08 September 2005

The US needs New Orleans

I was talking one day with a timber company executive, and he told me that they were doing the people of the US a service by clearing out the difficult terrain of the wilderness and replacing it with "managed forest". He showed me two pictures, one of a natural forest, thick with underbrush, and the other of what his company left behind, with trees well spaced in orderly rows and open spaces in between. He asked me which I preferred, and I said the "wild" forest, an answer he professed not to believe, as "no one" could possibly prefer the natural forest over the "managed" one.

But he was wrong. Wilderness is difficult and uncomfortable, and isn't in the least orderly. It is also beautiful and inspiring in a way that nothing man-made ever is. Something in most people's souls hunger for it. Even though age and infirmity have severely limited the time I can spend in the wilderness, I am comforted simply by knowing it's there, that something remains of the places where we became human, of what greeted the first people. When the earth loses its last wild place, humanity will lose part of its soul.

In American culture, New Orleans is our cultural wild place, a place where danger and opportunity lurk around every corner, where behind every door lies mystery. It's a place where those who live safe suburban lives can go to let themselves be free. The language is different there, a strange accent more Brooklyn than Louisiana, laced with words that were once French, like "voo car-ay" (Vieux Carré). Even the legal system is different, a relic of French colonial times, so different that few lawyers can practice both in Louisiana and the rest of the US.

When in New Orleans, or in the wilderness, we can question the assumptions we make about our lives. We learn that we don't really "need" a new car, or another pair of shoes we'll never wear; that the behavior we think of as mandated by natural law is really just custom, that nothing bad is going to happen if we "Show your tits!" for a string of plastic beads.

A friend who used to live in New Orleans said that on her way to work one morning, she drove past a man dressed in a clown suit who was haranguing passing traffic. He was clearly on a long, dedicated drunk, his clothes were torn, and his makeup ruined. Later, at work, my friend realized that she hadn't thought this odd enough to have commented on it to her co-workers. Living in New Orleans had increased her range of human possibility. And when she finally left the city, she mourned, and still mourns, the danger-laced freedom and excitement of the place.

For her, for me, for everyone who loves wild things, I hope that New Orleans rises again from the waters still dirty, dark, and dangerous. If not, it will be the death of part of the American soul.

Laissez les bon temps roulez. Please.

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