24 April 2014

burning rage: stop throwing cigarettes out the window!

I worked from home today, which meant I gave more attention to news. I have a feed set up to receive headlines from a variety of sources in a variety of places, including but hardly limited to home in New Jersey. 

What kept coming up was disconcerting:
Berkeley residents watch as firefighters battle to save their homes
Downe Township brush blaze upgraded to forest fire, affecting 1,500 acres

plus countless updates from Jersey Shore Hurricane News and friends on facebook who are seeing and smelling brush fires. 

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Photo courtesy Frank Hennessey, via Mike

While causes haven't been mentioned as of yet, every time I hear about fires in New Jersey, I think about a particular experience I had during my commute back to Toms River when I was teaching at William Paterson. It had been a dry string of weeks, and it was a sunny, breezy day. While sitting in traffic just before getting to Silverton, I watched firefighters respond to a brush fire in the stretch of pine trees along Brick Blvd. After traffic let up less than half a mile down the road, I watched as the driver in front of me tossed a cigarette out the window

and I was enraged.

Now, don't get me wrong. I absolutely appreciate the beauty and intricacy of the fire ecology of the Pine Barrens. We as humans are not doing ourselves any favors by letting the biomass pile up until a stray flare or something results in disaster (and it's my worst nightmare that the Pine Barrens will burn down for one reason or another and bracken fern will take over). Here we are, trying to save communities from destruction today. But I cannot believe how ignorant so many people seem to be about how incredibly risky it is to throw

Cigarette butts going out windows of cars is not just a New Jersey problem. The annual cleanup of Bayou Lafourche, which I recently paddled, counted 3726 butts in 2012 and 1302 in 2013, picked up along the 100 or so mile stretch of the bayou that the crews focus on (source: BTNEP). That's just the ones they found and picked up. You know you see tons of them in high traffic areas (especially areas of high auto traffic, where jerks are throwing them out their windows). 

It's not just a fire risk, either. Cigarette filters are not biodegradable (source: Longwood University). Seriously. They're not made of paper, or cotton-- they're made of a kind of plastic. They will not break down for a very, very long time.

And what about the water? Perhaps there's only trace amounts of chemicals left at the end of a cigarette, but that adds up, just like everything else we pollute our waterways with. I think it's pretty common knowledge these days that nicotine and other carcinogens in cigarettes aren't good for us. It doesn't matter if you're consuming it via inhalation or your drinking water. And don't even try to tell me that you can just get bottled water, because it's in there too. These chemicals can kill small animals and sicken children who eat them, too.

Obviously, it would be best if people stopped smoking all together, but the least we can do is spread a little knowledge. Please, please, please stop throwing cigarettes out windows. Would you throw them on the floor in your home? I do not live in your ash tray, people.

Hang in there, my beloved pitch pines. Hang in there, Jersey.

22 April 2014

Happy (Earth Day)

Happy Earth Day! Today also sort of marks a few other things:
  • Three years ago, I successfully defended my Masters thesis. (Earth Day was Good Friday in 2011.)
  • Two Good Fridays ago in 2012, I had my first day volunteering with NRCS, which has been one of the most awesome and formative parts of my journey in vocational discernment.
  • Today leaves 100 days left in New Orleans.
My, it's been a busy few years.

I'm not really sure what to say. It hasn't been easy. Not over the course of the past six years since finishing college and not finding full time work, not in the past three since finishing grad school and still not finding full time work, not this past year volunteering my service. Living in community is hard. Knowing I can't fix the coast is hard. Planning a wedding is hard (mostly, being apart from the groom is hard). Being far from my family and friends and home is hard.

To celebrate my final 100 days serving in South Louisiana, I'm jumping on the 100 Happy Days bandwagon. I'm not much of one for bandwagons but I love being happy. I tend to be a pretty optimistic person (how many times have you heard me sincerely say "best day ever"?) and I love noticing the little things that make this world a wonderful place. Despite the challenges of my job, my community, my geography, my future, I'd really like to stay focused on the many, many beautiful things I get to see and be part of each day.

