Building Worlds in Drowning Lands
Architects and A Southern Writer Collaborate at Louisiana’s Vanishing Point
In Eudora Welty’s story, “No Place for You, My Love,” “two Northerners” meet at a long lunch at Galatoire’s in New Orleans. He’s married; she’s single. On a whim he asks her if she’d like to take a drive south. She says, “South of New Orleans? I didn’t know there was any south to here. Does it just go on and on?”
(Once upon a time, yes, it did.)
They head east toward Arabi, in St. Bernard Parish, then take a ferry across the Mississippi. On the other side, they find great watery plains and exotic settlements―in those days Canary Islander, Croatian, Cajun, and African American fishermen and trappers called this home. They see boys walking an alligator on a leash, visit a graveyard, dance at a beer shack, but eventually they find the adventure too strange, the landscape alienating. They went too far and blame the strangeness of the place―call its expanses incomprehensible “like steppes, like moors, like deserts (all of which were imaginary to him); but more than any likeness, it was South.” Welty’s South with a capital letter, evokes all the word can mean in the American mind. Eventually, having almost lost their bearings, they return to New Orleans, as confused by the place they’ve been as the attraction, and aversion, that led them there.
Nowadays, this part of the world is still jarring and unreal, in some of the same ways but also new ways. If ever a prize for a concentration of environmental woes in a landscape were given, South Plaquemines Parish, the long arm of land that reaches directly below New Orleans toward the Gulf, would be a finalist. Oil production began here in the fifties, when Welty was writing. In 2015, on the road in her story―LA 23―natural gas pipelines now reach out of the land like a giant’s white elbows. Just above the “brow of the levee” container ships, vast floating cities, glide by while fat cattle graze below, failing to notice. Rooftops poking out of marshes at a distance mark drowned villages. People who “built back” after the recent hurricanes put mobile homes twenty feet in the air on telephone poles, giving the scene a desperate, provisional air. Beasts of the Southern Wild took its inspiration here. Parts were filmed not far away.
All the parishes below New Orleans are washing away at the rate of a football field every half-hour. Millions of acres that were once productive farms are now under brackish lakes, marshes, and the Gulf of Mexico. South Louisiana is at greater and greater risk, for these plains used to block or slow down violent storms. The whole nation’s fuel supply is vulnerable because it depends upon the huge petroleum ports and pipelines here―including the infrastructure that serves offshore drilling. There is a plan to replenish it all, called Coastal 2050. Yet the will and money to implement are not a sure bet. And no one knows if the plan will work.
Predictability and certainty, borders, and prudence have always been elusive in South Louisiana. This makes sense in a way: storms and floods underline the temporariness of life, of any plan, projection, or property line. No matter how radical an event, there is no forecasting its effects, short and long term. This is not always bad.
Currently, I live in a bustling, rejuvenated, New Orleans―a neo-urbanist’s dream. In the year before Katrina, 2004, only the most optimistic citizen would have forecast the city could ever revive the way it has. Afterward, only mad men would have made such a projection. Yet, though locals like myself love this unforeseen development―caused in part by the billions of dollars that followed Katrina and the BP disaster―we all know New Orleans could be Atlantis.
Last year the Coastal Sustainability Studio (CSS) at Louisiana State University, a group of scientists, architects and designers, read a novel I wrote and asked me to come speak. In The Not Yet, I’d conjured the worst-case scenario: In 2121, New Orleans is an archipelago in a lagoon directly on the Gulf. All the lower parishes have vanished. The ultra-rich live healthy, almost immortal lives walled off from reality, while everybody else is nearly starving.
Students in Professor Shelby Doyle’s Architecture 7004 created maps based on my novel’s invented geography and had an impromptu art show. The thought experiment served their class project, which was to come up with plans for Leeville, a village in the shadow of Port Fourchon, a vast hub for oil and gas production below New Orleans. The town is facing real-time destruction due to water level rise, a predicament shared by “Chef Menteur Enclave,” a fictional community in my book.
Professor Ursula Emery McClure’s graduating students were given another challenge: to re-invent a multi-acre installation called the Chevron ShoreBase. It sits below the town of Venice on the bird foot delta where boats begin their way up the Mississippi to New Orleans. It houses supplies for hundreds of manned Gulf oil wells—food, fuel, and repair equipment. It regularly floods as much as eighteen feet. Its metal warehouses and conventional structures are preposterously inadequate.
Professor McClure decided the difficult locale and specs required a “sci-fi” imagination and asked me talk about “world building” —creating a coherent, multi-faceted environment for a narrative, something speculative writers do in their works.
I suggested they use paradigms that exist at other scales, or from history, nature, or other cultures. Finding a pattern to start, sci-fi authors expand the idea, proposition upon proposition. The contour or system of relations can be enlarged, or executed in new materials, until the change in gauge and substances brings forth surprises, “emergent properties” not foreseen. When issues appear, the creator has to go back, adapting, reworking things until they are true, internally consistent.
