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Essay

OUTSIDE A FINE New Orleans restaurant in the early fifties, a married man asks an unattached woman, “Have you ever driven south of here?” and she says, “South of here, I didn’t know there was any south of here. Does it just go on and on?” Then, without agreeing upon their intentions, the two take off—for a land like no other. It’s Eudora Welty’s story “No Place for You, My Love.”

My husband asked me to drive with him down the same road in May, 2010, during the height of the BP oil spill. I had recently reread Welty’s “No Place.” It’s about beauty, desire, and also fear, denial. She takes on the whole idea of “South.” I wondered what her tale set in this landscape might say to us, about place, and habits of mind—and possibly even the catastrophe of the moment.

We set out at nine in the morning for Venice, Louisiana, ground zero for the disaster. On the radio we heard President Obama was planning his second visit in less than a month—the well was nowhere near being capped. Things looked dire.

We had driven to the Louisiana wetlands a few times before, but I still wasn’t prepared for the jolt. Only minutes past New Orleans, the landscape abruptly morphed. The clouds became elephantine. Piercing, sonic greens streaked past—at a distance were yellow-gold flashes where the sun touched the levees. Towering over those earthen barriers, cranes on the decks of iron ships. The earth was so flat the sky took over, the way it does in Dutch landscape, or out at sea. Normal proportions vanished.

Plaquemines is one of the river parishes, the toe of the boot of Louisiana on maps. It is so far south it doesn’t even look like the South anymore. Not the one I was raised in—the Carolinas’ red clay, forests with kudzu bunting. Nor is it the world most southern Louisianans know—leafy bayous with big oaks, velvety rises along river banks, Spanish moss, land that at least has a continent under it. Edged by marshes, Plaquemines is a column stretching almost eighty miles below the city. It’s the flared lacy sleeve the Mississippi made reaching for the Gulf.

Down LA 23, we easily recognized the remnants of Katrina—houses gutted on the first floor, roofs not repaired. One big building still standing was an old French Colonial ruin calling itself the “Future Home of the Croatian American Cultural Center”—many of Plaquemines’ legendary oystermen are Croatian. Families in this region maintain their ethnic identities much longer than in most of rural America. The river parishes have communities of Vietnamese; Canary Islanders who came in the 1700s, called Isleños, whose elders still speak Spanish; and, of course, throughout the region, French-speaking Cajuns, black and white. The melting pot, among other commonplaces of modernity, has never really taken hold here.

Environmental writer Michael Tidwell wrote in his fine book Bayou Farewell, “I was a cynical traveler convinced it was no longer possible to fall completely off the map in America,” until he ventured into Louisiana’s wetlands and found otherwise. Many live as they did in the nineteenth century—off the land—trappers, oystermen, and shrimpers. Yet at the same time, it’s totally industrialized: the heart of American oil production. There are other extremes here as well: flatness, heat, fertility, rainfall and winds, great harvests of oysters and shrimp—and massive, man-made ecological destruction. The BP spill was just one recent and particularly severe episode in a long story of environmental degradation.

To aid shipping and save larger populations to the north from frequent flooding, the river was “channeled” in the last century. This means the alluvial plains are not replenished as they once were by the silt of the Mississippi. The myriad oil and gas company canals built in the fifties cause saltwater incursion, killing plants, encouraging further erosion. For these reasons, the marshes and dry land are disappearing at the pace of a football field every half hour. Tidwell: “A region the size of Connecticut is literally washing out to sea.” If something is not done, the estuaries will be gone in decades and an area where two million now live—south Louisiana and Mississippi—will be, some believe, uninhabitable. It’s the most threatened environment in North America. At a lecture in a French Quarter hotel in 2006, I remember being in the audience when Tidwell exclaimed: “This is the most dangerous city in America.” And he wasn’t talking about crime.

Geologically speaking, Plaquemines is embryonic. The parish was built up by the Mississippi a few hundred years ago—a nanosecond in geologic time. Like any being in its first formation, it’s full of potential. But baby land is defenseless—no natural barriers, no cliffs, no beaches, only manmade levees. You might have expected such tender, bountiful country to have been treated more gently. The opposite is the case.