To celebrate Earth Day, I've decided to take a day trip to the beach in Mississippi somewhere. I'll decide where when I find it.

To celebrate life in general, I will keep you updated on my 100 days of happy, and encourage you to be intentional about your own happiness.

12 April 2014

Ten things I love about New Jersey RIGHT NOW

1. License plates. Every time I've been away for a while, coming back to NJ and getting on the road for the first time and seeing tons of yellow license plates. It takes a moment for my brain to catch up and realize I'm not just surrounded by Jersey people in Louisiana or Arizona or Virginia, but it's a little bit exciting every time.

2. Pitch pines. Never in a hundred thousand million billion trillion years am I going to get sick of those scraggly, crooked, scrub pines all over south Jersey.

3. My parents' kitchen. They redid it a few years ago and it's glorious and there's tons of counter space and the oven is huge and I love it as soon as I remember where everything is.

4. Mental maps. Yesterday I drove from downtown Toms River to an office in Freehold that I've been to many times before , but could not actually remember how to get there. But I knew I needed to take the Parkway to 195 and then the exit... I'll remember it when I see it, and then oh I remember that farm! and I turn at that one willow tree, and go by this Wawa, and I know this road on the left even though that housing development wasn't here last time...I might not remember the names or numbers of any of these roads, but it is very hard for me to get completely lost in New Jersey, and that is awesome.

5. Volunteering with NRCS in NJ. Yesterday, I got to visit with four different staff members who I've volunteered with in the past two years since I started with the agency. I am in constant awe of how fortunate I am to receive great training and a wee bit of mentorship from these people. I obviously made sure I had time to go out and survey some soil, too! Glauconitic soils for the win.

6. Context. This goes along with the last one, mostly because when I do fieldwork, it's really helpful and empowering to have a clue what's going on around you and why. I've learned a lot about Louisiana this year, and I'm really enjoying my time there, but I would say that I know slightly more about NJ. You know, that whole time I taught Geography of New Jersey and all. I learned a lot of stuff for that, on top of the perpetual learning that went on for the first 18 years of my life that I lived here, and the many other times in the past decade that I've spent extended periods of time here.

7. Springtime. One of my favorite things about NJ is that it has four distinct seasons. I love them all, but I especially love the transitions from one to the next. This year I got to experience the transition to spring in south Louisiana, in Washington, DC and now in NJ. My allergies are pretty sad about it, but I am loving all of the trees with pretty little buds and new leaves, and the sunshine and fresh air.

8. My mom's cat. If I'm upstairs in my parents' home, chances are highly likely that I have a cute, furry, purring friend attached to my side. Like right now.

9.  Pizza that is good. Also bagels that are good.

10. Knowing that I have entirely too many people and places that I love and want to see in the short whirlwind that I am home. It's impossible when I only come home for a weekend at a time, but it's really reassuring and wonderful to know that it's all here when I do come back.

09 April 2014

taking flight

I want to tell you about my flight in a Cessna at the end of March. Bayou Blue hosted a group from the Presbyterian Hunger Program to talk about some of the environmental and food issues faced by South Louisiana. We had a great visit with some really wonderful national staff of PC(USA). They came to my little bayou church, and then we were off to the local airport in Houma for a tour of the wetlands by air.

I had never been in a small plane before, much less had I taken an air tour of the disappearing wetlands. It was really difficult to see the coast in such rough shape. During Paddle Bayou Lafourche I learned that coastal erosion has slowed down, but only because the easiest land to erode is already gone.

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Nature does not make straight lines. Those oil and gas exploration and pipeline canals invite salt water intrusion and quick erosion. Louisiana is terrible at enforcing environmental regulations. The companies are required to fill in or plug those canals when they are done. They don't.

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You can see where the pipelines were, and what it did to the landscape. This used to all be wetlands, not open water. This was really hard to see.

