Written by Livable Futures Graduate Student Fellow, Molly Rideout
Field School Director, professor Thomas S. Davis
The Choctaw name for New Orleans translates to “The place where many languages are spoken,” according to Monique Verdin, photographer, activist and member of the Houma Nation. But this land of many voices is slowly disappearing as the Louisiana coast loses approximately one football field worth of ground each hour and the coastal communities continue to exist under threat of hurricane storm surges rushing up canals and over the land. Yet, every eight square miles of wetlands reduces a hurricane’s storm surge by one foot, according to Britt Aliperti, the program manager at Common Ground Relief, an organization now devoted to wetlands restoration at the mouth of the Mississippi River and the generous host of The Ohio State University’s first Livable Futures Louisiana Field School, which this year comprised of eight undergraduates, two graduates and two faculty: Thomas Davis (Dept. of English) and Mary Thomas (Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies).
Today, the field school began with and introduction to the recent history of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward and the area’s ecological challenges as explained by Common Ground Relief’s Thom Pepper, Operations Director, and Britt Aliperti. Then the team trekked the few blocks under the Claiborne bridge to Common Ground’s tree nursery for a few hours of watering and weeding as an introduction to the plants we will be working with all week. Keeping a careful eye out for fire ant mounds, we discovered the impressive root systems of invasive grasses as we pulled them out from around water oak, live oak and cypress saplings. Everyone was thrilled to be spending some time among the verdant vegetation of the warm Louisiana spring. Rising senior Riley Sayers could think of nothing more rewarding than watering trees after the chaos of the end of the semester. On Wednesday, we will plant the trees we watered near a key spillway project.
In the evening we met up with St. Bernard Parish resident and artist Monique Verdin, who gave us more historical and ecological background of the land where we are working this week. Over the course of a drive to “the end of the road,” which started at the Bayou Bienvenue on the northern edge of the Lower 9, Verdin pointed out hundreds of cypress tree stumps that had been killed by over-salinization from storm surges and saltwater spikes through manmade canals.
From there, the group drove “down the road” (in St. Bernard Parish, the narrow, last parish of the Mississippi River, most people give directions based on whether they are down or up the main east-west drag). On the way, students took note of the Domino sugar factory, the Chalmette Battlefield (home of one of the final battles in the war of 1812), miles of oil refineries, construction on oil pipelines, beautiful oak alleys, and a strange mix of cattle pasture and hyper-mechanization. Our next stop was the Los Isleños Heritage park, which recognized the Canary Islanders who settled in the parish as well as the practices of the area’s indigenous people. We watched the landscape and the architecture drastically change outside the city’s main levee walls, where suddenly houses are required to be hoisted twenty feet into the air in order to qualify for insurance. Signs for shellfish for sale abutted the street in the fishing villages we passed through. Once we reached the actual end of the road at Fort Proctor, however, the biting gnats were so bad that we couldn’t stay more than a couple minutes before clambering back in the car and driving to an amazing Vietnamese restaurant with the all-encompassing name of Beignets & More. It was a wonderful introduction to the Lower 9 and the communities down the road from it. Thank you, Monique, for being such a wonderful and knowledge-filled guide!