Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Bayous, BBQ, & the psychic center

On a late Monday afternoon a couple of weeks ago, I found myself sitting in a tiny aluminum fishing boat in the middle of the wetlands near Iberville, Louisiana, about an hour west of Baton Rouge. It was golden hour, and the boat idled in a dense Cypress-Tupelo swamp. It smelled just like the redwood forests of Northern California, but the trees grew out of shallow, algae-covered water. Silent except for the hum of cricket frogs and the occasional wing flaps of cranes, the scene was mesmerizing. A documentary filmmaker friend of mine was shooting video, and I was taking notes during an interview, but every few minutes, we turned to look at each other, our eyes wide in awe.

The tour took us through a bayou deep in the Atchafalaya Basin, the country’s largest river swamp that stretches across south-central Louisiana, mostly along the Atchafalaya River from Simmesport to the Gulf of Mexico. We saw alligators, bald eagles, and giant spiders. We sped through canals, marshes, and lakes. Through the screaming wind, our guide kept pointing out where pipelines crisscrossed each waterway, their valves and “no trespassing” signs sticking out of the water. Footprints of the oil and gas industry were in every corner of the most delicate ecosystem I had ever seen.

Nearly 2,300 miles of Louisiana’s coast will be underwater within the next 50 years. No other part of the U.S. coast is sinking as fast. That’s partly because of climate change, partly because of the sediment deposited by the Mississippi River — sand and dirt that settles near the Gulf and erodes quickly — and partly because over the past few decades, the oil and gas industry has constructed thousands upon thousands of pipelines and rigs in wetlands across the state. This week, Barry Yeoman, who has written extensively about the loss of Native American land and culture in Louisiana due to climate change, told NPR that the sinking Louisiana coastline is “becoming more and more an issue of climate change, but it’s not only climate change. There are 10,000 miles of canals that have been dug by the oil and gas industry, and they suck in saltwater which eats away at the tree roots.”

Yesterday, April 19, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards declared an official state of emergency for the Louisiana coast. The goal is to raise the profile of the situation to spur urgent action, so the document was sent to President Donald Trump and Congress. A state of emergency allows the federal government to administer more permits, speeding up the process of coastal restoration to mitigate flood risk. A revised version of the state’s 50-year coastal plan is now headed for final approval by the state legislature. The $50 billion restoration plan focuses on how to rebuild coastal land, mostly by creating new marshland.

Every few months, there’s a new study or report about Louisiana’s sinking coast showing that the crisis is more dire than ever, that we’re running out of time. Many people know that Louisiana is in grave danger, but the cause is usually attributed to the abstract concepts of global warming and sea level rise. Rarely are people shown the literal effects of digging a canal for an oil pipeline, or the process of dumping dirt in a bayou that is a haven for the crawfishing industry, or the way water flows from the Mississippi to coastal marshland and what happens when that’s interrupted.

Since those details aren’t often illustrated, the state of emergency will come as a shock to many people who don’t witness the problems as bayou fishermen, New Orleans residents, and environmental journalists do. It takes a lot of time and energy to connect the dots between carbon emissions, the oil and gas industries, sediment deposits in coastal marshes, and sea level rise. It’s difficult enough to wrap your head around, and when the U.S. government refuses to confront human-caused climate change, connecting those dots is even harder. All the specifics —  which could ultimately help lead to solutions —  become entirely too easy to ignore.

Stories worth your time

Kathleen Purvis is the food editor for the Charlotte Observer, and she has repeatedly written and talked about the racial and cultural tensions of Southern food (Read one of her essays in Bitter Southerner here). This New Yorker piece is a fascinating commentary on those tensions, tracing the history of the popular South Carolina barbecue restaurant, Maurice’s Piggie Park, which was founded by a white supremacist, and the dilemma endured by South Carolina residents when his kids took over the restaurant after he died in 2014 and tried to alter its image.

I finally ordered Joan Didion’s new book, South and West, a series of vignettes from her roadtrip across the South in 1970 and how she compares it to California. This New York Times review shares some of her insights into the region: “The purpose of the trip is unclear even to Didion. ‘I had only some dim and unformed sense,’ she writes, ‘a sense which struck me now and then, and which I could not explain coherently, that for some years the South and particularly the Gulf Coast had been for America what people were still saying California was, and what California seemed to me not to be: the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center.'”

Catherine Flowers, the director of the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise, asked National School of Tropical Medicine in Houston, Texas to conduct research on disease in Lowndes County, Alabama, and scientists found several tropical parasites in the soil, water, blood, and fecal samples. “The poor living conditions are exacerbated by a climate that combines increasingly high temperatures with heavy rainfall, creating a good environment for parasites to breed. ‘It is the perfect intersection of poverty and climate change,'” Flowers told the Financial Times.

Gallatin, Tennessee’s coal ash problem, which has been covered at length by Nashville media, is getting national attention in The New York Times. The story, which updates the ongoing litigation between the utility company Tennessee Valley Authority and environmental groups over coal ash pollution, highlights the problems with coal ash disposal in the Southeast.

News flying under the radar

A water shortage in South Florida has led water managers to ask people to stop using so much water. Several counties are already only allowed to water lawns at specific times of day, twice a week. Depending on how long the drought persists, the rules could get stricter. Lake Okeechobee, the backup water supply for South Florida, is under 12 feet — that’s a foot below where it should be this time of year.

A new study shows that the majority of Virginians want their next governor to focus more heavily on environmental issues. It also revealed that water quality was of utmost importance; respondents said they wanted the government to stick to its plans of cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay and prevent more coal ash spills.

Over 60,000 residential areas in North Carolina are home to an estimated 160,000 people within a half-mile of industrial hog or chicken farm or open-air pits full of swine waste, according to a new map by the Environmental Working Group. But last month, Republican lawmakers introduced bills that would limit the compensation for lawsuits against agriculture companies over stenches, chronic illnesses and piles of animal carcasses in their yards.