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We passed over some healthy swamp at the end, which was a little bit encouraging, but also really tough to see the incredible contrast between what is thriving and what is gone.

After we were all back on the ground, we traveled to Pointe-au-Chenes to see some of the problems from the water with my favorite wetlands hosts, Donald and Theresa of the Pointe-au-Chien tribe. We went out on their boat, not even too far from the little strip of town that's left. I've been meaning to share these two images with you for a while--

You can see the same tree from slightly different angles, but about a year and a half of erosion completely removed that tree from being on solid land. That's not high tide in the lower picture. That land is gone. It's open water.

Coastal erosion and wetlands degradation is frightening in South Louisiana. I'm really glad that I can be a small part of continuing to share that story.

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07 April 2014

Walden and Blue Pastures and falling asleep at night

I love falling asleep when it's dark out, when I've worked hard all day and can just fall asleep as soon as the sun goes down. As Lindsey and I passed out about 8PM in my darling little two person tent at Madewood Plantation on Thursday evening, I thought about other times in my life that I've had the luxury of matching my sleep cycle to the natural order of day and night, like other canoe trips, or working pre-season at camp-- just absolutely tired at the end of the day, and totally ready to wake up with the sun and get back to it the next day.

When I lived alone in Lakeside in 2011 and was rewriting my thesis, I would read Walden at night. It was just a few pages at a time, but I had a great sense of peace connecting with those words while living on the edge of a lake in the middle of the woods. There was no TV or internet in my cabin, and I would just come home from working, work on my thesis a little, and read myself to sleep when it got dark. These were a few of my favorite quotes--

"If the day and night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-smelling herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal,-- that is your success. All nature is your congratulation, and you have cause momentarily to bless yourself." -Walden: or, Life in the woods by Henry David Thoreau

"In any weather, at any hour of the day or night, I have been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick, too; to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line." -Walden

"...whenever I looked out on the pond it impressed me like a tarn high up on the side of a mountain, its bottom far above the surface of other lakes, and, as the sun arose, I saw it throwing off its nightly clothing of mist... its soft ripples or its smooth reflecting surface was revealed, like ghosts, were stealthily withdrawing in every direction into the woods..." -Walden

"A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature" -Walden 

(I also read some Muir during that time. "This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never all dried at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on seas and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls." –Muir)

I enjoyed that same sense of peace after paddling all day. I was so tired. The sun had gone down and the crickets and night birds were singing. It was a warm evening and I brought Mary Oliver's Blue Pastures in case I could stay awake for even a few minutes of reading. I marked a few small excerpts I liked--

"The sea surrounds us. It surrounds the houses and the two long, occasionally bending streets. It surrounds the idle conversation; it surrounds the mind diving down into what it hopes is original thought."

"Occasionally I lean forward and gaze into the water. The water of a pond is a mirror of roughness and honesty-- it gives back not only my own gaze, but the nimbus of the world trailing into the picture on all sides... If at this moment I heard a clock ticking, would I remember what it was, what it signified?"

"You must not ever stop being whimsical."

"And I am too informed, dazzled, refreshed-- no longer too busy, no longer weary. Is there another glacier, an ocean, a sun-baked countryside, a dark stream, an eighteen-mile walk in my immediate future? Surely there is, and in such choice company, and I'm ready."

I think I am ready.

06 April 2014

Paddle Bayou Lafourche

I just got back from my first overnight canoe trip since 2007. OH MAN IT WAS AWESOME. My friend Lindsey joined me for a really great long weekend on the bayou. We paddled 52 miles over 4 days through people's back yards, enjoying local food, conversation, flora, fauna, and music. 

Paddle Bayou Lafourche is an annual event put on by the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program, a great organization that I have enjoyed many good resources from this year as I learn and teach about wetlands issues in the region. National Estuary Programs came out of the EPA's Clean Water Act in the late 80s. At home in New Jersey is another one-- Barnegat Bay Partnership.

