Two Saturdays after Joe and I get married and buy a house in the Upper Ninth Ward, a weekend we probably should be on our honeymoon, I prepare for a kayaking journey with my nonfiction workshop instead. Our beloved professor, Richard, raised the necessary funds for us to attend a morning lecture with Bob Marshall, a Pulitzer Prize-winning environmental journalist, before an afternoon paddle on the Shell Bank Bayou. Since I was a student in Richard’s class last year, this is my second time on this adventure. I know what to expect as I pack sunscreen and a fresh pair of socks for the ride home, but I wonder if this journey will differ from the last. So much has changed. Last time I listened to Bob and the bayou as a New Orleans newbie who had just moved to the city from the Midwest with her long-term boyfriend. This time I am the home-owning married woman with bags of Mardi Gras beads and a new front-porch-sitting routine.
This time I am here to stay.
And if we’re being honest, dear reader, I am more than happy to get out of our new house for the day and leave our early onset marriage problems behind. It’s not Joe I need to escape. Not him specifically, but the proximity of him. Joe’s great, but we Just. Can’t. Stop. Picking fights with each other since we moved into our new house two days after I do. And they are never about anything important—mundane symptomatic squabbles about what way the bed should face, if we really need new throw pillows for the couch, or whether that three-leafed plant that seems to be dominating our poor excuse for a front lawn is poison ivy or not. We elect to engage in these tiffs so that we don’t have to untangle the root of our looming and growing problem.
Roots can be terrifying.
And if we’re still being honest, dear reader, at my root I fear that because we didn’t go on a honeymoon, because we didn’t take a timeout from our jobs, families and other responsibilities to introduce ourselves to one another as a husband and a wife, our marriage is doomed. It isn’t lost on me how much privilege is steeped in this fear. It’s not lost on Joe either who has told me repeatedly we just can’t afford to go.
“We just bought a house,” he says. “Why can’t you be happy with that?”
When it comes to disappearing coastal wetlands in Southeastern Louisiana, it seems there is more than one root of the problem. There’s a whole mess of them.
My classmates and I surround Bob’s dining room table in his shotgun-style home.
Outside tall trees and rocky sidewalks line either side of the quiet Uptown residential street. Inside a flat screen TV balances on top of a wooden credenza I guess houses Bob and his wife’s finest dishes. I wonder if their plates tremble when a truck drives down their street like ours do in the Upper Ninth. We all face the screen and scribble down notes mostly in silence save a helpless sigh every now and then. Bob, a man who considers Louisiana’s wetlands his “office, playground and church,” begins to untangle.
First, with the support of interactive graphics displayed on his flat screen, Bob explains that it took the Mississippi River over 7,000 years to create what we know as Southern Louisiana. With help from the Ohio River, the Missouri River and others, the Great Mississippi collected sediment and built a mass of land large enough to ascend out of the Gulf of Mexico, creating a delta. Bob tells us that, “a healthy delta needs the annual spring flood” in order to continue building land. Which doesn’t feel entirely intuitive at first, this idea of a region needing to be washed away in order to keep growing. But because we’ve inherited the mindset of our predecessors who installed levees and canals to protect the homes they built on this delta, we have come to understand Mother Earth’s yearly natural phenomenon as a series of own natural disasters.
“There’s no such thing as a natural disaster, only events,” Bob says as he makes eye contact with each of us. “That’s a human emotion. It’s only a disaster to us.”
I want to agree with Bob. His logic is sound and, as someone who grew up reading in trees and growing organic gardens with her father, I typically side with Mother Earth. But I think about our house. The one Joe and I just bought on this delta. The one we aren’t sure is about to be conquered by poison ivy or not. The one with the walls that have witnessed our newlywed growing pains. I imagine it underwater from a bird’s eye view and watch as the Hoodoo blue siding and black roof shingles peel off like dead skin. I try to categorize this horrifying image as natural. It doesn’t compute. God, we bought our first house as a married couple on a delta, I think to myself. We really are doomed.
Man-made levees have existed as long as New Orleans has. Settlers found them essential to making this delta inhabitable and thus, profitable to the King abroad. Europeans continued to build their own levees on top of natural levees whose height of three feet failed to protect settlers’ homes from Mother Earth’s natural phenomenon. Their work totaled 550 miles by 1850. The real push though, followed the Great Flood of 1927 when the federal government responded with the Flood Control Act of 1928. This act doubled the miles of levees lining the Great Mississippi as she spills down the length of the US, crowding her on both sides.
Undoubtedly, protecting their homes and families from murderous waters seemed like an obvious choice. But what settlers and government officials didn’t consider was that they were also blocking sediment from depositing and, in the end, putting more land beneath our feet — land we desperately need now to protect us from the rising water levels many right-winged politicians like to ignore.
