I missed a notable date last week, and I am sorry. It was the 296 anniversary of the founding of my former (and long-time) home, New Orleans. So I am repeating below (with some edits and tweaks) a bittersweet blog post that I drafted when last I visited the Crescent City, or, as I prefer to call it by its more ancient title, the Isle of Orleans.
Some historians and romanticists date New Orleans' start at 1718 c.e. At that time, a legendary French character, Jean Baptiste Le-Moyne de Bienville, ruled as governor over the vast Louisiana-French lands and bodies of water still within the old Sun King's grasp, who waited for news back in the European homeland. But others maintain, include me please, that 1722 and/or 1723, two bedeviled years in which Bienville's intrepid and determined band of dirty, underpaid, and underfed explorers pushed north and west -- despite horrific rains, cloud banks of stinging mosquitoes, and depressing and deadly hurricane batterings -- onto some luxuriant soils and surreally sloppy, rancid mud swamp, the infamous humid delta river deposits near the Gulf , to establish for the glorious kingdom of France an outpost on a tenuous but at least temporarily above-water island floating in the Great Muddy: and this was the embattled founding of the Isle of Or-lee-unz.
The yeoman struggles of Bienville and his company, trudging out of what we now know as Alabama and Mississippi, in a virtual war via every step against combative nature, predatory animals, hostile reptiles and insects, malnutrition, and other rude and defeating phenomena (take for example: painful diseases, floodings from torrents of subtropical rain, stifling humidity and prolonged days of broiling sunlight but no protective structures)
eventually reaped some lasting dividends. The French outpost named after venerable Orleans in the 'old world' was there to stay, for better or for worse, by 1724.
So, then, happy belated birthday, Nouvelle Orleans. Let us briefly ponder before we move on how and why this most unlikely outpost -- a target of the
most salacious and greedy among humans for long centuries, exquisitely rich in lucrative trade and military defense assets -- became the mythologized,
multicultural, multiracial, and legendary storybook port for one the world's most imposing rivers.
For over 300 years the Isle has clung by its fingertips to the soaked and sinking limbus of land, through dozens of meteorological and human disasters, while cultivating the nickname The City Where a City Never Should Have Been. Give this beset place a round of applause. It has proved to be a battered survivor, against centuries of the disruptive odds, thrown in its way.
And, so, who's gonna buy the first round so we can enjoy a toast?
From the MonsterBlog diary, 12/10/10 (9:00 PM)
Before you can stand in the light, you must deal with your darkness
-- An Ancient ProverbIn the old and sometimes creaky South, particularly old Louisiana, loss and tragedy, and imminent disaster, if not outright doom, are like annoying distant relatives who make unannounced and, yes, the most unwelcome of house calls during the most inconvenient of times.
Let me spell that out. Recent guests in New Orleans have been British Petroleum and their vast and immoral sea of Gulf-spilled oil; the deadly Hurricane Katrina (a.k.a.The Bad Thing), Hurricane Rita, an evil playmate -- a storm called Gustav (another Russian, by God!), spreading outbreaks of staph and other infections, and an assortment of lesser known but often infamous intruders. Such are and such will be the vicissitudes, the consequent sad times and speech-stifling consequences, of storm- and tragedy-inclined life in our vulnerable and sinking (into salt water oblivion) Third World culture of southern Louisiana. This storied territory itself was declared to be "Louisiana" by the redolent explorer LaSalle, freshly arrived from the fragranced and gaudy European kingdom of France, in the 17th century. Intrepid LaSalle stood with a bearing of majesty, covered to his knees in foul, swampy detritus (in the front of his sweating, panting, muddied soldierly brigades and his weather-beaten, poorly paid, and tight-lipped Indian guides) at the southern maw of the mighty "brown god" of raging waters (known now to be The Mississippi River) River) on an unrecorded, humid afternoon long ago. The noble LaSalle claimed all that he could see and touch and smell for the Sun King's kingdom back home. No one probably guessed there in the perilous heat of that nondescript day in the 1600s that by paddling upstream, only 100 winding and twisty miles, or so, the European interlopers would discover a tract of land, an island in fact, that eventually would support tenuous human settlements (in the midst of nameless stretches of swamp, reedy marshes, a huge gulf and palpitating lakes) because those die-hard human souls from that other World found a way to survive perilous day after perilous day.
By all accounts, LaSalle's company of French and assorted races crafted first a messy little settlement, like a blighted virgin bride, on the island that -- about one hundred years later -- would take the name New Orleans. The legendary explorer Bienville and his contemporaries on the isle by the 1720s -- oppressors from conquering Europe gifted to the 'new world' -- having lasted their way through tempests, trials, military assaults, greedy scams and rabid temptations, were erecting a town that was beginning to notoriously resemble an anything goes, rapacious Caribbean port-o-call.
Among the annual perils of residing just off the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana, Atlantic tsunamis, bearing scarily low barometric pressures and skyscraper tall storm-surge waves, and enough rain to make the original Noah worry, roll in inexorably from low fronts ambling above the west African coast or the balmy, already-heated Bahamas. Soon chaotic social reactions, flooding waters, and scurrying evacuees clutter your path out of your below sea-level circumstances and, as with the quickly upon us Katrina, one is compelled once again to bray at the sky: why ever did I/we choose to live in Nouvelle Orleans, such a precarious and fated culture.
