I've spent a lot of time digging dirt recently. Digging dirt gives a fellow time to think, and this is what I've been thinking.
Digging in the front yard of our old house in this old city is a very different experience from digging back on the farm. This is not pure, clean soil. Each turn of the shovel reveals a dozen bits of urban detritus, nothing of dazzling historical significance, just random bric a brac from the last hundred years of human occupancy. Certainly the recent flood and construction have added their own thick top-layer of debris, but much of it is older—chunks of brick, an old can, rusted pipes that go to nowhere, a styrofoam cup, bits of seashell (from the old roadbed?), a pair of rubber gloves. The dirt itself is thick and almost black, a mix of silt carried from far corners of the country by the Mississippi, finally settling here as the river pushed it's way out into open waters, and rich organic funk from the back-of-town swamp that used to cover this ground.
I've seen New Orleans from the air countless times. But when we travelled to Miami a few weeks ago, we flew southeast, loosely tracing the course of the river down towards the Gulf. It was a clear afternoon, and as we climbed higher I could eventually see a tremendous swath of land: from the swamps west of Kenner to the swamps of New Orleans East, Lake Pontchartrain, Lake Borgne, the narrow settlements of St. Bernard, and the tapering wisps of wetlands that eventually blurred indeterminately into the ocean.
We're marked as green on the map, and the ground feels solid enough when I dig my shovel into it, but this is something close to an illusion. Our bent houses and cratered streets reveal the earth's slow undulations. My grandfather described seeing the foundations of a new building being laid. The out-of-town engineers, used to the slow and steady work of pile drivers in other upland locales, were dismayed by the pilings sinking unimpeded into our soft soil.
We've staked our claim on this spot, sunk our pilings, built our levees and drainage systems and our highways that can whisk us off to terra firma in less than an hour, brought in our stuff, our cans and bricks and pipes. But it's still a geological limbo—not water, but not exactly land either—certainly not the mainland. We are, at the best of times, only half here. That somehow seems appropriate.
Happy Disjointed-Ruminations-About-Dirt Friday.