Thursday, from Donaldsonville to Napoleonville: It was a tough first day. Paddling down the bayou on a windy day is much like paddling in a wind tunnel... in the wrong direction. We faced gusts up to 20mph. I hadn't been in a canoe in almost seven years, so my arms were a bit out of practice to begin with, but this was rough for everyone. We paddled almost 18 miles, about 11.5 of which were before lunch. We felt a little hopeless, but we did it, and enjoyed a good dinner and glorious night of camping at Madewood Plantation.

Friday, Napoleonville to Thibodaux: The wind died down, but the forecast remained questionable. We lucked out with only a little bit of rain on and off as we continued to explore the bayou. We landed at the Jean Lafitte museum in town, having done just shy of 16 miles.

Saturday, Thibodaux to Raceland: We launched from Nicholls State University, just below Jean Lafitte, because there's a weir in the bayou between the two and the BTNEP staff probably didn't want to deal with all of the idiots who would have tried to paddle down it. Lindsey and I finally got into a rhythm, finishing ahead of a lot of people who doubted we would survive the first day. We also finished just a few minutes ahead of torrential downpour and hail. Right before we landed after about 15.5 miles, Lindsey decided to follow through with a wild idea she came up with early in the day-- yoga on the bayou, or "bayoga" as we came to call it. She decided to do a headstand while I balanced the canoe:

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Sunday, Raceland to Lockport: Just a short 5.5 miles to finish up. BTNEP's Water Quality Coordinator, Andrew, was without a paddling partner for the last day and asked to join us. Lindsey enjoyed sitting in a chair in the middle of the canoe asking lots of questions about the bayou. We had paddled beside him and his canoe partner Michael, BTNEP's Invasive Species Coordinator, the three days before, peppering them with questions about soil science and ecology, so it was cool to have him on board answering our environmental questions the entire time without worrying about keeping up with him.

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The day started off very foggy, but we once again beat the rain after a late decision to follow through with the final stretch at all. The trip ends in Lockport, because any further south and we'd start running into enormous ships. Just before we landed, I had Andrew balance the canoe while Lindsey took a picture of my bayoga efforts (obviously going for a tree):

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It was so nice to go out on an adventure for a few days. This was technically work-related for me, so I did spend some time contemplating Bayou Lafourche, which is the main source of drinking water for the region--
  • A few weeks ago, BTNEP hosted a massive bayou cleanup, which usually involves hundreds of volunteers along 106 miles of Bayou Lafourche (we only paddled 52 miles). They pick up thousands of pieces of garbage ranging from cigarette butts (please please please stop throwing cigarette butts out the windows) to plastic bottles (please please please recycle those and/or stop drinking bottled water when it's totally unnecessary) to tires, toilets, and couches. Full frightening details from last year here. I will say it again: this is the main source of drinking water for the region, for tens of thousands of people.
  • The first day, as we paddled straight into 20mph gusts, it was all too clear a picture of how easily salt water flows back up the bayous in nothing more than a stiff wind. When the wind wasn't blowing, the water was completely slack. No current. Tough to paddle, but also tough for it to remain fresh, flowing off the Mississippi at Donaldsonville.
  • As we paddled under local bridges, cars drove over our heads. Some of the bridges were grates. As I felt the rainwater drip off one onto my legs and head, I shuddered at the thought of leaky cars just letting fluids straight into... the drinking water supply.
  • We wound past countless signs warning of gas and oil pipeline crossings. Again... slow leaks into the drinking water, distinctly possible.
Plus, let's consider the greater watershed with the help of the Department of the Interior's Streamer Tool. Here's the portion of Bayou Lafourche that we paddled:
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And here is the watershed of the Mississippi River, down to Bayou Lafourche:
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That's 31 states, plus two Canadian provinces, full of agricultural runoff, fluids from leaky beat up cars, cigarette butts from careless people, and other awful things.

I would really encourage you to think about your relationship with your home watershed, whatever it may be. Water is so precious.

