Thunder and Flood

IMG_1964No snow for the Ozarks this Christmas, just rain, rain, rain. As of this posting, between 6 inches and 10 inches have fallen almost without pause during the past two days along a band from Oklahoma to Indiana, according to the National Weather Service; for some comparison, here in Fayetteville that’s about the typical amount during November and December combined. It’s not forecast to let up until late tomorrow, either. In the meantime, we have a lot of the image above: overflowing ditches and streams and rivers, sunken roads, flooded fields and golf courses, and constantly overcast skies.

The amount of water flowing around here is almost indescribable. White-water rapids cascade from every bluff and cliff, bridges are overrun and, whether it’s in a gentle shower or a thunderstorm, the rain keeps falling, channeled by northwest Arkansas’ hills into torrents of opaque brown water.

IMG_1973Take Devil’s Den State Park, for example. The photo above shows one camping area along Lee Creek, which at this point usually spreads out placidly into a little lake as it approaches a dam built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Here’s what the dam usually looks like, as shown in a photo from April 2014:

_C1_4371Here’s what it looked like today (notice the turquoise metal spike for scale):

IMG_1980I almost wondered whether the dam was still there, the water poured over it so fast. The roar and spray drowned out anything softer than a yell. On the surrounding hillsides, newly created streams and waterfalls carved through the leaf-covered forest floor like threads of pearl through rust.

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IMG_2007We haven’t seen rain like this since May and June, when about a foot fell around here and led to flooding of its own (You might remember the photos of the inundated golf course). Wacky and dangerous weather has struck across the country, with record warmth and several deaths from tornadoes in the past few days. Stay safe out there, everybody. Turn around, don’t drown, the whole bit. It could take days for all of this water to calm down. Thank goodness this isn’t snow, and brace yourself: It’s supposed to drop below freezing tomorrow night.

Hope you had a good holiday! Thanks for looking.

Dan

The Big Easy

IMG_9894By the time the ambulance arrived, the French Quarter intersection was completely clogged with revelers drinking and goofily dancing to the earsplitting jazz band playing on one corner. The police SUV with flashing lights got there first, but the officers were calm, hardly seeming to notice the party around them. Then the bus arrived, covered in black paint and inexplicably filled on a Saturday night with school kids who thumped the windows with the music.

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IMG_9954The ambulance medics wound through the crowd and brought back a man who had his eyes closed, but they too seemed weirdly relaxed about being there. A small flock of cameraman with neon-green, “TV DOCUMENTARY”-emblazoned vests tailed them. Normal traffic was forgotten at this point, hopelessly stuck outside of this bizarre tangle. Still the tuba and trombones and trumpets blasted their energetic tunes from the corner, drowning out everything but a shout, and the people danced and drank.

I hope the guy on the ambulance ended up OK, but I couldn’t help but laugh at this crazy place. Only in New Orleans.

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IMG_9961New Orleans is a city built and fed by music, story and water. The French founded it three centuries ago to be a port for a continent, overlooking a river that drains half of the present-day U.S. The city’s grid of streets warps and turns with the Mississippi’s curves. Wetlands of cypress cloaked in Spanish moss surround the city, and, of course, the Gulf of Mexico looms to the south, bringing a bounty of seafood and a long history with hurricanes.

Hurricane Katrina barreled through here 10 years ago, flooding most of the city, fixing a blazing spotlight on its poverty and inflicting a wound that still hasn’t fully healed. I often wonder whether people should really live here. Much of the metro area sits below sea level, and rising seas and more hurricanes are on the way. Still, though my mom’s family is originally from this place, I’m an outsider, and it isn’t up to me. And like the Southern live oaks whose strong, undulating arms reach over much of the city, New Orleans’ roots go deep.

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IMG_9992The entire city began with a small grid of streets and short buildings about five blocks wide and 10 blocks long: the French Quarter. The city is old, and here at the city’s heart, it stays old: It’s easy to imagine horses and carriages going down the narrow streets and soldiers from the War of 1812 drinking on the balconies of ornately curled wrought iron. The Quarter is home to Bourbon Street, the French Market and other well-known spots, and it was the first stop for my mom, Ryan (whom you might remember from the Great Sand Dunes) and me.

