Majestic live oaks canopy the streets of the Garden District. Our leader, Andrew, told us about how Walt Whitman once stayed in the Garden District and wrote a poem about a single live oak tree: “I saw in Louisiana a live-oak growing, / All alone stood it and the moss hung down from the branches, / Without any companion it grew there uttering joyous leaves of dark green, …”
I have been fascinated by trees since I was a child. I can’t pinpoint why my subconscious draws me to trees. Maybe it’s the way trees’ branches twist into impossible shapes, diverging angrily into the vast open sky as if breaking free from shackles. Each branch sustained by the whole but possessing a will of its own. Allowing bits of fragmented sunlight to show through on a sunny day or on an overcast day breaking through a thick cloud of haze, demanding to be seen, noticed. Maybe it’s the unseen part of the tree that amazes me; the way the roots ground the tree, supporting it, forcing it to remain standing through adverse conditions.
Driving to high school in Sacramento—the “City of Trees”—I remember staring out the sunroof of the car as we passed under a canopy of dead trees. The trees weren’t dead—they were dormant. But they looked dead. In the spring they would awaken from their slumber, bursting with buds of promising new life. I see this as a metaphor for New Orleans’ resiliency following Hurricane Katrina: the strong will of the people of New Orleans being the roots which held the city up, allowing it to survive; the families and most vulnerable members of society the twisted branches ripped apart, damaged, obliterated in the storm; the rebuilding period the buds bursting with a hopeful vitality.
Visiting the Presbytère today, exploring the “Katrina and Beyond” exhibit, seriously affected me. I learned about how human meddling with nature (constraining the Mississippi River, draining land and digging canals) deteriorated the natural coastal buffer, leaving New Orleans more vulnerable to the natural force of Katrina. My fascination with the wild, free, untamable quality of tree branches I think reflects my fascination with the untamable and brutal power of nature to obliterate and destroy. I attempt to capture this with my photography.
My father is a farmer. Perhaps my affinity for trees has to do with growing up visiting our ranch, strolling through cherry and walnut orchards. In Interview with the Vampire, Louis recalls a very distinct memory of watching his last sunrise: “ ‘My last sunrise,’ said the vampire. ‘That morning, I was not yet a vampire. And I saw my last sunrise. I remember it completely; yet I do not think I remember any other sunrise before it. I remember the light came first to the tops of the French windows, a paling behind the lace curtains, and then a gleam growing brighter and brighter in patches among the leaves of the trees. …’ ” Some of my fondest and most distinct memories growing up involve climbing trees, picking cherries, and going on ATV rides.
Exploring New Orleans and its multifaceted culture through the novels of writers that spent time here has led me to think about the places that influenced me growing up. The joy of this bookpacking trip is that I continue to learn about New Orleans while also learning more about myself.