I did not spend the entire trip having nightmares, but the whole awareness angle that BTNEP is playing by hosting this event on this particular bayou definitely worked. The vast majority of it was relaxing and wonderful. There were at least six different kinds of bread pudding served over the course of the trip. There was a man sitting on his fishing dock playing his accordion for the paddlers. There was bayoga and shenanigans with Lindsey and other people around us. There were blooming black locust trees, and swaying cutgrass, ducks and geese and swallows and red winged blackbirds, and lots of people waving hello and speaking French and smiling and many, many other beautiful things.

28 March 2014

been busy

For weeks now, I've had all sorts of beautiful blog posts in my head about the many wonderful things I've been able to see and enjoy. I guess I got too busy seeing and enjoying to keep up with writing about it.

For Mardi Gras, I enjoyed Endymion with my host family and took my first walk through the amazing City Park; I went to a parade in Houma just to see and got pelted with beads; I took a bike ride at 6AM on Fat Tuesday itself all over New Orleans, at first in search for Mardi Gras Indians but ultimately just to enjoy families out in their yards, wishing us a Happy Mardi Gras as we rode by...

My dear little sister friend Abi visited on Ash Wednesday through the end of the week. We explored the French Quarter, the Lower Ninth Ward and Lakeview. We planted trees in a big freshwater diversion. We enjoyed awesome jazz at Preservation Hall. Perhaps the least expected part was how we spent International Women's Day: celebrating my friend Kalpana at a traditional Indian baby shower, where the women sang and offered blessings and we feasted on seven different kinds of rice. It was so, so beautiful.

I attended a workshop at UNO called Building Resilience the following week, and met a lot of great scientists, public workers, community organizers, and coastal residents. We discussed physical and human resiliency along Louisiana's coast, which is good and all, but the real point was driven home by Cherri Foytlin, a journalist from South Louisiana, who said, "I don't want to be resilient, I want to thrive!"

I visited Isle de Jean Charles for the first time. What a stunning place, and the people there have been totally written off by the government, who won't acknowledge their nation and build a flood protection system that excludes them.

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I don't usually dress up for field work. We went straight after church.

I went to VA and DC for Ecumenical Advocacy Days and, well, let's be honest, to visit some people I adore. Reagan Airport is definitely in my top five, for being easy to navigate, Metro accessible, and a very sweet welcoming committee:

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(That's Arlo, watching my plane land. I LOVE HIM. And his parents!)

It was a whirlwind, as my visits to DC/VA usually are. I got to enjoy visits with camp friends, college friends, and one of my cousins. The conference was great, offering advocacy training as well as a chance to connect with others working on issues of eco-justice. I spent a day on Capitol Hill visiting my senators' offices. I even got to enjoy a pretty snowfall. I had a wonderful, wonderful visit.

And now I'm back in Louisiana. I've been focused on this policy brief thing that I'm contributing to, to be presented to the EPA in a week and a half. I was supposed to plant trees in Isle de Jean Charles today with a group of high school students from DC, but instead we had flash flooding and intense thunder and lighting. Slowly catching up as I get ready for a lot more traveling this spring...

12 March 2014

finding the right place

For the next few days, I'm taking part in the Building Resilience Workshop, a group of difference people addressing natural and human hazards that affect Louisiana's coast. I'm one of those people!

The meeting began with a reception tonight at a lovely farm just a few miles outside of New Orleans, past the Bywater and the Lower Ninth Ward. I've driven by here several times on various adventures to St. Bernard and East Plaquemines Parish-- there is a nice pecan grove across the street from the barn, and trees line the highway, creating a beautiful arch over the road. I love driving down roads like that.

I was keeping an eye on the mileage on my car-- Google Maps had said the place I was going was 15 miles from my last turn, and I was only about ten. I decided to go to Taize worship at Lakeview Presbyterian Church before hand. It's peaceful and contemplative and private. And peaceful. It was a beautiful sunny day, and I was enjoying my music. The second car ahead of me slowed and put on their signal to turn into a farm, which got me questioning if I had the right farm in mind or not, whether or not I really had a few miles to go still. The car right in front of me didn't slow down at all, and rear-ended them as they turned, sending them sailing into the drainage ditch alongside the road.