Once, even the good people of its own due north decided it could be sacrificed.

In the 1927 Mississippi flood, the elites from the metropolis feared the river would destroy their homes, so they resolved to open a crevasse below the city and intentionally flood the east bank of Plaquemines, and other areas, to take the pressure off New Orleans. But the river’s level was no threat in the end. No one benefitted, and people’s livelihoods were destroyed and not restored.

We drove through miles of cattle ranches, a few citrus groves. Clumps of crumbling wooden houses appeared now and again before the ConocoPhillips refinery’s round tanks took over—the most solid looking structures for miles. Later, behind a sign reading tennessee gas pipelines, giant white elbows poked out of the plain. Beyond that, a lone school complex of brick and stucco, half-finished: a showpiece project, federal money. Almost every private home along the highway, we noticed, was provisional—modular or mobile.

Katrina’s twenty-foot storm surge meant new lines were drawn for federal flood protection. Citizens are still furious: plans are to build a floodwall at the very beginning of this road. It will leave the settlements that were once thriving—Buras, Triumph—unprotected. Some asked Congress recently if it knew people lived here. Were their lives even visible from the centers of power?

Louisiana politicians, who are as to blame as anyone for the problems, woke up, finally, after the storms of 2005—at least a little. The wetlands, here and in other river parishes, slow hurricanes down. America’s major oil fields in the Gulf of Mexico, and many industrial installations, are also imperiled by the land loss. Pipelines built on solid ground thirty years ago are now under water. If there weren’t good reasons to save these lands for their own sake, legislators argued, we had better save them for the well-being of the whole state and nation. But everyone fears—or perhaps knows—it’s too late.

We passed a drug-testing center for men who work on the rigs, and the pipelines. When we stopped for gas, we noticed the Plaquemines Gazette’s headline: infiltration. As if our status as interlopers was being announced. But the reference was to the first oil-poisoned marsh—Pass a Loutre. The photo: brown death rising up the marshes.

After eighty miles of our drive, the land became less like land. The names of the streets reflected it: Jump Basin, Tide Water Road. The routes to gigantic petrochemical plants, complex as cities, were underwater. Inches deep at first, then deeper. At a certain point, herons and egrets waded in front of us, refusing to let us pass even when we honked and yelled. They were already assured of their claim here, or they were desperate for habitat—they can’t live in the open Gulf. I argued that the flooded road would do our car in—we couldn’t just keep driving as if there was no danger. But my husband was beguiled by the cheeky birds. He wanted to photograph them—they didn’t care how close he got. What if the asphalt beneath us just collapsed? I asked. I’d seen it happen all over New Orleans after Katrina—gaping holes appeared overnight in previously faultless thoroughfares. He tried to calm me—pointed to trucks at a distance. I protested, fumed, shouted, threatened to get out of the car and start walking. He coaxed me to stay, and we hydroplaned a few more miles without any disaster, until finally we arrived at the Venice marina where acres of shrimp boats sat idled, their masts great tuning forks draped with gauzy black nets. As if waiting for the final note: hope or no hope. Nearby, a half-destroyed sign announced that we had reached the southernmost place in Louisiana. And then, the road just ended. No beach, no waves, no splash—just water coming in, unimpeded.

No choice. We turned around and headed back—so do Welty’s characters. They are stymied by the land, by that very road, that spot. She writes that the woman “could not remember ever seeing a road simply end. [It] was a spoon shape with a tree stump in the bowl to turn around by.”

But how did they get to this end of the road?

Earlier in the day, they met at a gathering of acquaintances. They are Northerners. He’s married. Her status is unclear. He postulates she is having an unhappy affair. When he asks her if she’s ever been south of the city, she is surprised it exists at all, and he says—“That’s what I’m going to show you.”

She asks if he has ever been.

