Going In and Out and Under and Through

After two nights in town, here’s the score:

Time spent biking around Metairie: about 40 minutes.
Restaurants eaten at: 2.
Number of successful attempts to get wi-fi at Puccino’s at Lakeside: 0.
Parades watched: 4.
Parades watched from friend-of-family’s balcony on St. Charles: 3.
Footballs, thrown from parade floats, successfully caught on balcony: 1.
Salads spilled on balcony during unsuccessful attempts to catch footballs: 1.

And there that is. Moving right along….

There’s this line in C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength where Merlin shows up (sorry for the spoilers, but the book is about 60 years old by now) and he says something like, “Just let me spend a day going in and out and under and through, and I’ll have all my magic back to put at your disposal. This land will remember me.” (Not an exact quote. I’m going from memory here. My copy of the book is back in Boulder.) I keep thinking of that line whenever I come home…

(And nevermind that he gets told “no, no Pagan magic allowed anymore, that’s an order!” Justifying Merlin’s ways to Christian Man isn’t my problem.)

But I keep thinking of that line, because I, too, want to spend my first few days home just reacquainting myself with my old stomping grounds, even if it doesn’t make a magician out of me. I want to get on my bike and go up and down the lake path all the way from Bucktown to the west end of Jefferson Parish. I want to go climbing under all the bridges–Poplar over the Bonnabel Canal, Melody over West Esplanade, the south end of the Causeway Bridge–scaring the pigeons and reading the grafitti. I want to toss french fries into the water until I can’t see five feet in front of me for all the seagulls.

I keep forgetting how much has changed, though. And it’s not just changes since Katrina. And it’s not even just changes since I left for college. I was still in high school when they bulldozed the tangled growth behind the levee and chopped down even some of the biggest trees there to turn Linear Park into something that actually looked like a park. My neighborhood friends and I used to go over there to pick mulberries and carve paths through the “forest.” I’d tie branches back from circular spaces I wanted to keep clear, expecting the branches to grow into each other over the next few years, in the same way that a tree limb will grow over a rope tied around it, and form a natural bower that people coming after me would wonder at. I transplanted elderberries that my parents wanted pulled up as weeds from the front yard, and pomegranates that I hoped would re-seed themselves all over the place. I watched sunsets from a seat among the concrete boulders on the shore, under which I once discovered a blue runner snake, grumpy with me for interfering with its sunbeam basking hour.

And all of this on the sly, because Mom was afraid that if I went over the levee by myself I’d be easy prey for all the muggers, kidnappers, and rapists who were lying in wait in the undergrowth 24 and 7, having, I suppose, nothing better to do with their time.

Now it’s just a sterile lawn with a handful of lonely trees and park benches. There’s nothing left for rabbits to hide in and birds to nest under, but now, inexplicably, there’s a sign that says “bird sanctuary.” The bike path has been extended to curve around and under the Causeway Bridge, in theory a good idea to protect bicyclists from six lanes of highway traffic, but in practice unworkable; the path flooded in its first season and has been gated off ever since.

Some things change for the better, though. The building up of the levee that went on at the same time as the buldozing of the mulberries undoubtedly saved hundreds of homes last fall. Lake clean-up efforts in the past decade have resulted in areas on the north shore where swimming is considered safe, and ever more birds populate both shores. I never used to see anything but seagulls and mourning doves; now cormorants show off their wings from the top of dock posts and pelicans gather by the tens and twenties to hold their morning coffee klatches. One of them, a huge bird with a sharply defined color pattern, white neck and black head, was fishing at the mouth of the Bonnabel Canal on Wednesday afternoon. I got to watch it taking off repeatedly and hurling itself at the water, crashing hard and then bobbing upright to quietly strain out the water from its beak pouch and gulp down the unfortunate fish. A blue heron stood watching it for a few minutes, too, before launching itself in an understated trajectory across the recently built pedestrian bridge towards the calmer waters beside the pumping station.

If anyone’s a magician here, it’s the New Orleans area itself–not so much the city as the land on which it’s built–conjuring wonders of fur and feather and scale out of a handful of swamp mud and brackish water. It’s a kind of magic that stays in the blood forever.

2 Comments so far

  1. ED (unregistered) on February 26th, 2006 @ 10:28 am

    Thanks for your recollections of life down by the levee. Reminded me of my childhood days at the brookbridge and exploring the brook thru the neighboring cow pastures and farms. Not like NO but still not unlike any exploring kids childhood. Sure wasn’t life on the internet.

  2. ED (unregistered) on February 26th, 2006 @ 10:30 am

    Sorry, should be “kid’s”.

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