Land, Life, and Water: Tending to the Landscape of Southern Louisiana

By Hannah Eisler Burnett, University of Chicago §

This is a photo essay about the way people cultivate visions of speculative territory and historical landscapes. But in southern Louisiana, if you want to get to the land, you first have to get through the water.

St. Bernard Port. Photo by author.

In autumn of 2018, the breeze was humid and thick. Driving through the industrialized corridor southeast of New Orleans, a heavy mist of water vapor and refinery emissions wafted together, bleeding into a single, undistinguishable, milky white fog. Here, water obscured air and land alike, camouflaging the chemicals in the air and signaling the proximity of the Mississippi River.

Flood wall at Caernarvon. Photo by author.

I had signed up as a volunteer to help plant trees in an area of newly restored wetlands that was only accessible from the water, located just beyond an old river diversion that had been built to control flooding and salinity in the early 1990s. To get to the bayou where we’d be working, we would all be riding out together in an oyster boat. Arriving at the boat launch, the flood walls that hold the bayou at bay rose out of the fog to greet us.

On the water, we navigated through the flood gates and headed toward the wetlands behind the old diversion. The “new” swamp we would be planting was in an area of open water that had once been agricultural land encircled by a levee that protected it from occasional flooding, and before that had been swampland built up slowly by the meandering path of the Mississippi River.

Like the borders of many states, Louisiana’s are defined by water. The state’s present-day shape is partly the result of a history of jurisdictional decisions as the United States violently expanded in the early 19th century, and partly the result of the river shifting its path across the landscape over the course of thousands of years. The river’s flow has distributed a continent’s worth of silt across the delta, seeping into the Gulf of Mexico and gradually accumulating into the bayous, marshes, and ridges of southern Louisiana. The newest land generated in this manner is comprised of fragile wetlands fanning out from the bottom tip of the state.

Yet, these wetlands are quickly disappearing as a result of oil and gas exploration, navigational canals, damming projects along the river, and climate change. As an engineered solution to its land-loss problems, Louisiana is pouring funds into large-scale infrastructural projects, including massive, controlled diversions along the Mississippi River. These diversions are designed to intervene in strategic points of the river’s course, flooding sediment-rich freshwater across areas of the landscape where scientists predict new land is most likely to accumulate. Diversions are meant to mimic the river’s “natural” flow; harnessing the “land-building” power of the river will ostensibly give the state the power to counteract locally the global processes of climate change and sea-level rise, as well as the cumulative effects of two hundred years of levee-building and channelization.

View of the diversion that “made” the new swamp where we were planting trees, taken from the water. Photo by author.

We spent 3 hours slopping through eight inches of marsh water that was so muddy you couldn’t see a thing beneath it, even at such shallow depths. Within seconds of my arrival, my feet were soaked through (I had forgotten my own muck boots and wound up borrowing a pair that were full of holes). As I sloshed towards the first planting site, my forester’s sled full of cypress saplings and supplies in tow, one of the other volunteers pointed to his hip waders and called out to tease me. My toes squelched inside my boots, which were already heavy with opaque brown water. “This is land?” I thought.

At the site where we were working, grasses and rhizomal plants I couldn’t name helped to hold the mud together under our feet. We planted trees in knee-deep water beneath the dappled shade of a copse of willows, looking out across a plain of standing water bordered by small streams where flocks of ibis moved slowly, eating their way across the bayou. A fellow volunteer told me that willows are the first to establish themselves in areas that are new to receiving freshwater. We were helping the bayou along, she said, by planting another species—one that in many ways is characteristic of Louisiana’s coast—red cypress. The presence of certain trees, like willows, oak, and red cypress, indicates the presence of freshwater. Because these arboreal life forms rely on and capture river sediment, they also indicate the presence—or at least the possibility—of land. In rhetoric about coastal restoration, scientists and state officials often speak of ecological restoration and land-building interchangeably, assuming that depositing sediment will always lead to the return of certain forms of life and vibrant ecosystems.

Willow trees arcing over the edge of the water. Photo by author.

The day’s coordinator described the swamp where we were working as “new,” because before the installation of the diversion, the area had been open water. Yet, when I spoke with two of the other volunteers, they had lots of ideas about what the history of this place might been. Talking about how difficult it was to plant trees in knee-high water, they described how hard the people who came before must have had it: they speculated about soldiers in the civil war, native communities, enslaved people and those who had escaped slavery, loggers, and oil workers. Eventually, the two agreed this site was likely part of a logging network that once stretched across the coastal plain. One told stories about old stumps and hollow cypress logs he’d found on various trips through the bayou that were over ten feet in diameter and hundreds of feet long. The other volunteer described a large piece of milled cypress he had just encountered when planting—he hypothesized that it was one of the wedges loggers used to tip trees as they sawed them down.

