is habitable, in spite of the sub-tropic swelter, by the grace of its trees. All of the best places are cooled by the filtering of the unrelenting sun through the canopy that overhangs the main avenues, all the best spots in to stop and sit, and any house worth living in.
Step out of the airport and into your limo or taxi, then wander for a week between your downtown hotel and every notable spot in the French Quarter, and you may never see a notable oak or other tree. I’ve walked through or around Jackson Square countless times, and can’t recall a single exceptional specimen.
The closest most tourists get to touching this urban forest is riding the streetcar to Audubon Park and back. They fan themselves furiously with a street map and complain that the cars aren't air-conditioned, they gawk at the houses and squeal should they see the Roman Candy man stopped at a corner. The trees are such an integral part of the scene they are lost among the mansions.
The true tourists, those who line up on the shadeless pavement outside their hotels to fill the Greyline buses, will certainly make it to City Park, and see the Dueling and the Suicide, the 600-year-old McDonough, all the ancient live oaks preserved there. They ride along Dreyfous and City Park Avenues and marvel at the stands of grandfather trees bearded with moss, whose branches descend almost to the ground as if reaching down to steady themselves. They see the cypress that populates the margins and islands of the lagoons, the knees like the accidentally exposed bones of something long buried, the frightful specimen on the small island where Wisner meets Carrolton and City Park, its twisted branches in winter haunting.
When the visitor abandons the bus and ventures on foot along the lagoon, or steps down from the streetcar and walks down St. Charles, only then do the trees become a central element in the picture: the stout trunks and wandering roots erupting through the upended pavement in a violent attempt to reclaim the city for the forest primeval, the great canopy of branches that filters the light into a wavering and indirect illumination akin to candlelight, the ideal illumination for Faulkner’s aging courtesan.
If they are uptown, they might see the flowering rows of crepe myrtles that line the boulevard between sidewalk and street. Were they to tour the lakefront, they might see the stand of evergreens just north of the levee we called Pinecone Forest when I played or idled beneath them as a child. In almost any neighborhood, they would find the towering trees that mark a mature city, one where generations have passed since saplings were planted on newly platted lots.
If this same visitor steps out of their vehicle today, they will see this: great piles of broken wood heaped in the sun, naked and shattered branches traced against the unrelieved blue of the sky. Everywhere, the canopy is torn away, limbs broken, trunks reduced to tall stumps. Many trees survived, but many more were lost, leaving the streets exposed to the unrelenting sun and the driving rain.
Esplanade is one of these denuded avenues, it’s great trees broken and battered by Katrina
. The painter Degas lived here once, and it is easy to imagine he would choose a house where there is infinite variation and change in the light, where the world is already softened in a way that the painters of the late nineteenth century understood. Today, the historic plaque that marks his nineteenth century home in the city would stand exposed to the sun all hours of the day.
The great historic avenues of oak—St. Charles, Esplanade—suffered, but these trees will come back. All the great oaks have surrendered branches and leaves to past storms, and come back. In a place where hurricanes and powerful subtropical thunderstorms are as regular as Carnival, these trees have grown to heroic proportions only because they are well adapted to the place. So, too, the flexible cypress around the lagoons of City Park, naturally suited to sit in the water and bend before the wind. The modest neighborhoods trees faired poorly. Many lots in the older residential sections are too small for the great oaks. Smaller trees—water oaks, pecans, loquats, sweet olive—were more common. In the sandy fill of the reclaimed lakefront, pines were as frequent as lamp and telephone posts.
One of my clearest memories of Hurricane Betsy thirty years ago is of a large water oak upended by the storm, it’s root ball seemed as large as a car. The tree was largely intact; it’s thick branches themselves stronger than the great wind. And that was its undoing. Before I left the city, I could easily recall the hurricanes of my childhood by walking past a tree’s truncated branch, and remember the name of the storm or the school grade I was in when it was brought crashing down.
The floodwaters killed all of the low vegetation. The St. Augustine grass is all brown, the azaleas are all dead. These things, however, are easily replanted. A lawn can be brought back in a year. New shrubbery can be back before its time to trade the car. Trees, especially the great trees of a city centuries old, are not quickly replaced. They are planted not for the next season, but for the next generation.
The once reliable shade made outdoors just bearable on all but the worst days. It was an essential element in a city where mail carriers wear pith helmets to survive in the sun. Now those porches and patios, barbecues and swings will sit in the sun, the metal parts untouchable in summer. In the older neighborhoods, where every house was built right up to the sidewalk, sitting on a shaded stoop will not be the most sociable way to deal with the heat.
More likely, people will retreat back into the air conditioning or the unnatural, fan-blown shade of a darkened indoors, will no longer stroll in the late afternoon or early evening through their urban forest. Instead, they will begin to live like the residents of some desert city of the southwest, where sidewalks are superfluous and pedestrians as rare as open water.
The trees will not be all that is lost.
Next, The River.