The winds of the Anthropocene carry ghosts—the vestiges and signs of past ways of life still charged in the present.
– Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet
IIn May 2019, the eight of us embarked on a two-week intensive class at Loyola University New Orleans, on nature writing. We quickly found our subject of study to be entangled with dilemmas of the Anthropocene: how humans are never just observing or describing landscapes and other creatures, but also always impacting the world affording these landscapes, home to these other creatures. Meandering around the city and reflecting on the entrapments and opportunities opened up by nature writing—and in the style of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project—we compiled the following snapshots of New Orleans.
The first morning of our class, we immersed ourselves in genres and styles of nature writing: Thoreau and Whitman standards, but also more quirky texts—recent works such as Olga Tocarczuk’s Flights, and Lauren Berlant and Kathleen Stewart’s new book The Hundreds. That afternoon, we followed another student group to Audubon Park across from Loyola’s campus. The class was an introduction to the natural sciences, called Investigating Nature and taught by Professor Phil Buccolo—we joked that while they were investigating nature, we were nature writing. We observed the students learn about eutrophication in the park lagoon; there had been a major rainstorm over the weekend which flooded a good part of the city, totaling countless cars and stranding them on submerged streets. The heavy rain had washed the excessive nutrients from the nearby golf course into the park lagoon, and the result was a bloom of green, choking the water—turtles and gar slurped oxygen from the surface.
As Buccolo lectured on the various species coexisting and competing for resources, a park walker diverted from the path and leaned against a tree, listening. Around 70, sporting a black Trump 2020 tank top, he interrupted to ask about the effects of the recent runoff on the fisheries in Lake Pontchartrain. A few minutes later, while Buccolo was connecting stresses on local ecosystems due to fossil fuel production, the park walker interrupted again, blurting out, “But even if we decrease our reliance on fossil fuels, what will we do about China and India?” Flustered but quick on his feet, Buccolo replied, “Well sir, climate change does not give a shit about socioeconomic structures or political borders.” The park walker tramped away, waving his arms, shaking his head, and clearly annoyed—just another liberal college professor, he seemed to be thinking. We had gone out to the park to investigate nature, and found ourselves in a thicket of political divisions and ideological blinders. Our class had become indicted in this weird moment, shattering any sense of nature writing attaining an “objective view” of its subject, even when scientifically studying flora and fauna. Recalling an insight by environmental philosopher Timothy Morton from his book Being Ecological, there was no way to escape this eco-political predicament: we were all in it.
The brown, opaque water swirls by the jagged rocks of the shore. As it moves swiftly out of view more seeps in, an unending field of water—especially muddy right now, from the spring runoff and rainfall. Silver flashes as a mullet jumps repeatedly from the water, attempting to escape some unseen predator. But there are few other signs of natural life, save a stray tree now and then cartwheeling down the current, shorn from a bank somewhere upriver.
The river is teeming with boats of varying sizes, rusted behemoths that shuffle slowly against and with the current by turns. There appears to be no room for anything else on this water, as these hulking tankers hauling oil and other sundry goods do not care for what they crush in their homeward or outbound journeys. Objective correlative: the mammoth wakes from these ships that crash into the breakwall and riprap, indifferent to our presence. Mark Twain, Langston Hughes, Rebecca Solnit—writers have been inspired by this swollen, muddy river for centuries, and we feel as if we are writing in its current now, as well.
Sitting on the shoreline on the east bank at a park known as the Fly, one can rest on a tattered lawn. Looking to the far shore is an exercise in viewing late industrialism at work, for amid patches of intermittent trees reside massive concrete and steel edifices—tall pillars chopping up the horizon. These factories dominate the view, proclaiming that man is master of land, river, and sky as they break through and determine everything. As the sun sets you do not see it set behind the treeline, but instead see its fire disappear behind the grim concrete stacks.
A City in Ruins
We visited the New Orleans Museum of Art to tour the new expansion of the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden. To sharpen our sleepy minds, we started out by sipping coffee and eating beignets next to the former Morning Call restaurant. The building was in fact being renovated, and a Café du Monde food truck peddled a limited menu of their iconic treats.