I had a split second to decide whether to follow that car as it sped off, or see if the people in the car were ok. I pulled over. One woman in the back seat broke her wrist. That was not exactly pleasant to see. Everyone was ok though.

I offered to stick around and help with the 911 call, and getting everyone out of the car. After busting down the fence, the car stopped precariously perched over the ditch, which probably had about two feet of water over soft ground. Everyone but the woman with the broken wrist could get out though. I got water to help settle everyone's shock. The driver asked me to take some pictures for her insurance company.

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Turns out, this was a car full of speakers and panelists for the meeting this week-- I would have missed the farm if not for pulling over to check on them. Not the ideal way to meet, but they were all very pleasant and surprisingly calm people. After talking with police and getting cleared by paramedics, we had a nice evening talking over some great local food. I met a few new people working in the natural resources field, which is always helpful.

I was so mad at the driver who hit them, who sped off. Part of me felt horrible for not following them to get a license plate-- I could only offer a description of a white car with Louisiana plates. Helpful. Not. But seriously, if someone slams a car off the road into a ditch and then speeds off, it's probably not a good idea to follow them anyway.

Amazing sometimes how close you can be to disaster, and yet still feel like you were in the right place at the right time.

More on this meeting, Mardi Gras, Abi's visit, and other adventures soon. I've been keeping busy.

02 March 2014

My Top Ten Airports

You may have heard a rumor somewhere that I travel a lot. It's true.

Last week I traveled home for my friend Amanda's wedding. I was honored to be one of her bridesmaids (she's also one of mine!), and thrilled to join so many friends in celebrating her and her husband. It was a beautiful weekend and everyone had a great time. Yay Amanda and Mike! Congratulations!

My flight home included a layover at a new airport for me, Memphis-- my 25th airport that I can remember passing through. Small and quiet, I was actually won over by the coat rack in the bathroom. I had been carrying my bridesmaid gown with my arm stretched above my head all day, trying to prevent wrinkles and/or complete destruction. It was so nice to hang it up for a brief moment. But it was really pleasantly peaceful, especially compared to my layover in Atlanta a month before, which was UTTER MAYHEM SPRINTING ACROSS AN ENORMOUS AIRPORT THAT SEEMS TO HAVE AN ENDLESS SUPPLY OF STAIRS.

So, needless to say, Atlanta is not on my top ten list. But Memphis easily is. My (current) definitive top ten airports list:

10. tie between JFK and Laguardia: What points they lose for being complete and utter pains in the ass to drive to, they make up for with their proximity to New Jersey and easy access to roughly everywhere in the world. I have flown to some pretty cool places (Malawi, Seattle) from each of these, and I have also picked up some awesome visitors from each. I hate the traffic but enjoy the people and places I associate with each of them.
9. Cancun: I flew to Mexico for my Masters field work just weeks after swine flu broke out, with eastern Mexico as its epicenter. I was really impressed with these fancy pants thermometers that just had to be held next to people's foreheads to prove them healthy and pass us through customs. It was also no small miracle that I made it through ticketing, check-in and security with no knowledge of the Spanish language beyond my then-impressive forestry and food vocabularies. I was pretty tired, but I'm relatively certain that's a well-signed airport with a helpful staff.
8. George Best Belfast City Airport: This was the first time I disembarked and boarded planes from the tarmac on a staircase, which I thought was really cool. Also, I had my first Guinness here. Also, it marked the beginning and end of a pretty wonderful adventure with a dear friend of mine.
7. McCarran (Las Vegas): While totally overwhelming, I found the airport to be a pretty good representation of the city it's in. I don't generally believe that layovers count for having been to a place, but this one is legit enough to me. I mean, you pretty much fly down The Strip when coming in for a landing.
6. Atlantic City: This was the first airport I ever flew out of. I almost never go here, but I love that drive down the Parkway, through the Pine Barrens and wetlands, plus there's a Wawa right outside of the airport!
5. New Orleans: I like it. Small, navigable, and has one of the only Dunkin Donuts I've found in Louisiana.
4. Philadelphia: This one has gotten a lot of traffic from me lately. It's slightly more of a pain in the butt to get to and from Toms River, but it still counts as one of my major regional airports. Also, I get to sing I-76 or Philadelphia Freedom shamelessly during those to's and from's.
3. Memphis: I am really, really that grateful for the coat rack.
2. Blantyre, Malawi: Because of the different way of doing security, I was able to receive a most beautiful sendoff from a group of singing, cheering women I met in my first days in the country. (see here)
1. Newark: Well duh, it's in New Jersey. Maybe you don't get teary when you land after a while away, and you can see the skyline of Manhattan and the Elizabeth Seaport and the Meadowlands and know that you are already home in New Jersey without having to sit on an interstate for a while first. Well, maybe you don't have a soul.