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IMG_0163The weather was fantastic, in the 70s with low humidity, so we wandered down to the river and the nearby Audobon Aquarium of the Americas. It’s a pretty part of town. Near downtown and the tourist-heavy Quarter, it’s hard to tell Katrina ever came.

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IMG_0088The aquarium shares its namesake with Audobon Park, a grove of those huge Southern oaks upriver. It was evening when we got there; I was on the hunt for a particularly massive oak I saw the first time I came here, but the light faded too fast this evening. We would have to come back the next morning to find the prize.

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IMG_0236Here it is:

IMG_0302This lopsided giant is called the Etienne de Boré tree, after the first New Orleans mayor, who worked in that post before Louisiana was part of the U.S. and whose land included the present-day park. People also call it the Tree of Life, which is a little goofy. A little sign next to the tree says it sprouted sometime around 1740, making it almost as old as the city itself, and it’s huge, with knotted roots roiling the ground in a 50-foot span and branches so large and heavy they run along the lawn’s surface.

IMG_0271I say this about a lot of trees, but I love these oaks, and this one is just incredibly beautiful. The main limbs support growths of other plants such as the resurrection fern, named for its ability to come back to life after the harshest droughts. The neighborhoods near the park are also historic and worth exploring.

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IMG_0326(For any “American Horror Story” fans, this is the house featured in the show’s third season.)

The next day started with some wandering around downtown before heading over to Louis Armstrong Park.

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IMG_0359These interlocking bricks in the park mark the location of Congo Square, where enslaved and free black people on Sundays in the 1700s and 1800s would dance, play music, sell goods and generally keep alive traditions from their homelands. Those traditions eventually fed into jazz and hip-hop, and the area is still culturally significant to the nearby neighborhoods.

Another tradition tied to west Africa (and heavily promoted in New Orleans) is voodoo, a wildly misunderstood and caricatured system of beliefs and folklore that tells of spirits of the natural world and a single Creator god. I’m no voodoo expert, but I’ve read enough about it to know the popular image of it isn’t right. I bring voodoo up because it’s a big part of the allure of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, the city’s oldest city of the dead, where they say Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen of 19th-century New Orleans, is entombed. We headed there next.

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Family members are often ensconced one on top of another in this walled maze of tombs and markers. The primarily Catholic cemetery has such a history of vandalism and surprise mugging that you can get in now only with a registered tour guide or a relative interred inside. Security cameras keep constant watch, and marking the graves isn’t tolerated.

A tomb near the front has a little bronze plaque claiming it’s the “reputed” resting place of Marie Laveau. She could be there, but our guide, a fellow named Nate Scott, said he knew better. The plaque is a ruse, a diversion to keep people who want the Queen’s blessing off her trail, he said. He instead led us to what he claimed is the real one, an unlabeled, crumbling monolith covered with trios of X’s scrawled in pencil and ink – visitors’ pleas for the deceased’s help. I’m sorry I don’t have a picture of the tomb to share; it doesn’t make much sense, but given its condition, I just wanted to give the thing a rest.

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IMG_0380St. Louis No. 1 is an emblem of the city’s fog of myth and mystery. It holds several notable people, including Homer Plessy of the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision that upheld “separate but equal,” as well as the mayor whose name is attached to that mighty oak in Audobon Park. But many of the graves have lost their markers, meaning their occupants’ identities might be lost forever.

Marie Laveau, meanwhile, could be in two different tombs, or in neither, for all I know – it seems best to be skeptical even of a registered guide’s word. She could have been a famous voodoo practitioner, but even then, her power or influence, like voodoo itself, probably was nothing like many people imagine. Our guide said Marie Laveau was mainly a healer and hairdresser whose reputation grew and grew into myth. It seems fairly plausible – every Marie Laveau biography I find is different, and the unknowns are fertile ground for legend.

