Thursday, May 22, 2008
I’m not working for the poet a. anymore. I was offered a job to research and write a chapter of a Cultural Landscape Report on City Park in New Orleans. I’m working on the historical context chapter. The report is due at the end of July, so the timing is perfect – I’ll be able to wrap up the project just before I move.
Truthfully, I’d learned as much as I could learn working with a. Glimpsing her submission process – how she organizes, tracks and keeps herself submitting on a year-round cycle is invaluable to me, and when I begin school, I’m going to also begin my own story submission system based on a.’s. Beyond this, I was becoming more of her girl Friday.
Sadly, I’m not doing any stories for Country Roads. Getting the house ready for sale, taking a job that uses a whole lot more of my mental energy and trying to write for myself along with the day to day chores of living is as much multi-tasking as I can handle. Since leaving my old full time job nearly a year ago, I’ve become honest with myself about my personal capacity to work and stay sane; I’m no longer interested in sinking my general mental and physical well being for the sake of feeling “accomplished.” Besides, I can say in all honesty that, in the course of six months, I did at least two stories for Country Roads that I am really proud of and at least a third that I really like. I’d be willing to use any of these three as clips when submitting in the future.
The new job pays just as well as working for a. did, and I enjoy using my landscape architecture and my writing all at once. Not to mention, I am sponging up a whole mess of knowledge about New Orleans. I am still in love with making my own hours, living by my own personal circadian rhythms…Freelance work is good.
Yesterday on the job, I finished reading New Orleans: The Making of an Urban Landscape. It’s by a geographer named Peirce F. Lewis, and I’d read it in grad school – twice, once during first semester and once during my last semester. I guess third time’s a charmer, because I fell in love with the language Lewis uses when he writes of New Orleans.
The book describes New Orleans’ geography and natural systems, and in about eighty pages, it manages to clarify how the city has always existed in a terrible situation in which to locate a city, but has also always been a completely logical, even necessary site on which to locate a city.
Lewis also speaks of how the city’s decline as a great American city (in terms of its economic role, it’s population decline, even its social decline – for New Orleans was not always so racially stratified, etc.), parallels it’s geographical and environmental decline. He doesn’t shy away from the city’s environmental, economic and racial complexities. In fact, I’d say he shines light on the reality that cities are the complex collision of natural environment, manmade manipulations, and varying human/cultural belief systems.
The edition I read was the first, so it ends in the early 1970s. If I recall, Lewis did an updated version sometime in the 90s.
I’ve also begun reading Craig E. Colten’s book An Unnatural Metropolis: Wrestling New Orleans from Nature, and it’s so good that I can’t wait to get working today – which is how work ought to be. In his introduction, Colten writes: “Lewis Mumford has suggested that cities displace nature, and Henry Lawrence has written that cities stand as the antithesis of nature. Activity to transform New Orleans has reflected the move to remove nature. New Orleans has so thoroughly reworked its original setting through forest removal and drainage that one could call it the “unnatural city” – although it never completely escaped nature.”
The two books, one exploring the city up to the 1970s, and the other published after Hurricane Katrina, are a well-matched complimentary pair – Colten certainly references Lewis’s book. He addresses in his preface how Hurricane Katrina punctuated precisely why it is relevant for people to understand the development of cities from a perspective that looks at human, natural and economic interactions, rather than simply from an economic standpoint.
The books are beautiful because anyone can read them (and everyone ought to). The authors do not over burden the reader with intellectual jargon. Rather, both books give New Orleans its due justice. They’re written poetically and matter-of-factly at once– in the same way that when one begins to fall in love with New Orleans, he understands that New Orleans’ eccentricity is as intrinsic, necessary and ordinary to its existence as the blueness of the sky or the greenness of grass.
This multi-cultured and integrated old-world European city layered beneath a post-1950s racially segregated American city built centuries ago atop a swamp and along the natural levee at the mouth of the Mississippi River Delta in turns survives and struggles while the river heaves into the Gulf of Mexico depositing nutrient-rich sediment at its banks. And there people live – people created this city and create within it, even as silty-sediment weighs down upon itself and causes it to continually sink.
I am reminded that I must live in New Orleans someday. Because, really, though the city literally sinks and seeps, I believe unconditionally in its capacity to regenerate. It’s situation remains difficult, but its site exacts that it be inhabited and nourished. History repeats.
SONG: One Hundred Years Ago, Rolling Stones