So they tell me that I should get out more. “Get some goddamned fresh air!” they say. Working nights and living a life of general urban isolation can uproot a soul like a plant from the soil. But for those of us bound by poverty to the concrete cityscape, our options are nearly singular. No summer home awaits us. No exotic excursions beyond a film or a novel. For us, only one redoubt of wilderness exists to renew our roots in primal earth. So we’re off, to explore the highways and byways, the history and future, to heed the advice of my doctor and take full advantage of the natural beauty of New Orleans City Park. And hopefully without spending any goddamned money.
I’m no great lover of the out-of-doors. But after a short conversation with my doctor involving the color of my skin, vitamin D deficiency, heart disease and a whole litany of other maladies, I decided to read up on the matter. Evidently, it is indeed quite good for a body to go outside. Who knew?
“My grandmother used to take me to the front side of the park here when I was a kid to play on some of the same trees she played on when she was a little girl,” Eric the Bartender was telling me as I steeled myself with a pastis for an afternoon in nature. “Some of those trees are ancient.”
I had stopped before the gates at the unfortunately-named “Ralph’s on the Park,” which to my ear has ever seemed more a consequence of over-drinking at the park than a location for dining. But let that be.
In 1847, John McDonogh bequeathed what was once a cattle pasture and indigo plantation to the city of New Orleans. This original seed of City Park was to be used as lease land in support of the city’s children and the repatriation of free blacks. Ralph’s was the site of some forward-thinking entrepreneur’s coffee shop, built to capitalize on the visitors.
“Doesn’t the whole thing seem a bit like an amusement park to you lately?” I offered. “Golf courses and putt-putt and shit. Everything costing money.”
The commodification of City Park has become a topic of discussion of late. The movement toward an amusement park atmosphere where the attractions are meant to generate revenue has rankled those seeking to keep parts of the park undeveloped and free. Pure, uncut nature.
“I dunno. There’s some pretty wild places on the back side. And my daughter does the lil’ afterschool programs there in the park,” Eric countered as I paid my bill. “Those things cost money.”
I weighed the bartender’s words as I strolled later beneath the grove of live oaks along City Park Avenue – the largest collection of mature live oaks on earth.
Studies by The Natural Resources Institute of Finland have shown that symptoms of depression can be dramatically relieved by as little as five hours per month in nature – and if the Scandinavians don’t know about depression, no one does.
I stood before the great McDonogh Oak, sipping whiskey from my flask like communion. The diving branches rolled to the grass like gnarled mammoth tusks. Powerful. Adorned green and grey with leaves and hanging tufts of Spanish moss. Some estimate the McDonogh Oak at 900 years old.
The heavier limbs were braced from below by thick poles, long-since absorbed at the ends into the bark body of the tree. I stared into a gaping rent in the main trunk, filled with concrete and painted black by the tree surgeons hired by the park authority. That’s right, there are tree surgeons. And many of these oaks would not be alive without them.
I nodded in grim satisfaction. If five hours around some chintzy Finnish trees could have such a dramatic impact on psychological health, perhaps I could just cram it all into an hour or so hanging about the McDonogh Oak and its ilk. After all, I didn’t have all day to start feeling good.
But I felt I needed to go further. Get deeper. The oaks were a good start. The air and the grass and what-have-you. All solid, to be sure. But I, good reader, was obliged to something more wild than these gardenesque landscapes.
I chose a bridge across Bayou Metairie – one of the arched stone affairs that appear to have been built by some manner of druid. The oldest structures in the park, the stone bridges provide an interesting contrast to the gently sloping concrete spans along the roadways.
The elegant concrete bridges are monuments of the Great Depression. The Works Progress Administration employed nearly seven thousand men in the 1930’s to clear and level the land, build bridges, and make the park suitable for public use. Granite and marble were considered too extravagant for such lean times. The murals hidden beneath foliage on some of the structures show reliefs of workmen, hoes and shovels in the dirt, drinking from canteens beneath the sun.
I passed beneath the columns of the Peristyle, built in 1907 to shelter dancers visiting the park for afternoon picnics. In those early days, no one would dream of staging a picnic without an orchestra to play for the hundreds that would regularly attend.
Revenue-raising then consisted mainly of fees from illegally pasturing cattle — that, and the renting of wooden tables to picnickers endeavoring to stay above the muck the cows provided.
I trekked across the Great Lawn like a nocturnal rodent caught out in the glare. Wider and longer than a soccer pitch. Manicured grass. The smell of jasmine and gardenia was sweet and pungent. The people played with children and struck yoga poses serenely. This was not the place for me.
To my left, thirty six holes of putt-putt golf. Ten bucks. To my right, the Botanical Gardens. Six bucks. Before me, Storyland children’s park. Four bucks. And though Storyland did seem a magical place to visit, I am no great lover of looking like a pedophile. I would have to wait for a niece or nephew to come visiting before I could enter that little corner.
As a sometimes-anarchist, I was immediately inclined to dust off my pitchfork and spark a torch in the face of such blatant capitalism. But a deeper look into the logistical affairs of the park only served to confuse the matter.