Gathered around two outdoor tables shoved together under a live oak, we read Percy Shelley’s 1818 poem “Ozymandias,” a Romantic-period sonnet about the longevity of art, the passing of time, and the vastness of nature. The poem warns rulers to tread carefully, for those whom they exert power over include the artists and writers—the immortalizers—of their legacy, for better or worse. In a way, the themes of Shelley’s poem were already resonating around us as the empty café stood beside us, in limbo somewhere between grand and degraded. The vacant building evoked objects, locations, and people in constant change—all slowly sinking in the sands of time.
As we walk around looking at all the new sculptures we wonder what “new” means in a city where For Lease signs are as abundant as street signs. The word expansion hangs over the community like a cloud eager to spit acid on our heads. The cloud blocks our view and by the time the storm passes, it is too late. As our eyes adjust to the light, we can see specks of white where there weren’t any before. An omen the storm affords us. This debris is concrete and immovable. The new art pieces shine and sparkle, arrest and inspire—but they also bespeak other forms of newness that are not as well-intentioned.
One sculpture that struck the class was an assemblage of tall slabs of glass towering from the grass: Mirror Labyrinth by Jeppe Hein. This is a tri-spiral maze of mirrors that reflect anything and everything the entering viewer sees. This piece conjured the feeling of a funhouse as we stumbled our way through, titillated by sudden sensations of disorientation. But thinking about this sculpture alongside the city’s ongoing gentrification and expansion, in tandem with denial of ecological realities and political resistance to enact real social justice, we could not help but think more along the lines of Cormac McCarthy’s use of the word “funhouse” in his novel The Road: “the ruins of a vast funhouse against the distant murk.” What is new here, now, cannot help but intimate a post-apocalyptic ruin to come.
In a city of broken things, the epitome of these are the potholes. Everywhere you go, the potholes reside and expand. The potholes tend to fester and multiply in areas that cannot afford to bypass the city’s waitlist. The force of entropy that seems so prevalent here seems to take special offense with the roads, making sure that anyone who wishes to use them must go through an endless, Sisyphean trial. Some potholes are nothing but small dips in the road; others can swallow a bumper entire.
The line between potholes and sinkholes blurs in this city, thanks to our eroding coastline and subsidence. It’s most shocking when you get to see a newly created pothole here—for it always seems to occur suddenly. One moment a car is parked on a seemingly stable piece of asphalt, the next the car is at a horizontal angle, sliding deeper into the newly formed void. Yes, the potholes seem more numerous than actual denizens of New Orleans at this point. And they are a growing population.
Here’s what you find on the sidewalks of New Orleans: Intricate root systems have distorted the once smooth pavement, morphing concrete into cracked mountains. A slippered wanderer climbs each one with nose tilted down and thumbs racing across his phone, strolling the shady side of the street. Followed by another, this one wearing high heels. And another, this one in construction boots. Sneakers fare easier for a mother pushing a double-wide stroller. “No, a pool won’t do, because I certainly won’t have time to clean it.” Three men, one pushing a broken bicycle. “You know what the problem is with bagels? They’re just too tough.” Joggers brave the flattened neutral ground, navigating regular interruptions in their path by intersections and encroaching Infinitis and Jeeps. A rusty rev warns the joggers of the path’s actual purpose—an oncoming streetcar, tired bell dinging.
These pedestrians call to mind a sentence from Thoreau on the Village: “I have not been able to recall a single step of my walk, and I have thought that perhaps my body would find its way home…” So the New Orleans sidewalks seem to lull walkers in trances across improbably uneven ground, a kind of postmodern flâneurie taking shape everyday around us.
The detritus of daily life: Insistent wind and rain swirls this fishbowl of a city routinely, uncovering dirty secrets, lining the sidewalks and poking through flower beds. Crepe myrtles burst into vibrant bloom, providing a hub of safety and nourishment for small creatures who come across it—especially the anoles, who can be found atop sunny perches, spiraling trees, or dried up dead in the cracks between concrete slabs. Decrepit Mardi Gras beads with cracked and chipped paint hang too high in trees to be snatched by passersby. Occasionally, a storm will knock a few beads down into the street to be crushed by the pounding wheels of traffic, spraying the street with splintered plastic and metallic paint, lead poison gifts proffered to unknown recipients.