I have found among my real friends from New Orleans and other parts of the Gulf South, with whom I have a history and a bond of trust, and with whom I can genuinely risk self-disclosure, and whom I left behind in the pitiable Katrina days of late Summer 2005, that painful memories -- and withering ghosts of abject destruction -- are never far from the surface of our conversations, even now, as years have gone by. If I look into one more person's eyes before I leave (the stricken metropolis of New Orleans) in two days, after this brief and unhappy sojourn, only to behold them tearing up (because ordinary life and memories of Nature's destructive hand poised over your head like a guillotine can quickly and completely sad).If only human emotions were not so easy to access and so complicated. Then everyone could be happy, hale, and hearty -- and well met. Forever. And perhaps memories of windy, watery, overwhelming disasters like on August 29 could look both fleeting and airy.
There is another kind of thing, the life lesson, that is not much talked about at "such depths" in polite and denial-ridden conversation post-Katrina and post-Rita in and around the City That Care Forgot -- now that all the unpleasantness of past storm seasons has drifted off toward the cloudy horizon. So let's just say that I speak to you in a darkened room, that way we won't have to look straight each other and confront some most serious life lessons eye to eye. The few crucial and lasting life lessons that should be gleaned from recent experience, and even all the way back to the halcyon, survival of the fittest days stretching back to Bienville, and LaSalle who walked here before him..
Life Lesson 1
** No matter how many times you kneel or how hard you pray, no matter how bad you wish for something good to take place -- sometimes the storms of human life and love just will not turn away. They come on. Relentlessly. Bearing drama, and foreboding, for some unfathomable reasons pointed right in your way. Prayer, denial, and repression do not shift them onto other tracks. Their knocks on the doorways must be answered; so, you will be constrained to deal with your unwanted and non-requested guests. Yet throughout those troubles that storm on through, you will be challenged to battle the darkness and find some way to prevail.
Life Lesson 2
** You must not naively expect that battalions of cavalry -- or hordes of government-helpers -- will ride into the scene of your upheaval, pending loss, or disaster -- despite your fondest wishes and daydreams -- to effect an amazing rescue. So do not blindly put trust in 'miracles.' In fact, your rescue party will most likely get lost or confused on the road, or held up by the complications and human error, or run adrift and fall to pieces, like one of Bienville's early scout squads did. Life in disaster zones during recent times teaches that rescue helicopters have a way of flying above and over, and then blindly onward, oblivious to the pleadings and suffering of perishable human beings earthbound below. Storm territory denizens, entrapped in the broiling sun, stifling heat, mosquito mobs, and mucky mire, will have to learn to rise up in assistance to each other, to stand tall and strong lending courage and aide to unlucky companions. They will have to pull themselves up by the proverbial bootstraps no matter how much pain and resentment it might engender.
Life Lesson 3
** Lastly, life is the real teacher. Life discloses that people and things don't usually enjoy story-book, happy, Hollywood endings. Splendid outcome is a seldom used catch-phrase in stormy villages, turbulent coastal communities, and disaster zones. Final chapters that end too quickly, the deaths of cherished characters in your story, and undesirable conclusions that mix fact and fiction get all jammed up with sorrow, ambiguities, tragedies, and denial. Life. Isn't this just a kick? Besides, with life, who really gets out alive anyway?
Generally, people residing in and even periodically enjoying disaster hotspots, port cities, and party towns, like the third world culture of New Orleans, for long enough begin to understand on some inchoate level that big, bad storms don't always turn away and rescue teams tend to get waylaid while attempting to make urgent house calls during biblical storms. But how does one effectively deny or unthinkingly cope with the heartbreak of enduring losses, death (in its myriad forms), and property destruction -- all the while gambling with the painful possibilities that someone, family or friend or stranger or foe, or one's most prized earthly possessions may not dodge the inescapable force and the deadly tsunami next time? There's a whole lot of clinging and self-deceit being accomplished in this little Gulf world. Some folks dimly, intuitively, can admit (but many do not see at all) that they are dangling like a thin thread swaying out on a tender and low-hanging branch until the next stiff tropical winds come calling.
People still ask if I will ever migrate back to this part of the country. No, I tell them, as gently and diplomatically as I know how. Life moves on. I'm done here. Why reside on an island that is inexorably sinking like a dull, flat stone into a massive Gulf? In fact it is again, as I write, the Isle of Orleans, forever to be menaced by deep Southern tragedy, shifting and drifting down into the muck and mire and black delta waters at the Great Brown River's mouth, near the place where European explorers sought power and prosperity.
Consider: the southernmost region of the muddy Delta riverbank -- on which the haughty explorer LaSalle and his tiring battalion, with the local native guides, stood one meaningful day in the 1600s -- now long disappeared under Gulf waves, like lost Atlantis, submerged forever. Further up north, along the curvy brown deity of briskly flowing waters, there disappears every day several football fields worth of scarce but minerally rich delta land like the stuff on which the determined explorer Bienville later strode. Much history, legend, and wealth has gone plunging forever below the unrelentingly thirsty Mississippi River waters racing down from The North. The Isle of Orleans -- callously now known as the "sliver by the river," the French Quarter, and the N.O. central business district (The CBD) -- a beguiling trio -- must and will follow inexorably. What might haughty LaSalle say, or what might the leader Bienville say, if either could know what's happening here? Life and love are fleeting? One cannot possess that which Mother Nature wants for herself? -- C'est la vie?
Picture this. We are now seated at a table in an eatery on the edge of the river in downtown New Orleans with others. At least one of these companions is a long-time, dedicated resident in the Big Easy -- a friend. We have eaten. But we are not quite done with the evening.
The friend misses seeing us regularly. He is sad but holds hope. 'So when are you going to come back?' he wants to know.
I have to tell him that I won't be, I can't, too much pain left over from the untimely, forced leave-taking. I raise my right hand for a signal to our waiter. 'Check, please,' I call. In the distance, a river boat horn sounds loudly through the fog and farther on another tropical storm is brewing in a darkening Atlantic sky.
|Bienville, the French Governor and Explorer|