Jonathan Skinner: A Natural History of Levees

Fall '06 TOC

 Listen to the audio (mp3)

in the southern part of the country river flooding rather than glaciers had formed the wetlands
one million acres of coastal islands and marshes along the gulf have disappeared in the last century
the storm was on course to destroy the city

sediments deposited along the river's shore by floods created natural levees
every three miles of marshland reduces the surge tide by a foot, dispersing the storm's power
on our computers we could watch the hurricane system grow

during annual flooding, water overspilled the river's levees and submerged the bottomlands
the chief executive formally refused the state a restored network of barrier islands and coastal marshes
we could only imagine what it would be like trying to get out of the city

bottomland forests grew luxuriant, supporting forty species of wetland trees
an area of land equal to the state-sized glacier that calved two years ago has turned to water between the city
       and the gulf since the last world war, most of it former marshland
we imagined people holing up for the storm

the treetops stretched from horizon to horizon—one hundred twenty miles at the floodplain's widest point
had the storm struck around the year that we used the atom bomb, the surge that reached the city could have been ten
          feet less
we couldn't imagine wanting to leave but not being able to

moving downstream, bottomland forests graded from freshwater marshes to brackish areas to salt marshes, forming a
coastal band one hundred miles wide
former marshes, as well as barrier islands, were created by the sediment that the river's flood waters deposited over
        thousands of years
the storm pushed water into the manmade lake behind the city

there were five million acres of coastal marsh built from the river sediment
modern levees have prevented natural flooding, and the existing wetlands, starved for new sediments and nutrients, have
           eroded and washed away
wind pushed the water and slammed against the walls protecting the ward below

the explorer found natural levees of sediment that had been deposited during spring floods at the mouth of the huge river
every thirty minutes, even without hurricanes, during the time of this reading, a football field of land turns to water
a barge broke loose and breached a hole in the levee

the explorer chose one of the natural levees for his new town site, not knowing that the river drained two-thirds of the
a plan to fix the problem, worth two months of spending on the big war or the cost of a tunnel under the harbor of a
         northeastern city, has been on the table for years
water from the storm filled the city's poorest neighborhoods

enormous trees of the bottomland forests were cut to carve out a space for the town
the plan would use pumps and canals to guide a portion of the river's sediment back toward the coastal wetlands without
          destroying existing communities
the government whose chief officers were on vacation ignored the news

soon over forty two miles of earthworks lined both sides of the river
the plan would rebuild a million acres of wetlands over time and reconstruct barrier islands in as little as twelve months
the same government that had flown to the capital at midnight to save a brain-dead woman's life stayed home

soon a large flood destroyed most of the town's levees
the national academy of sciences confirmed the soundness of the plan and urged quick action
it was still summer and the chief executive was clearing brush

its role as a port town and commercial hub continued to grow the city
in his final spending package submitted after the storm, the chief executive dismissed the plan with a proposed
           authorization less than two percent the amount requested
the perception was that the people huddled on their rooftops or herded into the stadium were mostly black

whites from the far north and blacks from the south re-created their communities and cultures in the remote bayous
in speeches given for cameras on the gulf since the storm hit, the chief executive has not once mentioned the
          words barrier islands or wetlands
bodies floated through the streets like scenes from the tsunami

because its wood resisted rot, the baldycypress became a popular source for roofing shingles
the government's lack of preparedness for the hurricane catastrophe was palpable
the carnage resembled pictures from floods in countries a world away or medieval allegories

during winters, farm slaves often rived shingles in the swamps
the government sent one employee to the city before the storm
on our televisions we watched men, women and children crying in their filth

planters hired poor white and yellow immigrants, who risked their own lives at no expense to the owners
the war on misery has not yet been declared
we tried to imagine what it would be like to get shipped away to another state

as sap-filled trees do not float, crews would gird the cypress and leave them to dry out during the winter
some of the residents of the poor flooded parishes suspected that the levees  had been dynamited to protect wealthier
we couldn't imagine so many children being separated from families

when the high water of spring came again, slaves cut and floated the dried up trees to the mill
the river, swollen with rains and spring snow melt, burst its banks to flood six states in nineteen twenty seven
either three hundred or twenty three hundred people are still missing five months later

at a giant oxbow rafts containing thousands of logs and covering acres of river and slough were assembled and
officials made the decision to blow up the levee and flood the parish to spare the city
unlike in the aftermath of a terrorist attack there were no faces of the dead published on the front pages of newspapers

soon after the nation purchased the area, hopeful citizens moved in to farm sugarcane on the bottomlands
when a hurricane pushed storm surge over the canal in nineteen sixty five and flooded the ward people remembered
           nineteen twenty seven
some said they let the water sit on them to destroy them and take the land away

planters pushed the whites from the far north, the native peoples and blacks from the south deeper into the bottomland
during the nineteen sixty five hurricane the black people armed themselves and guarded the levees behind their
some were not surprised when the president did not mention the storm in addressing the state of the nation

to protect the land from regular spring floods an elaborate, poorly coordinated system of levees was built
the government has allowed its workers not to wear clothing identifying themselves in the area
many of us hoped for a public conversation about wetlands and how wetlands could help us rebuild a great city

every levee built upstream sent more water further down the river
political tensions are so bad the governor is threatening not to renew leases on oil platforms in the gulf
some warned the city would be an island in the sea at the end of our lives

for decades, residents sat like ducks before a loaded gun as the river discharged its floodwaters
it probably doesn't matter whether the levee was blown up or left to rot from the inside out
some of us gave to the red cross for the first time in our lives

many residents were surprised to learn that their city had been built on a primeval forest
only five two-bedroom apartments meet the approved budget of less than eight hundred dollars a month
one of the government's worst crimes against its own people was eclipsed by a quail hunting accident between oil

construction crews excavating a drainage canal unearthed ancient cypress stumps from trees cut by the city's founders
thousands became homeless again, wheeling their lives out on luggage carts or dragging garbage bags through lobbies,
             when the government stopped paying their hotel bills.
none of us were prepared to acknowledge how little we had learned about wetlands


A NOTE: three temporalities flood each stanza in its three lines, successively and respectively, the distant past, the recent past, and the immediate past

Jonathan Skinner's "A Natural History of Levees" will be published as a pamphlet by Billy Mills and Catherine Walsh with Hard Pressed Books in Ireland.


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