The tree was there when I bought my house. It was, I would later find by measuring
my lot, about 70 feet tall. It was not on my property, but a few feet on the other
side of my back fence; the land it was planted in is a power line right-of-way for
CLECO, the local electric utility. Looking after their own interests CLECO had
removed all of the branches from the side of the tree facing their power lines.
This left the tree very heavily lopsided in the direction of the house.
I bought the house anyway and didn't worry much about the tree. It had been there
since before the subdivision was built and was quite healthy. I would at times sit
in my hot tub and look up at it and think, well, if it ever goes it's only got one
place to go. It did drop a branch on my screen house once, but the canopy didn't
extend over my house. It didn't seem like such a big deal until Tropical Storm Bill
(which I'd just finished describing as "pissant" in my diary here) undermined its
root system and sent it down. It came within a few feet of ending my life and
within a few other feet of destroying my home, but in the end I just told my wife
not to worry; the tree had fallen, and there wasn't another tree. We were okay.
Last Monday a million trees fell on a million houses all around me and once again
it appears that I was lucky; I made the correct decision to leave town, despite two
previous false alarms and a growing sense of irritation with them and the shocking
suddenness with which Katrina changed from mild problem for Florida into a serious
threat to Louisiana. Once again (if I can believe certain accounts posted to message
boards) it appears that the devastation fell all around my property without leaving
There is a little corner of me that wants to feel quite smug about this. I didn't
get airlifted from my roof by the National Guard. I didn't drown in my attic.
I am not picking through a rubble field looking for something I can salvage. I
am not crapping in the aisles and looking for a sip of fresh water in some overcrowded
shelter. I am, in fact, in a large comfortable house in Knoxville, TN sipping
Gentleman Jack while I listen for the chance to return to work, something that
will almost certainly happen long before I can return home.
But the fact is that I ignored another threat looming over me and I got incredibly
lucky again. If there's one thing I learned in my
it was to never, ever depend on luck. In fact, I always considered myself
spectacularly unlucky; despite all the time I spent hanging around in
casinos I never won much of anything without a carefully figured advantage.
I did on several occasions lose with a consistency that seemed almost
deliberate. But in the games where I had an edge, the element of luck neither
favored nor plotted against me; year after year, I won what the math said I should.
Now all of the casinos where I learned those lessons are destroyed. I find
myself looking for a way to describe what I am feeling, and I realize that Yeats
put it much better than I can:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The tree has always loomed over New Orleans, in the form of the Gulf of Mexico
with its warm water and tendency to nurture hurricanes. In 1965 the house I
grew up in had three feet of water in it as Hurricane Betsy moved through.
But I wasn't there then; my parents were in California, because my father's
graduate fellowship required him to do two years in the Navy. As I write
this that house probably has four to eight feet of water in it.
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
There are in fact good reasons for people to live here; New Orleans exists
because of a confluence of ground and water transportation routes and
significant farming and seafood industries. But that doesn't mean there
is a good reason for one point three million people to live here.
Before modern sanitation, storm prediction, and indoor climate control
existed New Orleans regularly lost thousands of inhabitants at a time to
storms and epidemics. New Orleans has always been a city that creates
much wealth, but in modern times we have forgotten that that wealth was
once acquired at great cost.
What is happening to New Orleans today is not extraordinary. It was inevitable.
The storms have always come; they may in the future come more frequently and
more powerfully because of global warming, but even without that they would
come at a pace that is not zero. Living so close to the coast is like a
reverse lottery; in any given cycle it's not all that likely that you will
lose, but when your number comes up you are screwed. And it's not
just New Orleans; all over the US and all over the world people like living
on the coast. Some do so for the good reason that it is their livelihood,
but others do because they like being able to play in the ocean. They forget
that the ocean is a powerful thing and sometimes it can play with you.
New Orleans isn't even on the coast; our founders weren't quite that stupid.
It's pretty far inland, to the point that it takes cruise ships half a day
to reach open water when they depart from New Orleans. New Orleans is just
close enough to be in danger anyway. To our founders it was a compromise.
The closer it was to the coast the more profitable it would be, but also the
more often it would be destroyed and need to be rebuilt. Our neighbors in Mississippi
are demonstrating how much worse it can be to live near an actual beach.
Yeats wraps up Second Coming with another hauntingly apt couplet:
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
In both science and myth the ocean is the mother of us all; if mountains
are the Earth's expression of jutting maleness, the ocean with its frictionless
surface and black depths is her expression of female receptiveness. But the
Goddess, as quite a few New Agers fail to grok, is not just the comforting
image of "Mother Nature." The Goddess is triune; she is the Mother, true,
but she is also the fecund and tempting Virgin. And sometimes she is an
earthquake, tornado, and hurricane-throwing bitch.
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
For the patriarchal religion that inspired Yeats, the Goddess herself could
very well be that rough beast come to undo all our fine works. And less than
a week ago she slouched ashore with a great splash and whooshing noise and
gave us humans another lesson in humility -- a lesson we seem to need
frequently, because we never seem to learn it.
The Beast has now swatted me twice, and I will not test its patience again.
Sometime before next year's hurricane season I will be living elsewhere
well inland. Hopefully, since I seem to have a house instead of an insurance
check to call my own, by that time the market will exist again and there
will be buyers for a house that survived the killer Katrina. I will probably
brag on this while coughing and neglecting to mention that if she had not
made a last-minute zig to the East, even my house would have had ten feet of
water around it and all those people you see being airlifted from rooftops
would simply be dead.
I will miss a lot of things about New Orleans, but a lot of those things will
probably follow me. Since the boom in Cajun cooking in the 1990's it is
much easier to get the spices and ingredients necessary to our signature
cooking in other places. And while Mardi Gras is a great party, in all
honesty I haven't attended it in years. When you live here, it can become
more of a nuisance than a holiday. And don't even get me started on the
music. Let's just say I'm not a big fan.
I was born in New Orleans and I have lived there my entire life. But I have
said goodbye to many things as the fates have required, and I will do this
too with a heavy heart but a firm resolve. If you have a tree hanging over
your house, please learn from my experience. Get out from under it before
it falls. Because even if it's the kind of tree that can only fall once,
you may not get a second chance.