28 December 2011

New Orleans Swamp Tour



OK, there's not really any way to make this post fit the "faith and art" theme of this blog! -- except to say that God's creation really does lick art hollow sometimes. After that very disappointing visit to the New Orleans Museum of "Art" yesterday (quotation marks mine), as we set out on the swamp tour into the misty beauty of the bayous, I said, "Wow, forget about art."

But as usual, it's not that simple.

We had a most marvelous day, photographing egrets, herons, turtles, and alligators. We didn't see any big alligators; they're asleep for the winter already. The more energetic young ones stay out and about when it is so cold that the great-granddaddies cannot function. Alligators don't technically hibernate, but they sleep all winter with a heartbeat of one pulse every 3 or 4 minutes! Their metabolisms slow down so much during that time that they can't eat: even if you forced food into their mouths, they wouldn't have enough energy to swallow it. Anyway, we only saw those that were about 4 feet long or less.

The really fun surprise came at the end of the trip, when the “captain” of our little tour boat pulled a baby alligator out of a bucket and handed it around! It's belly was extremely soft, like the most expensive leather. Its little throat was smooth, delicate, and fragile. It has a “nictitating membrane,” like a transparent eyelid, that acts as a windshield wiper over its profound bronze eye. I held the little guy on my shoulder and stared into his ancient face.

Because of that, and all the beauty of wind, sun, and water, this day was much more enjoyable than our visit to the boring art museum the day before, which is what led me to say that “nature beats art.”

But there is a problem. What we enjoyed was not really “nature.” Some of the time we cruised on the bayous—natural, endless waterways that flow into one another all over the word—but some of the time we were on man-made canals. And on Friday, we watched an I-Max movie at the Aquarium of the Americas that explained how the canals and levees have contributed to the depletion of wetlands, which used to protect New Orleans from the full force of hurricanes. In other words, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina was in large part due to the ill effects of human “artistry” on the landscape: canals that bring in salt water and kill the trees (leading to severe erosion), levees that prevent annual flooding (leading to conservation of the silt and topsoil that used to flow down the Mississippi and build up the wetlands). So the temporary comfort of protecting New Orleans from little floods and the commercial benefits of canal-building contributed to a much bigger disaster.

The wetlands are still forming, but they are just in a low, narrow line at the very tip of the Mississippi, rather than spread across hundreds of acres of the Delta. The movie we watched talked about lots of things that can be done to rebuild the wetlands. All of that was interesting and challenging. But the way this whole thing affected me was to shock me a bit, that the so-called “nature” I was enjoying more than “art” was not only largely artificial, but even detrimental to itself in the long run. That's depressing.

I still enjoyed playing with the baby alligator.

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