Tree Still Lives
The following pictures of trees were taken of a bayou in Autumn’s waking hours. We arrived here after hearing that this landscape stands on an existential precipice: the coastline, the soft membrane which has protected the bayou from the ocean for centuries, recedes at a rapid clip, and the salty expanse of the ocean looms closer. Once the two bodies of water kiss, this place’s essence as we know it will be subsumed, drowned in an encroaching Gulf and the memories that can only try to capture its ephemeral harmonies. We gnawed at the wetlands to feed our appetites, and we syphoned our waste into the ocean. Eventually, we’ll learn, the head had nothing left to eat but the tail. The bayou and all its residents—the trees, the insects, the moss and birds — either migrated to places that didn’t stand to be touched for some time, or allowed themselves to wash away with the silt on which the bayou rests.
Despite this grim forecast, we were immersed in a landscape that felt unmistakably verdant. Even the canals, the straight lines carved into the wetlands by amorphous “oil companies,” were flanked with fertile soil and plants yearning for life, banks resplendent with coos and caws, and a checkered sunlight leaking through rustled leaves. We were told that the types of trees well-equipped to live along the canals were not the same trees that originally made this place beloved, not the same trees we have come to know as being native to the bayou. And yet, ambling through those waters, I could make no meaningful distinction between the bayou and the canals beyond the chaotic curvaceousness of one and the predictable shape of the other. But both types of waterways, straight and undulate alike, served as the arteries for vibrant limbs that snake off of Louisiana’s coast. Below are three pictures of trees whose species names I do not know, who reside somewhere in the wetlands, either along the original bayou or the raised banks of the man-made canals.
Two of the three pictures are of dead trees, and the other one is of anonymous roots peeking from under the water and into the sunlight. While I mourn this landscape’s death before it’s even happened, I want to offer myself some type of solace in the face of mortality. I seek the ways in which nature still knows to heal itself. Perhaps the bayou, once it is consumed like these plants, will find a way to make itself part of a living history, and won’t simply be committed to a static memory. Decay, I hope, offers its own living narrative.
#1: Roots amidst leaves, stubby fingers beckoning to an unsuspecting sun. One pioneering root, the one who first discovered sunlight and kept reaching, emerges above all the others. Who do these stubs belong to, and why has she sent them to live amidst green, above soil and water, where they huddle in solitude? Her unseen palm stretches beneath the water and cradles silt, the fingers curving up and masquerading as naked branches. I can see the eyes in the roots, the bulbous pupils, seeking me, keeping tabs on the shifting surroundings.
#2: Eaten away, eroded, almost stripped completely bare by another body that expands with the rain and absconds to the air. A dignified trunk, standing in denial of its own passing, basking in the uninterrupted rays for nothing but attention. Most of its bark has been eaten away and cast into the water, sacrificed to the altar of wandering waters. Tugging at its waist, smaller roots or saplings — who knows which — aspire to its heights. The trunk knows it’s looked up to, and maybe that’s why it won’t topple over, and bury itself in memory. “I’m still in the midst of that moment,” the trunk says, “I’m not ready to relinquish my image.” But soon, like any of us, it will have to sink back into its home.
#3: A battered silhouette, a shell leaning on a wooden cane, a tubular trunk. Many stories come to mind looking at this shape — how did it come to be so hollow, anyway? — but more than anything else I see the home it provides . It’s a place where many birds have collected twigs and made a nest, where others have inherited the collections of families past to make a home. Inside the belly of the trunk, they can lay their eggs and watch them hatch, and come back to their newborns with worms. And then I think, is it possible for a place where there’s sunlight for mere moments — how long, I wonder? — to be a home for animals? When is the sun at exactly the right angle for light to reach the bottom of the trunk, and for how long does it remain in that position? And is it day inside only for that fleeting moment? A daily revelation, I sit inside the shadowed tunnel and wait for you to show up again, to help me see what sits next to me.
In retrospect, the entire trip served as something of an allegory for the environmentally concerned Louisianian: in order to see the bayou, we had to take a convoy of cars and pass underneath a highway overpass in our canoes. Though enveloped in a cacophony of life, we were still within the domain of the already explored, of the industrialized — in other words, a place where nature still felt entirely escapable. And this whole bayou, though already subsumed, remains eager to continue on, redefining itself with every passing day. Maybe that’s something to aspire to.