It goes a little something like this: City Park is owned by the City of New Orleans but operated independently by the Board of Commissioners of the City Park Improvement Association. This is all due to some complicated business in the late 1800s involving a corrupt Reconstruction carpetbagger government and a real estate scheme that both gave us Audubon Park and bankrupted City Park.
Incidentally, this led to the parks commission reneging on its design contract signed with the Midtown Manhattan civil engineers responsible for Central Park in New York City. No money, no plans. Lots of lawsuits. And all this has led to the common misconception that City Park was designed by the same folks that did Central. Pretty standard New Orleans stuff. Kinda makes me proud.
The result was a downtown neighborhood political organization known as “The Machine” getting together and bootstrapping the space on their own around 1891. But that involved raising money. Even to this day, more than 85 percent of the total operating revenue of the park comes from funds generated and raised by City Park itself.
But I digress. It was the hinterlands I was after, and that was not to be found here.
After a little meandering and lot more rests than a man my age should require, I ducked under the 610 overpass and found myself facing Zachary Taylor Drive in the back half of City Park.
I made a right, headed toward the Bayou. Arrow-straight road and lonely. Sipped my flask. My mouth turned down at the corners as I nodded my head in solemn approval of the vegetation around me. It was starting to feel a lot like nature. The good stuff.
On the left appeared a trailhead. A small bike rack and parking lot marked the spot before a broad sign: City Park Birding Corridor. No paved paths. No people. The sign promised both birds and butterflies. This was the place for me, I decided, and dove headlong down the trail.
Tall trees to my left. Tall trees to my right. A field of calf-high grass opened around the bend where majestic white birds picked whatsits from a small runoff stream.
Being no great identifier of trees or birds, I will hazard a guess: cypress and egrets! I even saw the odd butterfly. Pretty good, all told.
A shaggy patch of grass beneath a tree invited me to sit, and I accepted.
In the near distance, an old brick concession stand had been stripped of its doors and windows. Neon-bright graffiti wrapped within and without in a kind of apocalyptic decay wreathed in vines.
And there was someone inside, playing an ethereal tune on a flute or recorder – some sort of strange hippie weaving long, sparse notes and projecting them across the fallow fields using the natural acoustics of the structure. Only the far off sounds of cars passing on the highway held off total emersion. Yes indeed, my friends, this was the spot where a human being could feel truly at one with — ANTS!
I staggered sideways, back up the trail as I beat at the fire ants like flames. Curses! Angry welts would be the wages of my carelessness.
I’d had enough. My whiskey was running low. But there was one last place that needed visiting – one place so damned natural it was bound to restore me to health.
The Birding Corridor leads directly to the entrance of Couturie Forest, by far the loveliest place in our City Park.
Any discussion of municipal parks in the United States must lead to the father of American landscape architecture, Frederick Law Olmstead. Around the turn of 19th century, the explosion of cities in the midst of the Industrial Revolution was choking off the poor working classes from any access to natural environments. Olmstead theorized that time spent in natural repose, in scenic environments, would add to the health and productivity of the average wage earner.
His theories turned out to be correct, and the Couturie Forest is directly influenced by Olmstead’s wilder, “picturesque” style of indiscriminate flora with paths and features following the natural terrain.
Were it not for the mulch-covered trails compressing in moist softness beneath my feet, I would not have believed I was near civilization at all. The forest was quiet, dense, seeming to breathe all around as though I wandered in the chasm of a great and verdant lung. Not a soul was in evidence, save for one thickly-bespectacled gentleman I passed thrice in my winding of paths. I believe we were both lost.
I climbed the face of Laborde Mountain in the depths of the forest. Towering no less than 43 feet above sea level, the park authorities claim the peak is the highest ground in New Orleans. Although after summiting the landfill in New Orleans East, I doubt it.
And descending, I found my way along shaded paths to an opening where crows had gathered in the cool. There the forest opened to a body of water beside which was a great stump. I am at the least, my friends, an excellent sitter of stumps.
The crows barked their protests as I exercised my skill, drank the last of my whiskey. Over the water, the manicured new golf course spread out like fertile hill country. The forest behind me whispered like a sanctuary.
Many of late have lamented the loss of our wild spaces in the park. The draining of swamps. The paving of trails. The addition of new golf courses and attractions. I still hear tales of wild dog packs that once roamed the back end of the park before Filmore Avenue was cut in the 1960’s. That development of fallow land has elicited outrage and protest.
But that outrage seems misplaced to me. In the heart of the park, I saw the work of generations. The planting and care of trees. The maintenance of bridges. The mulching of paths. In every direction stood huge swaths of land purchased over the decades to augment the borders far beyond the original bequest of John McDonogh. I looked around me and I saw the perpetuation of one of the world’s greatest municipal parks; and with hardly a cent of funding from the community it services.
We must take care where we set our indignation when we have divested ourselves of the responsibility for supporting such a treasure.
The urbanization of the world continues. And this park is all the nature some of us will ever experience. It feeds our roots yearning to delve into the deeps of the forest primeval, reminding us of an earth that only our blood remem–