“No!” he says, as if accused. As if there is something wrong with having been to Plaquemines Parish, as if it would constitute a flaw in his character. Here is the first hint of the story’s repeated gesture: coupled with interest, and desire—refusal.

There is something questionable about a married man inviting a single woman alone on an impromptu road trip, an adventure with no clear conclusion, no estimated hour of return. But what the man won’t admit is having been “South”—as if the sin resided in a geography, not in his heart.

Welty writes, “The stranger in New Orleans always sets out to leave it as if following a clue in a maze.” These two are following some hunch, their own attraction. But they let the scenery take the blame—for enticing them with its exoticism.

…girls ever darker and younger were disposing themselves over the porches and the porch steps, with jet black hair pulled high, and ragged palm-leaf fans rising and falling like rafts of butterflies. The children running forth were nearly always naked ones.

Things are amplified, redundant: there is a universe of gnats, the clearing alternates with canebrake, and with jungle, “Like something tried and tried again.” The crawfish and terrapins are bizarre, in the woman’s view—like “little jokes of creation.” An allusion—a very northern European one—to “primeval mud.” They come to a ferry, see a man trying to give away a truckload of shrimp in a burst of “wildness.”

The woman notes the boat is so hot it’s “like riding on a stove.” Though she’s alive to the world about her, she has no idea, or she’s actively repressing, what she feels inwardly. She may be crying—she’s not sure. She quotes a line to herself: “Deliver us all from the naked in heart” while she stares at an alligator being walked off a ferry. Is her heart an alligator on a leash? What would happen if it were let loose?

The further they drive, the more alien the landscape—and the more dangerous the adventure. My husband and I felt the same, I think, on our drive that May day. I was agitated, frightened: the place was so exposed, boundaries were not respected. Dry bled in to wet; wildlife habitat merged with industrial routes.

Welty’s two Yankees defend themselves: it’s not their confusion, it’s the place. Blame it on Plaquemines: “It’s never anything like this is Syracuse,” he says. “Or Toledo, either,” she adds.

The woman finally approaches the real topic of this excursion: “What is your wife like?”

But, “His right hand came up and spread—iron, wooden, manicured. She lifted her eyes to his face. He looked at her like that hand.”

This gesture repeats the “No!” he gave her earlier, when she asked him if he’d ever been south of the city. His defenses went up then, too—he behaved as if he’d been accused of something.

This is a story about two people who are going where they also don’t go. The atmospherics are almost those of the Heart of Darkness, inscribed in miniature, in the subtle garb of an afternoon’s flirtation, an “innocent” drive.

The characters turn around, the way we had to, and return to a tavern. After watching the local girls coming in for a social evening, the woman turns to go outside, and her companion finally makes a move to touch her, to dance. To communicate, if only on a physical level. But, then, as the potential is almost fulfilled, she realizes he may see a bruise on her temple—a secret she won’t tell. He wouldn’t explain about his wife, after all.

They continue, but stiffly, “Like professional Spanish dancers wearing masks.”

Abruptly, it’s over. Done. They’ve been rather cruel to each other, certainly withholding. The man turns to drive them back to New Orleans. Within a few miles, he’s ready to dismiss the exotic place he’s just been.

It was a strange land, amphibious, and whether water-covered or grown with jungle or robbed entirely of water and trees, as now, it had the same loneliness. He regarded the great sweep—like steppes, like moors, like deserts (all of which were imaginary to him); but more than it was any likeness, it was South.

The two return to relatively recognizable metropolitan New Orleans. As when Marlow believes he must when he returns from the Congo, Welty’s character forms his alibi: “For different reasons, he thought, neither of them would tell this (unless something was dragged out of them) that, strangers, they had ridden down into that strange land together….”

For a second, as they part, they see the potential they left “down there.” The abandonment of their tentative relationship causes something like panic. Then, they return, exhausted, to their apparently miserable lives. All that “No,” has left them rather cold, defended, unfeeling.