When the sun falls below the river, winged palmetto bugs emerge, often a finger’s length, skittering and roaming freely, uncaring of your presence, let alone your disgust. A crushed Burger King wrapper still smeared with ketchup, half-eaten takeout in stained styrofoam (fried shrimp, rice), napkins coated in powdered sugar. Abandoned underwear (Jockeys), a sparrow’s skull crushed many times over. All beaten and encased by the wind and rain, but now midnight snacks for the creepy critters of the night. June bugs buzz erratically, unable to comprehend the screens that keep them from their objectives. Moths swarm by the dozens around street lamps, dauntingly dimming expected light. This is the nightscape of our sidewalks.
The New Orleans West Bank to East Bank commute is one of the city’s most infamous, despite being one of its most common. Cars drive onto the Crescent City Connection at a steady, relentless rate in the humid mornings. At a certain time, usually about 7:10 a.m., the cars begin to clump together on the bridge. Some take the H.O.V. lane, saving what seems like only a few minutes. It is slow and inconvenient—how it must be in this stubborn, sinking city.
Poet Gary Snyder described such a scene north of Los Angeles as “Humming ant-column vehicles / Six, eight lines wide.” The daily automobile commute is a staple of American life, oddly enough. Commuting across New Orleans, this experience takes on its own unique features: the Mardi Gras colored R.T.A. buses and their often dodgy schedules (along with their even dodgier smartphone app), the clanking streetcars full of map-reading tourists looking for Bourbon (the drink and/or the street), and the red double decker City Sightviewing buses shouting out casual New Orleans trivia. Transportation, but especially commuting in New Orleans, is a constant reminder of the aesthetic presentation the city upholds and will continue to uphold. We are driven along the buildings and people of New Orleans, and they drive us to maintain those images that define this city.
New Orleans has been shaped by its bumpy, cracking roads and the commutes these streets invite (even if just barely). Yet it does not have to be this way. Cars are not inherently special to urban development—especially not this geographically bounded, relatively small city. What other transportation forms might be imagined here? Or is it too late for such imaginings?
St. Charles Avenue Streetcar
It all starts with waiting on some dirt—or mud if it has been raining. You’ll check your watch every minute even though you don’t know the streetcar schedule anyway. There have been rumors of a streetcar coming every 30 minutes, but you know this is only a rumor because you’ve waited almost an hour. “A landscape haunts, intense as opium” —so writes Stéphane Mallarmé in Divagations. In New Orleans, we feel such haunting distinctly, in strange moments such as these.
Then there’s the agony and ecstasy of seeing a streetcar appear in the distance. It grows slowly towards you, but it still has ten stops to make before it reaches you. Once it arrives, the driver violently thrashes the door open with a lever and gives you stern commands. “Hurry. Get all the way inside.” The driver will snatch your crinkled dollar from your hand after the machine rejects it the first time and he’ll shove it back in and get it right his first try. If you’re a dawdling tourist sold on the idea of New Orleans being a lazy, easy going town, this driver will be sure to disillusion you, shattering your fantasy.
After all of the waiting and tension, you find a seat by an open window. It’s a muggy May day, but the breeze drifting by as the streetcar chugs down St. Charles Avenue feels nice. Suddenly, you’ll have entered a Louisiana fairytale: mansions behind cast iron gates and drooping live oaks with branches leaning on the ground for rest, surviving Mardi Gras beads dangling from trees and wrapped around telephone poles, cascades of oak canopies festooned with resurrection ferns. A redheaded man in a leather jacket sitting across the aisle holding an unlit cigarette as if he were going to light it at any moment explains to a couple in front of him, “Still got my dreams, smoke my cigarettes.” The air is filled with the aroma of star jasmine in the spring, and the magnolia trees in bloom.
Passing apartments, bars, restaurants, eventually the tracks begin to curve and round the pedestal in the middle of Lee Circle. Lee no longer sits atop the pedestal. It wasn’t his right to live above the people who have loved and cared for this city. The last stop is Canal Street. When exiting the streetcar, you’ll be greeted by a crowd of people waiting to enter. Some try to traipse in before you exit, but it’s all the same. This old fashioned mode of public transportation, like something out of a William Gibson steampunk scene, cycles and recycles the dreams and realities of its city, hoping it never ends, even as time grinds precipitously forward toward looming storms, sinking ground.
