My grandma wrote a book about Grand Isle, the only inhabited island off the coast of Louisiana and our family home for over two hundred years. She called her book Seven Miles of Sand and Sin and kept it close beside her living room chair in a Square Deal note pad with “39¢” penciled on the cover. Fortunately for the reputations of our neighbors, she never quite got to the sin part, but she does describe the island as a “paradise … plentiful of all God’s beauty and his gifts.” In one of my favorite passages, she muses that “[l]ong before I was born there were large orange groves here and all the boats had sails. When it was spring time and the boats carrying supplies to and from our island got lost in the fog they could tell when they neared the island by the smell of orangeblossoms.” She breaks off this sweet reverie, however, with a disappearance: “Now there isnt an orange tree left. The hurricanes and dease [sic] killed them all.” Of course, island residents replanted or tried to. (Even my own parents babied an orange sapling, but some trifling surge from the gulf stifled it before it could struggle past adolescence.) We continued to cultivate a hardier “paradise.” Grandma talked about pomegranates, plums, and grapefruit, and I grew up relishing mulberries, figs, peaches, and sharp island bananas. But they’ve disappeared, too, now. Hurricanes and salt-water intrusion have poisoned all but a few grim little guava bushes.
(p.x) In Losing Ground: Identity and Land Loss in Coastal Louisiana, David Burley aptly describes the process that killed the island’s fruit trees as a “slow disaster.” Unlike most “natural disasters,” however, this one is not unavoidable, inevitable, or even natural. It is the result of an ongoing human decision.
For eons, in the Mississippi’s slow struggle with the Gulf of Mexico, the river trounced the sea, and each spring rush poured black sediment and freshwater into the delta, building up the coast and barrier islands and nourishing its marshes and bayous. But in the last fifty years, south Louisianans have been living with a creeping Frankenstein of a catastrophe caused by dredging the Mississippi, putting up levees along its banks, sucking petroleum from under the land, and slicing canals through the marsh. These activities facilitated urban development and the extraction of oil and natural gas from Louisiana, but, by dumping the Mississippi’s annual tribute off the continental shelf and opening a dehydrated delta to the gulf’s salt waters, they have reversed the traditional outcome of that contest between river and sea. The results have been devastating. First, and most obviously, south Louisiana has suffered and continues to suffer monumental land loss, which includes the marshes and barrier islands, like my home, which used to absorb hurricanes before they reached population centers such as New Orleans. Second, this erosion is destroying the single most intensely productive ecosystem on the planet. For instance, coastal Louisiana nurses into life almost half the seafood consumed in this country (as well as untold numbers that got away) and provides sanctuary to a similar proportion of our migrating songbirds. I remember sitting on the porch with Grandma and watching the sky flash into a mass of crazy colors, as hordes of half-starved songbirds dove into our mulberry trees. It was their last chance to fortify themselves for the grueling passage to South America. I know that many of these tiny lives didn’t survive even then, when they had profusions of purple berries to sustain them, and I wonder how many more now struggle up from dead trees to drop into the gulf.
Other books, however, have documented the sufferings of songbirds and widespread environmental impact of coastal erosion. Losing Ground instead tackles a more intangible issue: how this devastation affects the region’s human inhabitants. Personally, I’ve seen “erosion” form into a collection of mysterious and shamed absences: not only the missing birds and trees and land but language. It’s a strange still oppression, tincturing ordinary gossip with something between horror and embarrassment. I’ve seen its operations (p.xi) so many times. When people talked about “the erosion” at the supermarket or on porches, everyone put on the brave face—a shrug, a joke, the laugh that’s just a bit too loud, then a swift hush and the look away. I don’t think those haunted faces reflect only “practical” concerns about lost property or livelihood. I think for a split second we all wonder, “What happens to the dead ones we loved when the land disappears?” Other parts of America erect statues and put up historical markers to record epic heroes and battles and remind themselves of who they were and where they’ve been, but, well, we’re a bit too quiet for epic and a bit too poor for monument. We instead inscribe our stories into the landscape, and the narratives are rare and personal and strange. (Perhaps a bit too often, they memorialize the “sin” that Grandma left out of her book.) We’ve remembered who we were because we never moved. My family has lived in the same cypress house for two hundred years, and most of our neighbors trace their generations in south Louisiana at least that far. These generations farmed, fished, withstood brutal hurricanes, and sometimes pirated when Jean Lafitte was about. They’ve stayed with us in the shared tombs and homes and land, and now watching its dissolution provokes at best a sense of helplessness and at worst a sickening suspicion of our complicity. We turn away from each other out of shame and fear that we might just see that treason mirrored and confirmed in our neighbor’s eyes.
At the same time, this embarrassment has kept us from looking to our fellow Americans. A massive public work like restoring coastal Louisiana requires national will, but it’s so shameful to be a victim, especially a victim of “nature”—whether of God or God in the market. This slow disaster combines both. There’s also something effeminate about an enduring commitment to place, something morally suspect in a country that has traditionally idealized rootless, self-sufficient self-reliance that has lately blended with perverse selfishness. We’re afraid to plead and hear, “Why don’t you just move?”—a statement which implies other judgments like, “What’s wrong with you? Do you want to be a victim? Don’t you have any get-up-and-go?”
But where can you go? And for how long?
I moved to Ohio. I like Ohio. I’m happy here, free of that hovering oppression, mostly. But I don’t ever want it to descend upon my daughter, and the best scientific evidence suggests that “slow disaster” is creeping into Columbus, too. Perhaps the ground will not literally disappear from under her feet, but we are entering a time of accelerating global climate change, when loss will mark if not our own lives then our children’s. And Losing Ground (p.xii) asks how we—the people of America—plan to deal with it: “[H]ow much are we willing to sacrifice as ‘not important enough’?” If we decide that south Louisiana—despite its crucial ecological and economic contributions—is “not important enough” to save, then what next? Or, again in Burley’s words, “As we start to see the effects of climate change in coastal Louisiana, elsewhere in the nation and around the globe, are we willing to let our environments, the places we live or don’t live, become irreparably damaged?” Ultimately, “Are we all expendable?”
Coastal Louisiana, Burley suggests, can serve either as a model for our nation’s future success or an exemplar of its degradation. His work has revealed coastal residents desperate to do the hard work necessary to restore our southern border and create a sustainable environment. He argues that we need “participatory research” that meshes together local knowledge and energy with outside expertise and resources. We need a nation dedicated to empowering rather than shaming each other.
In short, we have a fight on our hands, and we can establish the front on the Gulf Coast or later and to our greater peril in the heartland. To echo Hillel the Elder, “If not here, where? If not now, when?” Perhaps I don’t need “paradise,” but, without it, I just might lose Ohio.
Assistant Professor of English
The Ohio State University at Marion