My husband and I found the region far less inhabited now than it was in the 1950s of Welty’s story. The oil industry was only in its infancy then; now there are thousands of rigs in the Gulf. Villages have retreated, and the town of Venice—so lively in Welty’s rendition—is mostly an agglomeration of plants, marinas, and bunkhouses for rig workers. The only place we discovered in town that was on the human scale was a red cube of concrete called the Riverside Restaurant.

Inside, tables were covered in plastic gingham. The special was catfish and white beans—no shrimp, of course. The waitress gave us the table where Anderson Cooper had sat the day before.

A painting the entire length of one wall depicted a vibrant marsh. The perspective was perfect, the wildlife well-drawn—pelicans, egrets, and night herons beneath billowy clouds. The mural was framed in pine, as if it could be taken off and put somewhere safe in a rough situation, say, another storm surge, a wave of oil. But I looked closer: it was painted directly on the wall, impossible to rescue. And no derricks or platforms anywhere to be seen. Already elegiac.

Most of the patrons—idled fishermen, oil workers—weren’t looking at the painted vista. Their concerns were more immediate: the little box above their heads. Dotted lines of imaginary crude flowed up straws and pipes in the animated diagram on TV. Far away, in London, officials were sanguine, upbeat.

I couldn’t help but think of what geographers call the “rule of the South.” In the northern hemisphere, the nearer you get to the equator, the more abject the nation.

The Londoners kept talking—from their vantage, the problems were abstract, remote. But then, the image split, and a groan went through the crowd. At the bottom of the sea, at the bottom of the screen, a real heart of darkness was bleeding, billowing up. The region’s demise had a new, potent symbol—the leaking head of the broken well. I wanted to avert my eyes.

On the way back to New Orleans, we stopped at a produce stand in the midst of groves of oranges and satsumas—all the trees are new since the 2005 storms, but already bearing under the great hot sky. And, then, a few more turns—Welty’s maze—and we were back in the city with its freeways, its spires, its busy port, its traffic.

Once home in our Uptown neighborhood, so well refurbished post-Katrina, it was hard to conjure Plaquemines: the swamp, the watery roads, the fierce long-legged water birds, the forlorn fishermen, the abandoned houses, the bunkhouses on stilts. By nightfall I was back to considering other things—the house we’ve spruced up with insurance money, our lush yard, our parades, our parties. The sheer, seductive beauty of our environment.

There could be a story here, about a city in a kind of bubble of self-regard and congratulation, having recently recovered from disaster, eager to forget the troubles close by. A couple, survivors of one flood, arguing furiously about driving on an inundated road, later, at home on a beautiful dry evening, forgetting the fight, and the threats approaching at an ever-decreasing distance. But it might be political to write that story. Welty, to my mind the best kind of writer, was never overtly political.

In her essay “Must the Novelist Crusade?” she asserts that messages diminish a work of fiction. She suggested her art had a higher calling: Fiction should be a “source of illumination not dated by what passes under its ray, or disqualified by the nature of the traffic.” Her story did examine the qualities of denial and its consequences, particularly in the human heart. Reading it now, sixty years after it was written, certainly highlights the great destruction that region has endured in the interim.

But Welty also says illumination is not enough. There is a higher goal:

Great fiction shows us not how to conduct our behavior but how to feel. Eventually it may show us how to face our feelings and our actions and to have new inklings about what they mean.

There is a single instance late in her tale where Welty comes out with something important, an instruction, that goes against the pattern of all the rest of the story. While the two are dancing, the woman says the same old thing—“I get to thinking this is what you and I deserve.” But then, there’s a kind of epiphany: suddenly, she looks past her companion’s shoulder, and into the room. “And all the time, it’s real. It’s a real place—off down here….”

§

There are places, there are many Souths, in our lives, and in the world, that it might be easier to call “no place”—to deny. But allowing them to degrade and disappear is another matter. At home, and “safe,” in our endangered, lovely city, and in all the other comfortable Norths, Welty prompts us not just to know that, but also to feel that. Reading her that night at home, it seemed to me she was saying: They are all real, those denied territories in our hearts where we are all linked on this earth.

Where harm to one part, hurts all.


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