Here are some pictures from our day of ice climbing in Starved Rock State Park in Illinois. This continues to be an amazing winter for outdoor recreation. Despite the lengthening days, the frigid temperatures aren't rising. I know I'm weird for saying this, but I hope to get another month of this weather before the great thaw begins.
I recently visited an abandoned school in New Orleans. Walking through the pitch-dark building was creepy – I thought someone was lurking around every corner, waiting to attack. New Orleans is slowly being rebuilt after Katrina's destruction, but many buildings like this remain. The city is a fascinating place to visit, with constant reminders of what happened, and lots of optimism for the future.
Chuck, my host in New Orleans, has been volunteering at a local organization called Common Ground for the last few years. Following Hurricane Katrina, Common Ground dedicated itself to rebuilding homes in New Orleans. They still do some construction work, but lately they've shifted their efforts more toward restoring the local wetlands and building community gardens. They constantly seem to be coming up with new ideas to help New Orleans and the region.
On the day I visited Common Ground, their mission was to kill an invasive species of tree called Chinese tallow. The seeds of many native trees die when submerged in water, but tallow seeds float due to their waxy coatings. Tallows also mature quickly, producing upwards of 100,000 seeds per tree after only three years. Worse, cutting down a tallow tree doesn't kill it – it will grow back. Katrina destroyed a lot of native wetland vegetation, but it was the perfect storm for the tallow, enabling the trees to overrun the region in less than a decade. The Chinese tallow is the Terminator of trees.
The most efficient way to kill a Chinese tallow is to cut out a ring of bark and spray the trunk with a herbicide such as garlon. If you can manage to spray the tree within thirty seconds of stripping its bark, there's a seventy percent chance it will die. There's no way you'll clear the whole forest of tallow in a single try, but with persistent effort over many years, it's possible to cut back on the numbers.
We took a hack at tallow-killing in a wetland just outside of the city. Over 300 volunteers showed up for the event, mainly corporate employees from around the country who were in town for conferences. Chuck led our team, arming us with garlon, machetes and loppers. We gave ourselves two nicknames – Team Chuck and The Judy Garlons – and went to work.
After twenty minutes of hacking and spraying the trees, we seemed to be making good progress. Then the leader of the volunteer effort came up to us, frantically waved her arms and yelled, “Everybody stop!” I had a flashback of an experience I had a year ago in a state park in Wisconsin, when I filled a garbage bag with what I thought was garlic mustard, an invasive species, but was actually violet, the state flower. This time, I thought we had accidentally wiped out the only remaining native trees, clearing room for even more Chinese tallow. It turned out we actually were killing the right trees; we were just supposed to be working in a different area. I breathed a big sigh of relief and walked with the rest of our group to the correct part of the forest.
Team Chuck continued its efforts, lopping, chopping and spraying garlon, or “spritzer,” as it quickly became known. Before long, we had carved an entire blue-banded forest. We celebrated our tree-killing efforts with a military Rockettes dance. Time will tell if the Judy Garlons were successful in killing the Terminator trees, restoring a small section of Louisiana wetland.
Recently I visited New Orleans for the first time. I couch-surfed with Chuck, whom I had met a few weeks prior during his visit to Wisconsin. Chuck lives in the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The levee that runs near his house broke in the hurricane, flooding the entire neighborhood and killing hundreds. To add insult to injury, a 200-foot barge busted through the hole in the levee and flattened several houses.
Eight and a half years after “the storm,” as Katrina is colloquially referred, the Lower Ninth still bears its scars of destruction. Every house that survived the storm has since been abandoned, torn down or gutted and remodeled. Many lots remain empty. The rebuilt levee reminds residents and visitors alike of what happened, and what might happen again.
The neighborhood does appear to be coming back, albeit slowly. Make It Right, founded by Brad Pitt, has been building new, energy-efficient homes for people who lived in the Lower Ninth before the storm. Young people from around the country have chosen to move to the neighborhood, attracted by low property values and the opportunity to rebuild the community. It's one of those places that will look completely different in ten years, hopefully for the better.
My visit was an interesting one from the moment I arrived. First, Chuck took me to the “red house,” where there is a tree house held together by ropes and chains. An old antenna serves as an initial ladder and eventually leads to a gondola hanging like a bird cage. The tree house is constantly getting new additions, one of the latest of which is a series of cables suspended high above the ground, connecting it to a second tree. The structure feels a bit like the City Museum in St. Louis, but on a smaller scale and far more dangerous. If this tree house were built in just about any other American city, it would be shut down immediately. But in New Orleans, it's all part of the fun.
Chuck also took me for a tour of the French Quarter on his pedicab (bicycle taxi). He's a local hero, having pulled a guy out of a burning car on New Year's Eve. He's also quite the story teller, and his job is constantly giving him new material. This city, with its grittiness and laissez-faire attitude, seems perfect for him.
I didn't spend much time in New Orleans' touristy areas such as Bourbon Street, and I only went to one museum. But New Orleans was a nonstop ride from the moment Chuck picked me up at the airport until I almost missed my bus out of town because of a bridge under construction and a train crawling through the heart of the city. I came away with only a tiny understanding of New Orleans, but I was happy to have gotten a glimpse at such a fascinating place.