Tuesday, January 24, 2006

I spent some time this morning, out with my dog, looking at the trees in the backyard of our little rented spot here in Queens. I am trying to overcome the immense amount of inertia I have right now when it comes to actually sorting through clothes and toys and beginning to pack. I am also thinking about what the city of New Orleans will look like when we return...I though about this when I was looking out at the trees.

Our good friend Justin is a tree man. Justin is a ribald, raucous fella about my dad's age with a degree in forestry and a good sized homestead in Algiers, across the river from the Central Business District and the French Quarter in New Orleans. The very first time I made his acquaintance, he came to the choir practice at my synagogue with a huge jar containing a chunk of wood crawling with Formosan termites, the little guys that had holed up in so many homes and in a large number of the old oaks that covered the city. He was testing out a fungus that would make Centrocon bait systems and sprays obsolete, inserting it in clients' trees and carefully documenting the effects. Whenever big storms came, he would always talk about more trees being ripped or tipped due to the weaknesses exploited by colonies of Formosans making them into sawdust on the inside rather than from the strengths of a storm. And then he would be one of the people called in by clients and the like to help clear out those trees.

Katrina was no different for him, except all his equipment was stolen. Initially, he was working clearing trees on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain just to get equipment. Then he helped out FEMA, the city, and his clients.

I just can't help thinking about the trees, though, and about what a different city New Orleans will be without its trees. Summers will burn much hotter. The shade of the trees will be sorely missed. And the character of those trees was way different from the scraggly fellows I see when I look out into the backyard here at the overgrown Long Island Railroad hump that once carried commuter trains. They were large and gnarled, stretching themselves up and out as far as they could possibly go. Even the Mardi Gras floats had to respect those trees, though the krewe members knew how to festoon them with beads as they passed by.

These days I find myself thinking as well about the trials and tribulations of trying to root ourselves in a community that has seen so much pain and has lost a great deal. A few people here have engaged in some Monday morning FEMA directing, to twist a sports metaphor. It's one of the perils of telling people you are moving to a scene of devastation. It's also an indication of one of two things: these are people who actually care, or they are people who just like to hear themselves talk. We are fortunate to have mostly the former bringing us their small tidbits of New Orleaniana they gleaned from the news or the Net, but sometimes it is a bit trying.

Ray Nagin's recent comments come to mind. There is a man who should have kept his mouth shut. Focus on the recovery of a region, man, and don't try to make the news all the time, was my first thought. In many ways, Katrina gave him a great mandate in terms of eliminating the corruption that has plagued New Orleans institutions for so long. Now is not the time to be playing any sort of a finger-pointing card, and especially not on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Something that was much more in the spirit of that day here in New York was the march for the betterment of the situation the home health care workers are in. A similar march could well have been made on Gallier Hall for the addition of industries other than tourism to help keep a great city alive, well, and inclusive. Then we could all decamp to the devastated areas and have a toast.

Maybe even plant some trees.

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