The city of New Orleans sits at five feet below sea-level, a shallow dish surrounded by water on all sides, kept afloat by an intricate series of levees and canals. The water on the other side of those levees is rarely a concern of the cityís inhabitants, the levees have been there for generations. Today people walk their dogs, ride their bikes, and watch tugs on the river or whitecaps on the lake from those same levees. The canals, too, are there everyday. The commuters are all idle birders, watching egrets stalk minnows in the shallows and black skimmers sailing just above the surface, their lower mandible cutting a vee through dark brown water.
The canals are teeming with life taken for granted. They are full of little blue-gills and perch, larger alligator gars and catfish, and the ubiquitous mudbugs. Red-eared sliders and snappers sun themselves on the banks or upon the corrugated aqueducts that empty the streets into the canals. And sometimes, although rare, one spots the odd juvenile gator or all too adult cottonmouth. Everywhere there are birds. Great Egrets cast sidelong glances into the water for their quarry, and the smaller, similar Snowy Egrets lift their "golden slippers" out of the murk, lunging their plumed heads forward for food. Tar-black Double Crested Cormorants perch atop power poles, their stubby wings spread wide to catch the last rays of the setting sun. Stocky slate blue Kingfishers are poised waiting to plunge down headfirst into the water. There are terns and gulls of all shapes and sizes, the social mobs of crows and gangs of ibis, and the coots and scaup and mallards. There is the occasional Great Blue Heron, always solitary, and also the legions of grackle and red-winged blackbirds, raucous in the twisted branches of the live oaks and magnolias in the yards of homes lining the canals.
The homeowners in the city and its surrounding suburbs are perpetual victims of the Earthís geologic forces, though nothing on the scale of other cities such as San Francisco or Oahu. Thrust faults do not threaten to shake the overpasses into pieces, nor will rivers of lava pour down Esplanade Avenue swallowing trucks and trees. Much more subtle forces are at work. The city is sinking. Subsiding is the word scientists use. Layers and layers of alluvial soil compacting downward, unrenewed by cyclical Spring floods. The river has been set in its course, floodgates maintain the lake level, and the swamps are being drained.My parentsí house in the suburbs was built on just such a swamp. It, too, is below the natural water table. I say natural because a levee holds the lake back and pumps pull the water out of the city through canals that criss-cross the street map. The houses are all sinking, and every year the Spring Load is dumped in the driveways of homes up and down the block to be shoveled out against the upcreeping foundation. The dirt in the dumptrucks comes from the river. It is, by all accounts, a false fluvial flooding. My brother, Tom, and I would wheel it out with our father for bucks, but as we got older and should have long ago flown the cop, we did it for free. After college, I returned home for lack of any good reason to go anywhere, and my brother had never left in the first place. He spent most of his time between work and the bar, seeing less and less of his childhood friends as they matured and moved on.
Bending over the pile under the hot sun, we tossed pieces of driftwood, tarry roots, white shells, and the occasional bone from the pile into a loose heap nearby. I always wondered why no fish, turtles, or frogs were ever dredged up. Toads could be found nearby, flattened to the pavement, and found in abundance.
The toads are rarely seen during the day, except in the aforementioned state. They come out at night from their burrows in the bark chips beneath the bushes. They crouch in the wet, green grass and stalk the crickets and cicadas that chirp and whir throughout the humid night. This particular toad is well suited to the patches of sand on the lawn, being mostly brown and tawny, wart-mottled, and round. He is the perfect picture of a small stone. Their hind legs are thin and unmuscular compared to some species, but their fat bellies reveal their success as patient hunters. The undisciplined ones that refuse to squat in their webbed, pigeon-toed stance seek out the easy prey on the street. Moths and junebugs, their star chart navigational systems in shock from white light pollution, hit the concrete and spin about madly, unable to figure out which way to fly. The Gulf Coast Toadís copper colored eyes zoom in, and he hops out from the curb, most likely to be zoomed over and zeroed out.
Tom and I knew a better place to find the toads. A place where they were safe from the passing cars, where the only traffic is unmotorized. Around the corner and down the street was the Wilson Street Canal and across it, the Footbridge. The bridge itself was no architectural marvel: a concrete walkway framed by waist high steel pipes all atop wooden pilings. The prerequisite graffiti declared the bridge as the territory of local thirteen-year-olds as well as John professing his love for Laurie in Krylonís Cherry Red, the empty can undoubtedly tossed over the railing.
We would pick up some beer and walk around the corner to the footbridge where we would talk. Tom would talk about the dayís work or days past. I would talk about the mountains surrounding Santa Fe, the hot springs in the Gila River canyons, or the bats falling out of the caverns at Carlsbad. I wanted to get away from the heat of this lower world, up into the cooler climes associated with altitude. I wanted to move west and I told him so.
Sometimes our talking would scare a blue heron out from shore, alerting us to his indignance with a loud "quork." And, always, there were skimmers sliding under the bridge, endlessly patrolling up and down the canals. In the quiet following such revelations, we would hear the toads. They were singing, everywhere and all around. It was, after all, Spring.
Tom then began to talk to the toads. It started as a low rumble apparently made by forcing air up through the larynx, into the cheeks, and out through tightly closed lips.
"Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrruuuuuuuuupppppppppppppp," he called.
A moment would pass.
And then the retort. Sometimes two or more. All of them declaring their sexual supremacy over this two-legged mammal swigging tall-boy Miller.