Was this swampland new? The two volunteers were speaking about it as though this very swamp had been the site of all the industrial activity they were discussing. And yet, this very swamp had apparently been leveed into dry, agricultural land and had then eroded into open water before it reappeared again with the installment of the diversion. I was curious: what counts as land in Louisiana? And when lost wetlands are built anew and counted as “land,” who has the right to occupy or use them? Who has the obligation or the right to cultivate or manage them?

In Louisiana, once an area is inundated by the sea, ownership of it theoretically reverts to the state. Indeed, the state legislature is drafting new laws to clarify its claims to new land, water, and underground minerals as the shoreline shifts. For the lawyers with whom I’ve spoken, the disappearance—and reappearance—of land leads to a huge set of jurisdictional conflicts that the state is scrambling to address. These conflicts arise because high rates of land loss and wetland restoration projects in state-owned and privately-owned areas throw historical legal claims into question. What entity has the obligation or opportunity to restore land after it disappears? What does restoration mean for who retains, gains, or loses rights over this land? And how does environmental change affect what the land can legally be used for: recreational or commercial fishing, hunting, cultivating oysters, laying down pipelines, or drilling for oil? Because these questions are linked to material features of the landscape at certain moments in time, such as which waterways are affected by tidal flow, the jurisdictional map of the state seems to have the potential to change with the landscape.

Muddy path into the autumnal bayou: newly planted cypress trees are distinctive with plastic “nutria guards.” Photo by author.

A week after the tree planting, I sought out a scientist who works with an environmental organization addressing coastal restoration in southern Louisiana. I was wondering about the easy indexical link between land and life: rhetoric about wetland restoration suggests that the animals and vegetation that make up an estuary’s ecosystem are immanent in sediment deposits. As one restoration engineer told me: if we build it, they will come. Curious about the phases of development between mudflat and restored wetland, I asked what kinds of lifeforms constitute a sustainable estuary. She told me, “We…shockingly don’t know a lot about these organisms that we pursue. Once you get into the restoration science part you realize we have some blank spots. And we’re coming up against a time crunch, and we’re going to have to do the best we can and fill in these blanks along the way.”

Events such as the tree planting described here are meant to cultivate a sense of investment in the maintenance of wetlands. Urgent calls for wetland restoration in the face of the “time crunch” described by the scientist I met with often appeal to this sense of care and investment in the landscape—despite not knowing what the outcomes of such care might be, or even, as is evident from her quote, what they should be.

An undesirable ecological relation: water hyacinth growing in the same area in early spring. Water hyacinth is ubiquitous in Louisiana’s wetlands, but it is considered an “invasive” species that crowds out other aqueous vegetation. Photo by author.

In some ways, then, caring for Louisiana’s wetlands is about being invested in the conditions of possibility for life in the present—without entirely knowing what those conditions are, how they came to exist, or how to recreate them. Diverting the course of the Mississippi isn’t only an intervention aimed at managing the geologic processes of sedimentation carried out by the river; scientists assert that doing so will regenerate the self-sustaining communities of life that form and maintain wetlands. In other words, restoration scientists and environmentalists seek to recuperate a connection between what Elizabeth Povinelli might call geos and bios (2016). Louisiana’s restoration projects seem to be attempting to re-make locally the planetary geontological order of things that has facilitated the flourishing of contemporary life, informing human desires for present-day landscapes. Yet, these hoped-for environmental relationships are built on somewhat muddy foundations that have often relied on the persistence of historical violences. The intersection of epistemological and political jurisdiction in Louisiana pins the human systems of value that have resulted in the landscape as it is now: to care for the landscape is to take certain actions to hold it in place.


Acknowledgements

This research is supported by grants from the Wenner-Gren Foundation and the National Science Foundation Cultural Anthropology Program.


Works Cited

Barra, Monica. 2016. “Natural Infrastructures: Sediment, Science, and the Future of Southeast Louisiana.” A&E Engagement Blog. Accessed June 15, 2019: https://aesengagement.wordpress.com/2016/03/22/natural-infrastructures-sediment-science-and-the-future-of-southeast-louisiana/

Povinelli, Elizabeth. 2016. Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism. Durham and London: Duke University Press.


Hannah Eisler Burnett is a Ph.D. Candidate in Anthropology at the University of Chicago. Her dissertation research examines how plans for ecosystem restoration in the Mississippi River Delta affect coastal communities, and the different histories that inform these restoration projects. She has also collaborated on various art and video projects related to themes of water, toxicityglobal trade, and capital.


This post is part of our thematic series: Ecological Times.