It’s a slow process requiring a lot of inquiry. Worlds are built fractally―in the imagination, as well as on this planet.
While on a tour of the wetlands and Chevron’s sites, the students sent me bulletins and posted notebooks and photos about their observations. There were images of great industry scaffoldings as well as the ruins of old forts and settlements destroyed by encroaching water. They labeled some, “Not Yet.” After the field trip, they came home to get to work.
In March, I visited for a critique. In May, I went to see the final projects, joining a team of outside architects, engineers, a scenic designer for a sci-fi TV show, and oil company executives. We all got a tall cup of coffee and entered the open studio.
The student’s solutions were amazing.
In one design, a great flexible “fishing rod” (five stories in the air) curves across the pass in the river, with housing and docks and storage units hanging from it, ready to rise or fall with the storm surge. In another, a hollow spoke system supported at intervals by residential towers is attached to the solid ground north and west of New Orleans, like a great wheel lowered upon the land and water, at a scale visible from space. The spokes are elevated transport tunnels you’d recognize from Star Wars. In another, towers rest not on conventional pilings but on poles that end in wide, webbed, retractable “feet” that fold up if the land washes away. If inundated, the towers are towed to new ground where the feet can be lowered, the legs stretching out—a shorebird standing tall so the waves flow underneath.
Though these engineering marvels solved the immediate problem, the students didn’t stop there. It is no secret that the fossil fuel industry helped create the sea-level rise. The canals built by the same industry cross cut the region and encourage saltwater incursion, causing land-loss, as well. Oil spills have done their damage. In addition, there is an even older problem in this region you can’t blame on big oil: Plaquemines began losing its ground long ago.
The Mississippi made this land. Sediment from the whole continent was deposited here over eons when the artery spread out and let go. Now, the river is inside a high-walled trough that goes up and down the country, made of levees not allowed to “leak.” In the late nineteenth century, a growing nation desired a reliable highway for their goods—the Big Muddy was too unpredictable. Discussions in the Gilded Age acknowledged the alluvial plain in Louisiana would suffer in future generations if the river were confined, but “progress” did not stop.
Yet another consequence of the walling-off of the river is that it is constantly filling its own channel with the soil it can’t put elsewhere. For navigation, it must be dredged. Some at the CSS are studying alternatives because we cannot keep gouging out the present route forever. They are proposing moving the river’s mouth―Mobile Bay, and Morgan City, Louisiana, are candidates. Moving the Mississippi to Mississippi, also, has been suggested.
The great natural forces the river puts in motion, the virulent storms from the Gulf, the encroachment of seawater, the very weight and mass of earth itself—all undermine every effort to stabilize or even effectively use this land in the present. Transportation is increasingly challenging. Roads have to be shored up all the time. The new bays have bridges and causeways that rise five or six stories in the air in some places, in anticipation of future storm surge. Even these highways in the sky are stopgap, though.
This fragile, shifting region, the low, embryonic land hardly seems to have been a good place to put such vast installations while walling off its source of being.
Student architect Matthew McKeever wrote: “The ground is built. In South Louisiana, tracts of earth are moved, positioned, and compacted into aberrant configurations at vast scales outside of human range, which tests human comprehension. The ground is a composite . . . Here arises the issue of actually two sites within one, removing earth from one area to build a composite in another. One site loses its place. Ground is stripped of its history; the work and time is dedicated to build its infinitesimal elevation. The other site is a product―of layering land to form a base. Do these sites share a relationship greater than a simple transfusion? Does the sacrifice of one better the other? Does the built ground give back something in exchange for what it has taken? . . . The relationship between these two sites has two different scale implications: one in the now and immediate site boundary and the other in the greater landscape over a greater amount of time.”
His project, which involved trapping sediment at the ShoreBase to build new land, was fascinating. But I was perhaps even more interested in his language. He sounded like the Tao Te Ching, not a modern, American engineer/architect. He’d shifted, somehow, leapt to another frame of reference, taken the long view: Does the sacrifice of one region for the sake of another, ever, in the end, make sense? Ever?
People lose their bearings down in Plaquemines. Eudora said so. They get unmoored, take on battles they can’t win, build great towers sure to topple one day, try to push the river. Sometimes they just flee, in exasperation or incomprehension. For years, they have ignored the big picture. Perhaps now, with this generation, that will change.
I was glad to go on this journey with these youthful architects. They had the technological imagination to invent out-of-this-world solutions to a single problem. But they saw they had to do more and engaged in dystopian imagination. We ventured into a field long ignored, but so important, even crucial, in these times: the great realm of unintended consequences.
“No Place for you, My Love,” in The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty, by Eudora Welty. New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1982. (Originally appeared in the New Yorker Magazine in August 1952.)
The Not Yet by Moira Crone. New Orleans: University of New Orleans Press, 2012.
Images from student maps based on The Not Yet: https://www.facebook.com/TheNotYet/photos/pcb.473033422797560/473033142797588/?type=1&theater