Later this month I will be traveling to Washington, DC, flying into Reagan Airport. I'll be sure to let you know how that goes.

16 February 2014

If you go to New Orleans, you ought to go see the Mardi Gras (and the wetlands)

On Saturday, I went to Baton Rouge for a meeting of Together Louisiana, a group of churches and civic organizations taking on all sorts of political issues including Louisiana's absurdly high rate of incarceration, the utter madness of the poorly regulated payday loan industry, health care, higher education, and... wetlands and environmental problems. SO many good conversations to be had about the state of the state of Louisiana. Two of the big ones for me-- a breakout session I attended on the environmental issues (you know, kind of the reason I attended the meeting) and an address from a retired Army general.

General Russel Honoré spoke boldly about leadership and fostering a culture of preparedness, as well as our tolerance of the nonsense going on in our government. Ultimately, he is concerned with all of the shady business of poor leadership allowing for Louisiana's natural resources not to be stolen, but to be given away, leaving the state vulnerable to a host of disasters. The point he made that rang clearest to me: Louisiana is a top oil producing state. Why isn't it a top state for education? or healthcare? Why is it among the lowest ranked states in most every social and economic indicator?

Encouraging: you should have heard the "AMEN"s and "PREACH!"es from the crowd. Discouraging: why is Louisiana so far behind in all of these ways when it's been so far ahead in domestic oil and gas extraction for the past 75+ years?

I'm still pondering this gross disconnect.

The breakout session I attended also impacted me, but additionally had a more fun effect on my weekend. My original plan was to drive to Bayou Blue and stay with my bosses so I wouldn't have to wake up so early on Sunday. However, the Wetlands and the Environment session I attended was lead by John Barry, an author, who in addition to his heavy involvement with the policies and politics of coastal restoration, was also the King of Krewe du Vieux in that evening's Mardi Gras parade in the French Quarter. I knew my housemates were all going. Meeting Mr. Barry motivated me to drive back to New Orleans and go to my first Mardi Gras parade.

His talk was really good for me to hear, because he focused on the more political side of coastal conservation that I have not spent as much time focusing on. Did you know that it is actually written into the oil companies' canal permits that they are required to fill those canals back in after their pipes are laid? There are a ton of studies from reputable sources like the US Geological Survey, the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, and higher ups who have worked for the oil companies that those canals are the leading cause of coastal erosion. Yet, for all sorts of horrifyingly corrupt reasons, those companies have managed to not follow through with back filling or even plugging the ends of the canals. An area the size of the state of Delaware has been lost in the past 75 years, with more disappearing every hour of every day. Instead of the companies, who have been proven to be directly responsible for this and are even legally required to fix this, the taxpayers get to cover the millions upon millions of dollars being dumped into levee construction and other coastal protections that won't matter if the wetlands are gone.

Trees are beautiful and all, but my job can get pretty depressing.