Mary Shelley’s 1818 classic sendup of nature writing, Frankenstein, describes Victor’s early enchantment with dead bodies: “I saw how the fine form of man was degraded and wasted; I beheld the corruption of death succeed to the blooming cheek of life; I saw how the worm inherited the wonders of the eye and brain.” Whether enclosed by rusted chain-link, gouged wrought-iron, or whitewashed brick, in New Orleans, all cemeteries echo Victor’s grim fascinations. Venturing along the garbage cans that punctuate the walkways, past the newly constructed family crypts, the graveyard transforms into a macabre sculpture garden of sorts: weeping angels pray outside of limestone tombs blackened by time, plastic flowers and the withered petals of organic ones scattered at their feet, while drowned cockroaches float in abandoned granite vases next to flotillas of mosquito eggs.
Every New Orleans cemetery, from the renowned St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 to the lesser known Greenwood Cemetery, is bound to have deteriorating crypts. Some are so atrophied that they resemble little more than a pile of haphazardly stacked stones. But the city thrives off this degradation—both historically and economically—by commoditizing historic cemeteries through tours and even entrance fees. St. Louis No. 1 charges visitors $20 to enter—a price tourists eagerly pay, not only to leave baubles for Marie Laveau in the hope of getting a wish granted, but to be immersed in the singular mystique only sites like this offer. New Orleans loves its cemeteries, but, as with Mary Shelley’s eponymous hero, this love affair comes with eerie consequences.
Rachel Carson opens Silent Spring with this classic line: “There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings.” Alas, this was never New Orleans.
Louisiana’s flat, swampy landscape allows for an abundance of sky. Here, there are no white-capped mountains or glistening skyscrapers, though. Instead, what can be found glaring over the Mississippi, slightly upriver from the Crescent City, is far a more ominous sight. Towering smokestacks and chemical flames are a common and unspoken sight along our horizons. Complicit with live oak trees and streetcars full of tourists, these Louisiana staples carry serious ramifications for the cross-species communities that inhabit this region.
According to the EPA’s 2014 National Toxic Air’s Assessment, Louisiana has the most toxic air in the United States. This problem is especially evident in the 70 miles of land between Baton Rouge and New Orleans known as “Cancer Alley.” In these small, often forgotten parishes along the Mississippi, the cancer rate can jump to 50 times the national average. These areas are populated by working class, predominantly black communities, evincing even larger issues of environmental inequality in the United States.
It is no mistake that this is occurring in the same state whose coastline has been terraformed for years. Destructive companies have sunk their talons into Louisiana’s economy, naturalizing the idea that exploitation is welcome as long as it opens up economic opportunities—no matter how short sighted they may be. These environmental consequences loom over the city as a slow moving haze, like the mist following a distant barge, pushing upriver.
As we finish this essay, termite swarming has just commenced—their tiny transparent bodies orbit each burning light after sundown, skeins of house-consuming creatures on the move. They’ll be devouring and reclaiming our cherished structures long after we are gone. Soon they will burrow into their new colonies, leaving broken wings on windowsills—not so unlike the fragile shells of rusted buildings on a slightly larger scale, still drying from an old flood.
Sandwiched between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River, New Orleans is a city shaped by water. Its location, prime for shipping ports, is what originally gave the city life—and what sustains it, still. But increasingly, the same water that bore the city is becoming its greatest threat. With the eroding wetlands and swelling sea levels, flooding is a regular occurrence. Most of this water goes unseen, not thought about until the streets become filled.
This delicate balance we live in is visualized through the “canal link bridge” that leads to the new expansion of NOMA’s sculpture garden: As we walked down the path, the water that was once below us has now made itself up past our hips, with the only thing saving us from being completely submerged being a thin concrete wall, with water stopping just inches from overflowing, much like our levees. It’s a parable for life in this fragile city that is, almost inevitably, sinking.
Christopher Schaberg is Dorothy Harrell Brown Distinguished Professor of English at Loyola University New Orleans, and author of the forthcoming book Searching for the Anthropocene: A Journey into the Environmental Humanities (Bloomsbury, December 2019).
Read an interview with Christopher Schaberg also appearing in Terrain.org.
Header photo of New Orleans skyline by Cristian Orellan.