Tomís uncanny gift for challenging the toads made them easy pickings for two guys without copper colored eyes. We grabbed them up out of the tall grass or from the muddy banks and carried them up to the bridge cupped in our hands, silently hoping not to be wet down. Anyone who has handled wild reptiles or amphibians knows the danger. An animal that small has a proportionately tiny bladder and, when excited, has a tendency to evacuate said organ with the utmost urgency, much to the chagrin of the handler. Their dry, bumpy hides made them easy to hold, unlike the bullfrogs I had chased in the canyons of the Gila in New Mexico. Slick and slimy, the frogs shot from my hands, splashing me before swimming away. I ended up settling for the tadpoles, big as pears, squirming in my palms.
On still nights at the footbridge, the only splashing to be heard was the gar rising to snap at something on the surface. The nutria, a beaver-sized rodent that thrives along the landscaped banks of the canals, makes no sound as he slips in from shore, always swimming at the edge of the streetlightís shadow.
All of these animals move easily through the environment that has been created here, this faux bayou full of old bicycles and blown-out boots. The animals, generation after generation, have learned to adapt to and exploit the resources available to them. The little fish eat algae and bugs, the big fish eat the little fish, and sometimes the occasional toad tossed off the bridge.
Or so we had hoped. No dramatically gory gar attack was ever revealed to us, no matter how many toads we threw to them. And we threw so many. The toads simply swam back to shore, oftentimes to the very spot on the bank from whence they were plucked, and began to call.
Our so rude interruption into their lives, our very presence, was ignored. We proved to be insignificant in the lives of these toads, despite our unabashed attempts to influence their outcome. This is what the scientists say it is all about. "Sink or swim," is a popular adage. Toads swim well, and the number of toads that appear under that bridge every spring is a reflection of that fact.
Tom popped the top, fired his cigarette butt out over the rail, and said, "Iím coming with you when you go out west. You know that donít you?"
"Youíre more than welcome," I had said. I did not believe him.
Tom was circling, swimming in place like a duck with only one foot. He still spent most of his time working and the rest of it drinking with the other barflies from the drive-thru daiquiri joint. I had meant what I said when I was leaving. I was not so sure about Tom. I did not think he had the same faith in his vision as the kingfisher falling face-first from the line.
"Brrrrruuuuuuuuupppppppppppp," Tom called.
And the toads answered back. We chucked volley after volley, round after round, until we were left with nothing but urine soaked hands and a pile of empty cans.
Now in Colorado, I donít see so many birds as I did before. Up in the mountains I see eagles and owls, grosbeaks and pipits, but nothing on the same scale as in the subsiding suburbs back home. Herons now are an uncommon joy, and the bodies of hulking gulls have replaced the sleek black backs of skimmers. Even mourning doves are only visitors here, flying off at the end of summer for somewhere green I suppose.
The lawns and banks of the canals in Southeastern Louisiana, well shored by sandpiles, are always green. And it is the subtropical climate that seems to support such a surplus of species. Biodiversity is the word the scientists use. I came out west to try and find the things that I thought were missing from my life and only ended up missing everything I had left behind.
Tom moved out here shortly after I did. Today, despite his proximity to both mountains and rivers, he chooses to fish and snowboard on his little television in the house on Wood Street. The bird feeders I left in front of that house have all been torn down and apart by the fox squirrels, and the platform feeder stands empty above the brown grass.
When I would leave for an afternoon or weekend in the mountains, I used to ask if he wanted to come along. I do not even bother to ask anymore. Back home, he used to join me on trips. We would paddle the tannin colored creeks of Mississippi and hike the cool woods of North Carolina together. We had fun, washing down cold fried-chicken with cases of cheap beer, but the trips were becoming, for me, less about drinking beer and more about being outside. I wanted to get deeper into the woods, more removed from the road, to go places where we could not pack an ice chest. I was becoming frustrated by Tomís unwillingness to participate in my new life, just as I am sure he was disappointed by my growing lack of interest in his.
I was fast becoming a different animal than Tom. We had started out so much alike, as difficult to tell apart as the tadpoles of toads from those of frogs.
A single frog was always calling from the creek up on the mountain early in the summer. I tried hard to find him, staying silent and staring into the shallow stream. Perhaps if I could have called out, it would have answered back or maybe come out to see to whom he was speaking. What would I do, I wondered? Pick him up and pitch him into the tall grass, or leave him alone there and say nothing more?
A sinking feeling sets in. What is it that keeps us afloat? From sinking under when the past is all dammed up and our emotions drained, until they are a flat level surface suitable for building a new life, one without obligation or regret? How do we shore up the foundations of what we want to believe when we cannot even see over the levee?
I thrust my hands into the cold, clear water and splash it against my face and the back of my neck, something I would have never done in the sewage strewn canals of home. Swirls of sand and leaves are quickly washed downstream, and swimming out from underneath it all, a tiny form kicks out from the bank, swimming for the other side. It is a leopard frog, his smooth green skin covered in round brown blotches.
I look around self-consciously. For what, for who? Then, smiling, I attempt the leopard frogís trill. No one calls back, except for the chickadees and kinglets in the green trees all around me. I call back to the birds, and they range closer. A single chickadee lights on a bough less than a toadís throw away and for the next few minutes we chat away in chickadeese.
Family cuts through the landscape of our lives with both the engineered precision of a concrete canal and the wild spirit of a spring-fed stream. We raise each other above the water table, creating dry ground where our individuality can meander, unmuddied, above reproach and without fear of flooding out the little differences that make each of us unique. Tom sits behind the levee watching television, I climb upon the levee to look at the lake. Wide between us is a canal, and adjoining the opposing sides is a footbridge. Upon that bridge is the word "Brother" in Cherry Red, and underneath it are hundreds of copper colored eyes calling out for the levee to break.
©Copyright Matt Roberts