Walking Along Governor Nichols Street

New Orleans Writing Marathon

Day Four, Thursday, July 13, 2017

Ancient tree growing through the sidewalk, Governor NIchols Street, New Orleans, Louisiana

Walking in the morning is too hard. My feet ache from all the walking the day before, my leg muscles are stiff and weak from sleeping all night. The morning humidity is difficult to breathe as if the moisture is displacing all the oxygen.

Time oppresses this morning. I can feel the burden of centuries in the teetering live oaks growing out of the sidewalks – their ancient roots beginning to slip and rise, pushing the bricks and slabs of concrete up and aside like they are packing peanuts.

I have seen these trees lying on their sides after a violent storm. Enormous root ball exposed to the air – an obscene display of the oak’s private parts.

How many storms, named and ancient anonymous, have these giant trees endured.

Some of them… I don’t think they will make it through the next one.

I have been through too many storms – some quiet, some loud, and they have left be bent. How many more do I have left?

Not too many, maybe not enough.

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Procrastination with Google Maps

I have been suffering from a terrible case of writer’s block and have been spending too much time staring at a blank screen, waiting in vain for some sort of a useful idea to come bubbling up from… well, from wherever useful ideas bubble up from. Of course, the staring doesn’t last very long until it is replaced by silly web-surfing. You know how that goes.

So I was wasting time by GoogleMap StreetViewing (I’m no fan of the current fashion of converting tech nouns into verbs, such as in the phrase of “Netflixing through Mad Men,” but this is what life is in this best of all possible worlds with) places that I used to live and I came up with this shot:

Live Oak in back of the house I used to live in.

Live Oak in back of the house I used to live in.

First, it’s interesting that in my old neighborhood they even have GoogleMaps StreetView in the alley. Let that sink in for a minute. Not only did the Google car drive down the street taking photos willy-nilly to post for all to see, but then it proceeded to creep down the alley in back of the houses, doing the same thing. The alleys there were extra-wide (the kids used to cone them off at the end of the block and play roller hockey on the concrete) but… just sayin’.

What I thought was cool is that tree there. The big one in the corner of what used to be my yard.

My son Nick (now in his final classes at Duke University) was a toddler. He was born in East Dallas, a few miles north of this spot, and we moved before our second son, Lee (now a financial analyst in New Orleans) was born eighteen months later. I’m pretty sure the tree was planted before Lee was born, so Nick would have been about a year old.

I took Nick down to the Dallas Arboreteum for a Saturday afternoon. When we arrived, I discovered they were giving out free trees. I picked up a Live Oak planted in a recycled coffee can and brought it home, intending to plant it in the yard of our then-new-to-us home.

It looked substantial in the can, but after digging the hole and getting rid of the container the tree was only about an inch and a half high. It was dwarfed by the weeds that surrounded it. Everybody thought it was ridiculous and that I was an idiot for planting such a tiny sprig.

Still, despite the ridicule (probably because of the ridicule) I stuck it out. I carefully marked out the area around the twig to make sure it wasn’t mowed over or trampled upon. I watered it faithfully and tended it as best I could.

And, wonder of wonders, it grew. Fast. It grew like a weed. I talked to a friend that is a landscape architect and he said, “The smaller a tree is when you plant it, the bigger it will be in ten years.” Something that small doesn’t suffer the shock of transplantation, which sets a tree way back.

A few years later, it was already as high as my head. Putting in a new fence, the wind caught a panel and yanked it out of my hands. It landed on the tall, but still thin tree, smashing it flat. I was horrified.

I carefully raised the reedy trunk back up and staked the tree in position. I expected it to die, but, surprise, it didn’t miss a beat.

And now look at it. It’s one of the largest trees in the neighborhood. When we moved in, the block was thick with fast-growing “junk” trees – put in by the original developer to give quick green. Those have all now (mostly) succumbed to disease and are either gone or skeletal ghosts.

The sturdy oak is still growing.

