughn...

Daddy introduced me to Ricky and his friend, connecting me to the USFWS. I think he wants me to be a wetland manager at a National Wildlife Refuge who sports around in a pontoon boat with a gun on my side or something, so that's how he introduces me. I go through the rigamarole of explaining what I really do, which doesn't impress many people at all because it's not glamourous, doesn't bring in lots of money, and doesn't warrant free fishing licenses in Missouri. Nevertheless, Ricky proceeds to tell me that he's studying forestry at Louisiana Tech University, that his classes include botany, GIS training, even fire school. Impressed, happy even that forestry students have to learn ground flora, I tell him how great it is that Louisiana burns the snot out of their longleaf stands. Big units, hot fires, rich ground flora all over the Tertiary Uplands and Florida Parishes. I think at this point, Daddy left the kitchen to clean his gun, start on a Natural Light, anything to stay away from his middle child who gets giddy talking about fire.

I couldn't help it. "I hope when you land a job in forestry in Louisiana," I said hopefully, "that you'll burn more."
"Oh, well, you can't burn hardwoods," Ricky says, confidently.
"Really? Like your oaks?"
"Oh, yeah, fire's bad for timber," as he stood up straight and knocked back his LSU cap.
"Huh..." I muttered, then channeled Paul Nelson, the author of The Terrestrial Natural Communities of Missouri, the man who lit the first match on our public lands many years ago, thus ushering in the use of prescribed fire in our management toolbox. I launched into a calm, hopefully persuasive monologue about fire behaviour, fuel models that include highly flammable palmetto, and how fire isn't bad for timber harvest. I talked about the Mark Twain National Forest, our state lands, old growth, clearcuts. Daddy finally cut me off, reminding me that I was at his house so he could show me the recently protected bottomland-batture lands two blocks away before he and Ricky set off for a grain field south of town to "kill the bird of peace," as he put it. Daddy likes dove season because you don't have to wake up early to participate.

So I went home late last week for Bones' wedding. After the storm, a herpetologist, Bones, and his lovely bride, a graphic designer named Melita (both from Chalmette, east of New Orleans) ended up in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Shortly after moving there, Bones -pedigreed with a M.S. in herpetology from Middle Tennessee University- applied for a seasonal position with my outfit. Thrilled to find someone a. from New Orleans who understood the flora and fauna of the Mississippi Embayment, b. who thrived on fieldwork exactly the time I needed a thorough turtle survey, and c. who reminded me of my friends back home: affable, approachable, and possessing that accent that I can't even mimic, we became fast friends. Of course, I spent every day that summer with him conducting the turtle survey, laughing at his great stories, enjoying his company. He and Melita, his Greek girlfriend, made life in southeast Missouri bearable for us. Spending time with them was like going home. And their Greek-Italian wedding in New Orleans East was, finally, the chance to hang out with them in our native landscape. (I had to share a picture of the groom's cake...)

However much I love Missouri and her rivers, I get genuinely homesick here. I used the weekend of the wedding as a chance to do everything I miss doing. I miss good music, the good food of long, luxurious meals, the creative spirit of the city, where everyone in the neighborhood was either an artist, a musician, a glass blower, a woodworker, a writer, all doing mundane jobs just to make ends meet but always putting their craft foremost in their lives. I miss languid afternoons at coffeeshops spent writing correspondence, the cashiers who call you "baby" (and don't judge you when you buy lots of wine and Pimm's), almond croissants, Treme's brass bands, super late nights (because the weather in New Orleans is only bearable at night). Oh, I dig my Columbia neighborhood and particularly appreciate my next door neighbor, an art professor-roller derby girl with impeccable taste in music (and who stays up a late as I used to in New Orleans, often still up from the night as I'm trudging to my desk job. sigh.). But several people I know here won't come to my house because they're scared of the black people who live on my block, so I don't get to entertain as much as I would like.

Anyway, I don't get home much anymore for several reasons (12 hours from Columbia, no friends to dog sit Molly here, for starters), so it promised to be a busy weekend.
I found myself doing something I've never done before. I was taking pictures not only of the few people I still know in the city, but of buildings. I took a picture of my old house on Dauphine, of my post-music 3 am watering hole (Lafitte's, pictured, where old grizzled pianists played jazz piano on a lovely grand piano late at night), my beloved Italian restaurant where they serve Baked Alaska, lots of pictures of neighbor's houses. I felt an urgency, like a tourist in Europe never to return again rather than a citizen coming home for a visit.

The appointments with friends came first. My dear old high school friend Rebecca urged me to move back home for no better reason than she wants to hang out with me more. My neighbor Russ, one of those Faubourg Marigny residents who is connected to everything and everyone in the city, pressed us over a really mediocre pinot at the Marigny Brasserie to move back, "but you can't get sick. We still don't have decent health care in the city." Back in 2001, Russ gave this lecture at his Christmas party that Doug and I fell into the 10% of New Orleans' residents who can affect change (if we so desired). "The brain drain," he tells me, "is being reversed. Come back." He told me about all of this "development" going on and how he could get me involved with it...golf courses, manicured riverfront parks (even in St. Bernard Parish, which was flooded for weeks), urban green spaces, with no mention whatsoever of wetland restoration projects that are utterly necessary for the protection of the city. Before I could launch into why I need to be in Missouri and why urban green space development runs counter to what I think needs to happen in New Orleans, he quickly turned to me and asked, "name three people that influenced you and why. Quick." Easy. 1. My mother, who told me to never depend on a man for money. 2. My major professor, who told me I was a failure and would never amount to anything, thus spurring my competitive need for success, and 3. Paul Nelson, who taught me to look at the big picture, the landscape, and the little parts -the plants, animals- would fall into their rightful place.

