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Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge

July 9, 2010

The bayou shares its healing powers with Josephina

Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge.  New Orleans, Louisiana.  At 23,000 acres it is our nation’s largest urban wildlife refuge.  It contains all manner of birds, reptiles and bugs.  And because it is Louisiana, specifically, and an “urban” refuge, generally, it contains, within its borders, heavy industry.  Located 15 miles east of downtown New Orleans, Bayou Sauvage is still within the city limits.  From my former home in the Lower Ninth Ward it was a quick 15 minute drive, one which I took countless times.  Within days of first arriving in New Orleans I  visited Bayou Sauvage for a up-close look at my new office space.  From one planting to the next, the routine typically looked the same.  The same preparations, the same route, the same players.  The same plants, the same muddy hands, the same empty pots . Every day we were out there was progress.

The shocking amount and pace of wetlands loss in Southern Louisiana...more than a football field every 30 minutes

With each fresh load of plants we helped to resuscitate a gasping ecosystem.  Sure, the land loss at Bayou Sauvage isn’t as catastrophic as in areas further south, closer towards the mouth of the delta and the place that land should be continually supported and created. The place where the river’s spoils should spill over the banks every spring and, inundating the immense floodplain with nutrients from as far north as northern Minnesota, re-instill the breath of our land into the wetlands. Thanks to our extensive leveeing of the Mississippi River, though, such “shoulds” are fleeting. But the effects in Bayou Sauvage are still very real.

The story of wetlands loss in Southern Louisiana is a long and sordid affair and, for now, shall be left to be told some other day.  Anyway, its hard to feel accomplished when thoughts are of widespread catastrophic wetlands loss.  In order to trudge on through the muck – literal and figurative – one has to be able to see right in front of them.  See the tree within the forest.  And for me, that place, that caterpillar which I could help morph into a butterfly, was Bayou Sauvage.

As with every morning, the day started with morning meeting and I would gather my assigned and volunteered comrades, giving them an overview of where we’d be working and what we’d be doing.  The grasses and the tools would be loaded in the bed of the pickup.  Lunches would be assembled, water jugs would be filled.  Sunscreen, applied generously to any bare patch of skin, released fruity notes to the air.  Wetland grasses, wet and muddy, added earthy and sulfurous overtones. And with that, we were off, most often to Bayou Sauvage and no matter how recently I had been I was always anxious to get back to rediscover my roots.

We were armed with what we needed to reintroduce life to the bayou.  Most of these tools remained constant no matter which site we would be visiting.  There were two areas of the refuge which we helped to restore during my time there.  The first was an area adjacent to a newly constructed boardwalk (which stretched several hundred feet into the marsh) at a newly constructed visitor’s picnic area. This area held true to the “wet” in “wetlands” as we were often submerged to at least our waists in murky algae-topped water. The second area was more like a muddy field, prone to flooding, which was across the road from a concrete plant, and within the boundaries of the city’s flood protection system (the levee) which sat just several hundred feet away. During Katrina and as a result of not securing what was their legal responsibility to secure, a barge from this factory was brought ashore by the storm surge. When the waters receded, the barge was left, rendering the cushiony nature of the grasses and mud irrelevant to the quite possible 300 tons of the ship.

Breaking it down, focusing on just two small areas which together made up maybe two acres, the whole exercise seems, in a way, futile.  And in a way, with the problem being so many degrees of magnitude bigger than you, it is.  But in these situations, as in other struggles around the globe, whether they be environmental, political, human rights, animal welfare or social justice, whatever the struggle, I am reminded of the wise words of Margaret Mead, who said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”  All of us all over the world struggling for justice help drive the engine of change, no matter what our field nor how small our input.  Truth is more land was lost in an afternoon of planting than we had saved.  That is the cold brutal reality.  But we had done something.  Something immediate and with a sense of community.  Especially here, we were helping to save not just our wetlands but our city.  It was backyard rehabilitation.

Although there were other places in the refuge in which we worked, planting grasses and trees alike, it was in these two areas which we concentrated our efforts.  The results were spectacular; real concrete victories:

Most of the vegetation and land in the foreground we planted. That whole area used to be waist-high open water.

Everything in the foreground we planted. Our new additions extended about 50-100 feet in either direction out of frame.

They weren’t huge, monumental, David vs. Goliath battles, but we were making headway. Besides, it’s not like we were the only ones in Louisiana undertaking such efforts. My co-coordinator, Richard Waller, was a 50-something master gardener and restoration specialist who worked for many years in Hawaii and who I was honored to work with. He taught me so much and continued to learn alongside me. To have been treated as his equal, having jumped in without a life raft and having him trust me, was a real privilege. I also worked closely with Colleen Morgan, a staff member of the Audubon Institute and founder of Bayou Rebirth, who served as a mentor to me during my 10 months in the wetlands. LSU AgCenter, Louisiana State Wildlife and Fisheries and the US Fish and Wildlife Service were regular contacts and managers of projects my volunteers and I worked on.

I travelled all over Southern Louisiana, south, north, east and west of New Orleans and saw some pretty awe-inspiring landscapes and met people who Sarah Palin would refer to as part of “real America”.  Places I would have never even known existed.   Places like Galliano, Golden Meadow and Grand Isle. Ecological treasures which are at risk of disappearing forever unless serious funding is invested and serious attention is paid to these wetlands.

An entire ecosystem is simply vanishing before our eyes. At a staggering rate of a football field every approximately 37 minute, coastal Louisiana loses about 25-30 square miles of wetlands a year.  And that was without oil everywhere, impacting plant life, bird life, nesting sites, fish populations and fish larvae.  Impacting endangered Kemp’s Ridley Turtles and threatened (actually recently removed from the endangered list) Brown Pelicans.  Impacting White Shrimp (which during one planting on Lake Borgne were literally jumping out of the water all around me by the hundreds) and Crawfish.  Impacting Spartina patens (salt marsh hay) and bitter panicum (running beach grass).

A day at Bayou Sauvage provided a sense of relative comfort in the face of all of those “big” issues.  The science remained the same and Bayou Sauvage needs help; this was not a paradise after all.  But as a home away from home, Bayou Sauvage was like a friend to turn to  in times of crisis.  They may not have their shit together, but you could rely on them for some stability and security.  I got to know Bayou Sauvage well, spending time both with groups and on my own, alone with the plants and birds and alligators.

Oh those alligators.  Once we all went swimming after a morning of planting.  In (possibly) alligator-infested waters.  We had the time of our lives.  Next week I saw a mother gator and her baby.  In a place with such a nurturing nature, the wetlands of Louisiana are still as wild as they are wonderous.

Bayou Sauvage at dusk

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