Even the practice of entombing people above ground is clouded by untruths. Most people would tell you it’s because of the city’s high water table, but it actually has its roots in Catholic and European tradition. I’ll just say this: Bring lots of grains of salt if you visit this city.

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To wrap up the day, we took the streetcars to City Park, which includes the city’s art museum and a pretty impressive sculpture garden. It was the last stop in our tourist-ing.

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IMG_0444(“Una Battaglia” [“A Battle”] by Arnaldo Pomodoro)

IMG_0450(“Karma” by Do Ho Suh)

IMG_0457The next morning, we set off on the 10-hour drive back to Fayetteville. We went straight through the Mississippi and Arkansas Delta area. Flat fields of cotton, soybean and corn stretched to the horizon, criss-crossed by abrupt slivers of swamp. It’s not really a delta, but it has its beauty, especially with gems like the tiny town of Transylvania, Louisiana, and a creepily abandoned elementary school. Farmers were out tilling and burning in the fields throughout the day, making the sky hazy as dust devils twirled across empty stretches of farmland.

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IMG_0469It was a good trip. Thanks for looking and reading! This was a long one, and I hope it was worth your while.

Dan

High Water

IMG_875322I couldn’t tell at first that the tan, four-legged, tailed creature wandering around the middle of the golf course in the distance was a cow. Dusk was dimming, it was too far away to photograph or see, and for a surreal, stupid moment, I thought a lion had escaped some local zoo in the flooding — I’d read about something along those lines recently in southeastern Europe. This flood wasn’t a hemisphere away; this was Springfield, Missouri, last Friday, in the aftermath of then-Tropical Depression Bill. I was up for Father’s Day weekend to see my dad, also named Bill, and the rest of the bunch. We took off to see the water as soon as I got there.

These first few are from Rivercut Golf Course, inundated by several extra feet of the James River after days of rain. The water broke a record more than a century old, and it attracted an audience. Onlookers drove and walked past here and other swollen rivers and lakes in the area all weekend. The cow ended up OK, if you’re wondering, but for the night it was stuck on an island of green.

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IMG_876727We drove around past sunset, and from the car I also caught an abstract little scribble of the crescent moon and a fainter Venus above it in the sky.

IMG_877829The rest of these photos have to do with water, too — little demonstrations for myself of how beautiful and powerful it can be. Egyptians have had the right idea, I think, accepting and celebrating their main river’s periodic flooding. We’ve spent a lot of time and effort trying to control our rivers and building golf courses next to them; every now and then they remind us how they once were.

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IMG_8785My obsession with fungi is getting a little out of hand, but how can I resist these delicate, translucent beauties?

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The same James River that was running over the golf course goes down to Table Rock Lake; the river picked up a little more steam on the way down.

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IMG_8853It was a good Father’s Day weekend up there; I hope you can say the same where you are. And happy summer!

Thanks for looking,

Dan

Change in the Air

_C1_9243We humans are causing a lot of mayhem in the natural world, according to decades of research and findings in the field by climatologists, biologists, ecologists and chemists.

First, we’ve got the use of fossil fuels flinging carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at levels and speeds the planet hasn’t seen for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere lets visible light from the sun pass through to the surface, which absorbs the light, heats up and emits that energy back out as infrared, like the heat coming off of the sidewalk at the end of a summer day. In this form, it no longer goes through carbon dioxide; it’s trapped instead. There’s the greenhouse effect for you.

Then we have ocean acidification, because carbon dioxide in the air mixes with water in the oceans. Through some straightforward chemical reactions, that makes carbonic acid, a substance also found in soda that’s terribly unfriendly to the shellfish and coral that sustain oceanic life.

Put those and other issues all together, and scientists have found we and the rest of the living world have fairly dire problems everywhere we look, with thousands of species moving or going extinct every few years.

It’s all very depressing. I’ll come back to that.