It seems the more Bob pulls at the root of the problem, the more tangled our history appears. He explains next that in the 1930s while the levee system was almost doubling in length, Texaco found oil and gas in Louisiana’s wetlands. The company preyed upon small vulnerable communities of commercial fishermen who depended on the wetlands to support their families, making them an offer that appeared too big to refuse. Texaco acquired the mineral rights to the land and went on to develop over 50,000 oil and gas wells.
To show us the impact, Bob pulls up another map of Louisiana’s boot submerged in a sea of red and yellow dots woven together by thin blue lines. He tells us that each dot represents an active or inactive oil or gas well while a blue line represents a major pipeline striking land from offshore. My mind can’t make sense of it. Based on this image it doesn’t look like there is room for anything or anyone else to exist there. Bob suggests that this might be the case; without its oil the land can no longer hold itself, causing it to disappear quicker than many have the energy to acknowledge.
Finally, like an afterthought, Bob reminds us of one more knot he hadn’t untied for us yet: global warming.
“According to the National Climate Assessment, the Gulf and East Coast are looking at anywhere from a 2.5 to 3.2 feet eustatic warming sea level rise by the end of the century.”
Bob brings our attention back to the flat screen where he’s replaced the webbed map of wells with an unscathed map of Southern Louisiana. A map on which, if I zoomed in enough, I’d be able to find our Hoodoo blue home.
“Here’s a two foot rise.”
Blue takes over the screen and Louisiana’s boot looks like it stepped in a pothole after a heavy rain.
“And here’s a meter.”
More blue. Whoever is wearing Louisiana’s boot is now wading. Bob takes his hand off the mouse pad.
“That’s just from warming,” he says. “That’s without adding our sinking.”
He doesn’t need to click again for me to imagine the map covered in blue, the boot covered in blue, our home covered in blue. Dead skin peeling.
“But you’ve only got a couple more years of college here, so…”
That’s true, Bob, I say in my mind. But I am here to stay. Joe and I are here to stay.
Tangled roots and all.
When we arrive at Shell Bank Bayou, it quickly becomes clear that there are not enough kayaks for each of us to have our own. Six of us will need to pair up. Not having had a real moment to myself in two weeks that wasn’t spent bickering with a partner, I panic. I need something to go my way. I need the bayou to myself.
“May I have my own kayak since I had to share last time?” I ask the group.
I hold a straight face but cringe internally. I sound like a child begging to sit in the front seat.
Luckily, no one opposes.
I grab the red kayak on the very end of the row so I can slip her into the water as quickly as possible. No one else realizes we are racing, but being the first one to leave land allows me a small dose of victory. Something I haven’t tasted in a while. I hold my paddle with both hands at shoulder height. As I dip one end of my paddle into the water I push the opposite hand forward. I repeat this rhythm until it becomes a physical mantra I can carry with me through the rest of the journey.
The path is wide at first, the water black and smooth. Tall cypress trees line the water’s edge, swinging their leafy branches low enough to tickle your shoulders when paddling underneath them. Their roots reach out from the bank and into the path, sometimes poking through the water’s surface like a seedling through dirt. I imagine the twisting lines they must be drawing on the bayou floor, like a crack spreading through glass.
Our pod thins out as the path narrows, and I find myself gliding along the water mostly alone. Sheets of green clover bubble along the water’s surface, blanketing the space between tree trunks. Spanish moss, an invasive species, hangs like unraveled bandages from branches at all heights. The breeze falls and the sun hides behind the tree canopy and everything feels still. I cease paddling for a moment to see how still I can be, too. Without the sound of my paddle sweeping the water I hear an insect song that reminds me I am nowhere near my house in the city. And yet, in my mind, I am not that far from our home.
I paddle and wonder if Joe feels as frustrated as I do. I wonder if he regrets these big changes we made to our lives in a matter of days. I wonder why he seems to be ignoring that it isn’t just our house that (according to Bob’s presentation) is sinking. Will an impromptu honeymoon that dries up our savings make a difference? Will it be enough? Is it better to untangle the roots of our problems at home? Can you lay down tangled roots? Is there anything we can do to change the path we are on, or do we just need to endure?
The path narrows still, leaving the trees and their winding roots behind. The bubbling clover turns into mountains of thick vines that snake in and out of themselves like stacks of wet hair. The water shrinks to a skinny black stripe as wide as my boat. My paddle stabs at the impenetrable piles of vines crowding me on both sides, zapping any momentum I might have mustered from the last push of my opposite hand forward. I lose my speed. I lose my mantra. Every push of my paddle is like pressing restart.
Is that what we need? Do we need to start over? Do we need to unearth the levees we built, let the river wash through so the land can rebuild again? So we can rebuild again?
I don’t know.
And it doesn’t seem like Bob knows either.
I keep paddling.