It was there at that high table in the Marigny with the late afternoon sun streaming in through the floor to ceiling windows that my thoughts returned to Ricky. If the kids in Louisiana's Forestry Departments are still being taught that fire is bad for oaks, how could I even try to save the state's desperately overgrown oak woodlands? My pronouncement about fire and black oaks in the Niangua Basin triggered a "what's a girl like you know about timber?" from an enlightened Missouri state agency, what on earth would a Louisiana agency say to me if I told them to burn their oaks? And for an influential neighbor to invite me to return to my hometown where, even if I garnered the same salary as I have now, I couldn't afford to live, (and where the leadership is not addressing the real problem, the wetland destruction) I had to say no, once again, to New Orleans.

After the storm, city planners drafted grandiose plans for major wetland restoration south of the city. I don't know where the federal dollars are going, but they're not being spent on wetlands. In fact, from talking to friends in the city, most of the positive changes going on have been driven by private grants and non-profit organizations. The St. Roch market, a historic landmark building on the other side of the Treme (America's first black neighborhood), will be restored and the rest of the business district around it will be redeveloped under a grant through Tulane. A very good move, but unfortunately, most of the Treme was bought by investors who have flipped the houses, turning the neighborhood that pre-storm housed most of the city's musicians into a gentrified part of downtown. All of those cute houses on the other side of Rampart from the French Quarter was referred to as "The New Marigny" when I was home. It used to be a pretty tough neighborhood. But I really love New Orleans for her culture, for the funky Bywater kids who bike around in July with angel wings on their backs, the quirky Marigny neighbors who play piano in their underwear with the French doors open, the late night culture that kept everything relatively safe. But after the storm, non-natives with lots of money moved in, snatching up Creole cottages, willing to pay upwards of $900/mo. in rent. These folks are leaving now, their sources of money drying up in light of national economic downturn, and owners are starting- just starting- to drop prices. In the Bywater, the cool, hip neighborhood next to my neighborhood where rents used to run $350/mo., single bedrooms are going for $800/mo. Where do the cool kids who work at coffeeshops and play clarinet by night live now? What is driving the economy that allows people to live in my old neighborhood? I lived there as a waitress for years but couldn't afford it at all now...

Yes, of course, New Orleans is a changed city. Yes, the federal projects geared towards wetland protection and restoration are stalled somewhere in Washington. And yes, the state of Louisiana and the city of New Orleans are lacking the kind of leadership that would set the course right. I was asked at Bones' wedding by a girl from Metairie if I lived in the city. When I told her I lived in Missouri, she crinkled her nose and said "ewww, landlocked." "Yeah, but the woods are nice...and, um, Columbia's cool...I don't know...it's....Missouri. We have salamanders. And bike lanes." She wasn't convinced. She knew I lived in a place very different from home, but a place that under the leadership of people like Paul Nelson takes the landscape very seriously, making the management of her woods and wetlands a top priority rather than an afterthought.


Heather's Dad said...

While sojourning in Chocolet City, what did you do for coffee?

David Moore said...

Hey, I have a degree in Forestry - and Wildlife Management from La Tech. I went there because in LA in the 70's the only options for outdoor jobs (aside from oil and construction) were Forestry (learning to grow pulpwood) or wildlife mgt (learning to grow deer, turkeys, squirrels, quails or rabbits). Anyway, LA Tech is where I got into botany - typing herbarium labels (pre-computer days) for $5.00/hr for Dr. Gene Rhodes (who coincidentally is from Steele, MO in the bootheel). Again anyway, it was my third year at LA Tech when Professor Adams comes into one of many silvicultural classes and says "ya'll ain't nothin' but a bunch of soybean farmers." Huh? "Well", says Professor Adams, "you grow your crops in rows, you fertilize and herbicide them - the only difference between you and a soybean farmer is that you have a 15-20 year rotation instead of 1." Well damn - he was correct. Hence my circuitous journeys ever since into the wonderful world of peryginia, involucral bracts, ochrae, lemmas, glumes, gynoeciua, androecia, follicula, and various and assorted other marvelous plant structures. To me the alveolous patterns on the surface of certain Scleria achenes are by far more interesting than the wear patterns on the molars of Odocoileus virginianus. And besides, tomorrow I'll get paid to go to Grasshopper Hollow. Hell. Damnation. Ain't life great. David.

Allison Vaughn said...

When I lived there, I was a PJs on Frenchman person. I have a soft spot for the big Rue de la Course on Magazine, but it closed before the storm.
And Dave, thanks for reading and writing, too. I owe you vegetarian red beans and rice (and Turbo Dog! Sold here in Columbia!)