I’m a county reporter, but I’ve had a few chances to report on climate, fracking, the Keystone XL oil pipeline and other environmental topics – heck, the biggest one I’ve done is here on this blog – as long as I’ve been writing. So this past weekend I drove up to St. Louis for a conference put together by the University of Rhode Island’s Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting, part of the larger National Adaptation Forum.

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_C1_9252It was my first conference ever, so that’s neat already, but it also brought an unexpected coincidence: it was held in St. Louis Union Station, a massive metal and brick structure into which someone decided to squeeze a hotel, a mall, an artificial lake along with the former train station. A decade ago, I took some of my first digital photos there, including this one:

Dec-17-2007-009It’s not terrible. Here’s my try this time around, featuring some of my fellow conference-goers:

_C1_0510I got to the city Sunday and Metcalf started Monday afternoon, so I had a few hours to walk around downtown and to the Gateway Arch as storms approached. Then it was back to the hotel to meet up with some other conference participants.

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_C1_0422I love the intricate detailing of the station’s every surface.

I had a little more time Monday to wander before we Metcalf participants all went on a field trip.

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_C1_0474You’ve probably heard about the trouble in California, where a significant chunk of our edible plants grow. The state’s drought, perhaps the worst in centuries, has come along partly because a warmer and drier atmosphere melted nearly all of California’s snowpack, meaning a lot of water is gone instead of giving the controlled release of gradually melting snow. Much of the Rockies’ flanks are covered by gray pine trees killed a beetle that’s spread further and further because of more warmth as well.

Our field trip was to the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, where researchers told us they aim to use breeding and bio-engineering to create tougher and more nutritious plants that can deal with droughts and stresses similar to those examples. It’s a good goal, though I should add our tour gave us a one-sided impression of the place. They have a slick-looking building, at least.

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_C1_0563That evening I went back to the Arch, this time under a clear sky. I like to call this half-century-old structure the country’s largest piece of public art on the continent; in fact, apparently it’s the largest monument in the Americas. It’s 630 feet tall and narrows as it rises, creating the appearance of towering even higher above the western bank of the Mississippi. It’s stunning to see.

After the walk, some other journalists and I trekked around town looking for a bar to hang out in. I’d never had such an opportunity to meet other writers and freelancers, hear about their paths and stories and bounce some ideas around together. One participant worked at the Omaha World-Herald near my old hometown, and I met some cool folks from Colorado, Maryland and the Northwest. It was absolutely a worthwhile experience.

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_C1_0732Tuesday was devoted to the conference, so I don’t have many photos to show from then. I said I’d get back to how environmental problems can be unbearably grim, so for those interested, I’ll give a run-down of the more uplifting theme of the day: adaptation. The word “resilience” was used dozens of times. Climate change is already happening, the speakers said, so here’s how we’re trying to deal with it.

For example, the Wildlife Conservation Society is focusing its tree-planting in some forests on species that like warmer temperatures, basically trying to mold the forest for the coming decades. It’s also preparing land near the coasts, but not directly on them, to become the next coastal wetlands as the seas rise.  Kim Hall with the Nature Conservancy, meanwhile, talked about making sure land is easy enough for animals to move across, essentially making sure they can flee as the climate changes around them.

This is a perspective I’d never heard of before. It oddly sounds like giving up, cutting our losses. But its proponents cast it as also pragmatic and potentially indispensable. Much more along these lines needs to be done to prepare for what could be coming, the speakers said. Cities need to prepare for weather and water and drought, they said, and we must keep working to change our energy sources and live in better balance with the rest of life.

Anyway, I’ll stop there, but I hope these issues seem worthwhile to you. Many people, perhaps including yourself, don’t accept climate science’s consistent findings, and science in general is imperfect and human. But people who study these things have largely concluded we’re living on a warming and changing planet, and many others agree that means we need to change, too.

Great conference, Metcalf! I’m really glad I went. My brain’s buzzing with story ideas._C1_0733---CopyThanks to you, too, reader.

Dan