Those who find comfort in the sweaty arms of New Orleans probably don’t fantasize much about life outside the levees. We are, in many ways, an island: an urban island pulled up from the swamps, a politically blue island in a sea of red, the northernmost outpost of the Caribbean’s cultural archipelago. Like all islands we are surrounded by water, and those waters rise menacingly with each passing year. It’s a refuge for folks of all kinds, but when I am tired of potholes, people, culture, and city-business, I look at those levee-walls, blind to the river beyond for our own unbearable flatness, and I feel trapped.
This island is, graciously, close to the mainland. Whenever I can I load up my little Ford with its awkward California plates and venture over bridges into Louisiana or Mississippi. Its not because I don’t love New Orleans—far from it—but because I love it enough to know when we should spend time apart.
The reach of the city is long. We’re in the De Soto, a wilderness of piney uplands and jungle-like bottomland hardwoods that’s been left to itself longer than the surrounding paper forests. In a black-water creek, shallow, sandy, old, and rich with tannins, we spend a naked afternoon with some new friends. We needn’t be worried; the threat of rain drove away any prudish locals, though its been nothing but beautiful for us. We all seem to have sensed that a rainy weekend in the woods was preferable to a rainy weekend in the city.
I could tell they were from New Orleans before we exchanged a word, and, once we spoke, I knew exactly which neighborhood. Geography is essential in such a flat space; we have only two dimensions to orient ourselves. Like all islanders we aggregate when set adrift, forming new islands on old connections to place. Wherever I go I find New Orleanians, or rather, we find each other, and friendship comes organically. Like a bottle of sand we carry this island with us, a reminder, a keepsake, a catalyst.