I’m proud of the fact that I planted that tree (also proud that I got it for free). We moved out about ten years ago, when our kids were in Middle School. Nobody in the neighborhood knows this story, but I do, and that’s what’s important.

It’s also cool that the tree is the same age as my kids. If you have little ones – go out and plant a tree in your yard, or a park, or somewhere that needs one. The decades go by faster than you imagine is possible and a sturdy oak will rise to mark the passage of time with some welcome shade.

Birdhouses in the Tree of Life

While I was going on my little bike ride in New Orleans I made a quick stop on the river side of Audubon Park, next to the Zoo. There is a cool tree there – an ancient (planted circa 1740) and enormous live oak. Locals call it the “Tree of Life” – its official name is the Etienne de Boré Oak. It’s a beautiful spot – very popular for wedding photographs – and was worth a look even on a rainy and overcast cold day.

My commuter bike by the Etienne de Boré Oak - Audubon Park, New Orleans (click to enlarge)

My commuter bike by the Etienne de Boré Oak – Audubon Park, New Orleans
(click to enlarge)

I noticed a work crew with a highlift and a series of ladders working around the tree – laying down plywood for stability in the muddy soil. A van pulled up and discharged a couple of women drinking hot coffee. They walked over to the workmen and began to plan a project.

Walking around, I found a large collection of finely detailed birdhouses. Most were still in a pile off to the side, but a bunch of them had already been hung off the branches, mixed in with the Spanish Moss.

Birdhouses waiting to be installed, Audubon Park, New Orleans (click to enlarge)

Birdhouses waiting to be installed, Audubon Park, New Orleans
(click to enlarge)

Birdhouses in the Tree of Life, Audobon Park, New Orleans (click to enlarge)

Birdhouses in the Tree of Life, Audobon Park, New Orleans
(click to enlarge)

Birdhouses in the Tree of Life, Audobon Park, New Orleans (click to enlarge)

Birdhouses in the Tree of Life, Audobon Park, New Orleans (click to enlarge)

It was pretty cool – I wished that I could stay and see them all hung up there – but I had places to be so I peddled on.

Now I have had time to look up the installation online. It was an advertisement for an online peer to peer house rental company, Airbnb.com. Each of the birdhouses had been carefully made as a tiny duplicate of real homes that are for rent on their service.

Neat little advertising gimmick, if you ask me.

Slideshow of the birdhouses and the homes for rent they represent.

Covered in Ice

“Maybe it’s wrong when we remember breakthroughs to our own being as something that occurs in discrete, extraordinary moments. Maybe falling in love, the piercing knowledge that we ourselves will someday die, and the love of snow are in reality not some sudden events; maybe they were always present. Maybe they never completely vanish, either.”
― Peter Høeg, Smilla’s Sense of Snow

The trees that still had their leaves, mostly oaks, were the ones to suffer the most. (click to enlarge)

The trees that still had their leaves, mostly oaks, were the ones to suffer the most.
(click to enlarge)

I read on facebook where somebody here in Dallas wrote, under a nice bright picture of downtown, “I remember when it was sunny and eighty degrees… wait, that was yesterday.”

The freezing rain blew in overnight, coating everything in a transparent crystalline shell. I bundled up, breathed the bitter clean air, and carefully walked around the familiar landscape of my yard – transformed into an alien arctic spectacle. When the breeze would blow the world would tinkle with tiny crackling ice. The sun was behind thin clouds but enough light shone through to light up the glassy ice crystals like myriad clear jewels strung everywhere.

We have a huge oak tree in our front yard. Overnight, I could hear wood splitting as the tons of frozen water dripping down the still-attached leaves weighted the wood past its breaking point. In the morning, the yard was littered with limbs, with more broken ones suspended overhead, still stuck in the thick canopy. I’ll have to wait a day or so and then cut the fallen limbs up for firewood and haul the rest to the curb for the city to pick up.

A guy was wandering the neighborhood looking for work – he offered to clear the fall for twenty bucks, which is a more than fair price. I said no… and I’m not sure why, but I think I want to do it myself.