Monday, November 3, 2008

FURTHER SOUTH

Recently I traveled to Thibodaux, Louisiana to talk to teen-agers about MARTIN’S QUEST, my book of fiction set in Teche country about a boy traiteur (healer). In Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes, young people’s response to this book and to the lectures about traiteurs is always heartwarming, and I always come away feeling I’ve shared something valuable and interesting with them.

The Lafourche Public Library is located on the top floor of a building that also houses the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve Center, one of a network of Acadian Cultural Centers that tells the stories of the Acadians, through artifacts and exhibits. These stories about French Canadians who arrived in Acadiana from Nova Scotia in the 18th century provide good fodder for Louisiana writers. The Acadians were exiled from Nova Scotia by the British in a mass exodus known as the Grand Derangement, and some of them settled in south Louisiana where they began to thrive as fishermen, trappers, cattlemen, and rice growers.

At the desk in the Wetlands Acadian Cultural Center in Thibodaux, I talked with a ranger about placing MARTIN’S QUEST, THE KAJUN KWEEN, and FLOOD ON THE RIO TECHE because the history contained in these books is intertwined with that of those Acadians settling in Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes. The board of this Center will review the books at year’s end, and I’m hoping they’ll be placed alongside the many wonderful books about Louisiana written by authors in the Pelican State.

The Jean Lafitte National Parks Service publishes a small official newspaper that showcases its park sites, and one of the latest articles about New Orleans in this publication intrigued me because it answered a question that has haunted me since Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans – Why was New Orleans built below sea level?

In defense of those settlers who built on the site where New Orleans now stands, Danny Forbes, a Park Ranger, presents readers with the positive story first. New Orleans was built on its site because the Mississippi River brings goods downriver from the interior of the United States, and ships from throughout the world bring goods upriver from the Gulf of Mexico. In short, New Orleans is a grand city of commerce ideally situated on the Mississippi; it’s also the center of Dixieland jazz, outstanding Creole cuisine, and unique Spanish and French architecture.

Ranger Forbes relates that much of New Orleans is above sea level; e.g., the French Quarter, the Garden District (which includes one of the most beautiful boulevards in the world – St. Charles Avenue) and Uptown. These neighborhoods escaped Katrina because they sit on the natural levee built up by the mighty Mississippi. Every year, Spring floods bring new layers of sediment that elevate the natural levee. However, the bad news is that about a mile from the Mississippi River, travelers arrive at a place that is at sea level and where the natural levee becomes swampland. According to Ranger Forbes, New Orleans has drained those swamps, and in the 1900’s people began constructing new neighborhoods that actually lie below sea level. These neighborhoods were the ones flooded by Katrina. During the years, no new soil has been deposited as people have built levees to contain the river within its banks in order to protect their property from Mississippi River floods. During flood season, the natural levee has shrunk – and south Louisiana is sinking!

The answers to the above problems are being worked on by environmentalists, State government, engineers, and other scientists who are determined to build up Louisiana’s diminishing coastline, construct canals, and further develop conservation measures that remain a challenge to all of us web-footed creatures who love our wetlands State.
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