I spoke with Mr. Barry privately about conservation issues after his talk, and also managed to sneak in a question about how one manages to get the attention of a Mardi Gras King to get him to throw stuff (beads and other trinkets are traditionally thrown from floats in these parades). He suggested I stand close to the street, because he is still recovering from a rotator cuff injury.

So I went back to New Orleans, not because I love crowds and crazy parades, but because I am excited about the carnival season and taking in as much of the tradition and culture as I can while I'm here. My housemates and I caught a bus down to the French Quarter (the street cars weren't running as often) and managed to find a fairly uncrowded section of curb on Royal Street. The Krewe du Vieux is one of the few that runs through the Vieux Carré (another name for the French Quarter, meaning "old square"), and is known for being not family friendly.

The crowd was loud but I hung in there to see the King. Krewes often choose kings or queens who are famous for something, so it was pretty cool to me to see someone recognized for their contributions to the coast. The krewe's website talks about how Mr. Barry has worked hard to raise awareness and take action against the government for allowing such a mess to happen to Louisiana's coast. It also points out how Governor Jindal excused John Barry from his seat on the Flood Protection Authority board.

Overall, I'm glad I went to the parade. It was lewd but fun, with amazing brass bands and a lot of clever political statements snuck in, like this float featuring birds covered in oil with words like "incompetence" and "justice" floating around--

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I loved the music and even managed to score some beads and trinkets (fully clothed, thank you, I'm pretty sure the flashing thing is mostly myth). It was a really cool turnaround to see someone celebrated for standing up for the coast, both at a formal meeting of activists and in a rowdy setting in which the message was probably lost on most people, but not me. When the King rode by, I was too busy yelling stuff about the wetlands to take a picture or catch a trinket-- he was tossing cups. So here is a picture from the Times-Picayune instead!


11 February 2014

Cajun Country

I had an appointment to visit First Presbyterian Church in Lafayette this weekend. Lafayette is a little over two hours from New Orleans and definitely the heart of Cajun Country. I was grateful to have company: my friend Lindsey from the Episcopal service corps in New Orleans volunteered to join me on the adventure that ended up covering about 400 miles.

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Here is the thing about southern/southwestern Louisiana: everything is closed on Sundays. National Parks (there are Jean Lafitte museums in Lafayette and Eunice), antebellum homes, anything touristy, music halls, even the beignet shop someone recommended in Lafayette... there was not much for us to see or do besides drive around and just look. I don't mind people closing up shop and taking a day off, because everyone deserves a break, but I was surprised that so many touristy things do not happen on Sundays, when presumably tourists might be free to come check them out.

West of Lafayette are a lot of rice paddies, which I had never seen before-- at first it just looked like soggy fields until I noticed the berms surrounding them, at which point I realized, rice production! We saw some cattle farms and some oil derricks. 

We drove through Eunice, which is the "Gateway to the Great Southwest Prairie" (southwest of Louisiana, that is). 

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We drove through Opelousas, which is known for the Yambilee Festival (yes, like sweet potatoes, but it was not happening this weekend) and antebellum homes (which were all closed).

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(not an antebellum home)

We took a state highway back down through Morgan City and Bayou Blue, a slightly longer but more scenic and less busy way to return to New Orleans. We stopped in Berwick, the town across the Atchafalaya River from Morgan City, to enjoy the lighthouse and riverfront.

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It was a long journey but a good day out. We passed through 18 parishes and saw a lot of different environments. The church visit went well too, with a Sunday school lesson on the "web" of creation that involved kids holding different parts of creation (rocks, soil, water, plants, stuffed animals, etc.) and me stringing them all together with a ball of yarn to show how interconnected it all is-- when you hurt one part of creation, it affects the rest, too.

It's fun to think about all of the different ways that the bits and pieces of the world are related too, especially as I drove through so many different parts of Louisiana in one beautiful day with a good friend in the passenger seat.

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Berwick, Louisiana