Monday, April 02, 2007

A thistle grows in New Orleans

A few months ago, I was admiring the sunflowers popping up in the neighborhood.

Today, it's thistle that catches my eye.

Their large, round, spiked buds shine bright pink and purple in the afternoon sunlight. Some reach upward no less than 4 feet on a tubular, jagged stalk.

Thistle volunteers in post Katrina New Orleans.

My Darling Wife loves them. When I told her that I was going to trim our little patch of lawn the other day, she asked, "Why?"

Because it needs to be cut, I said.

"Okay, but don't cut the wildflowers." Apparently, she thinks some of the scraggly, odd-shaped weeds growing around the FEMA travel trailer are actually pretty. Not knowing much about plants and gardening, I made her come outside and point out what she wanted to keep just to be safe.

She pointed to a tall, ominous looking plant sprouting near the steps; a thistle that had not yet bloomed.

Gardening Factoid: There is no biological designation for a "weed." A weed is simply a plant you don't like that shows up in your garden uninvited. If for some reason you DO like it, it's not a weed--it's a "volunteer."

So being the fine husband I am, I carefully cut around the volunteer and complained about it profusely.

Thistle (I learned after I looked it up on Wikipedia) come in several varieties. Ours is probably a Milk Thistle. The Wiki folks describe its prickles as "an adaptation protecting against herbivorous animals." I don't know about that, but speaking as an omnivore I can assure you I was not even slightly tempted to eat it.

There were several other scraggly, climbing and spreading imposters that I was told to leave alone. The current environment in this damaged city seems to favor the wildest of weeds (or volunteers) over the nice grasses we usually would have had before the waters came. The brown that dominated following Hurricane Katrina is quickly being overrun with green.

And we continue our love/hate relationship with nature here.

The city of New Orleans considers unkempt lawns a sign of dereliction and is starting to enforce what is called a “Good Neighbor” ordinance. It’s a law that requires homeowners, whether here or there, to maintain their empty houses and properties. In the neighborhoods of New Orleans, untamed nature is not to be tolerated.

At the same time The Times-Picayune trumpets the need for us to work with nature, to allow her the space to “do her thing.” We are told that humanity’s desire to control our environment is at the root of all our problems here in coastal Louisiana.

The answer, I think, lies between these two views. I don’t agree that we are helpless and should surrender to the furies of the natural universe. But I also don’t think we should view nature as the enemy at the gates. This is not about mankind versus nature, but of mankind living within nature.

Hurricanes are part of the natural environment of the Gulf of Mexico. And our insatiable appetite to build and shape the human environment is perfectly natural, too. Heck, even the most ardent environmentalists will draw you a picture of what they want the coast to look like--as if nature needs their help to make her vision a reality!

No, I say we ARE nature. I say we have to enact our own adaptations to survive in this environment. We know hurricanes are coming, so we should build a hurricane protection system that incorporates multiple lines of defense, so that one localized failure won’t doom the city. We know hurricanes are coming, so we should build our houses up off the ground and strong enough to withstand the wind.

We will struggle on. It is the nature of nature, you might say. The people who have not left, the people who are coming, we will all make it happen. Our houses will rise over the tangled, tortured landscape.

My Darling Wife and I are finalizing plans for our own high-rise home here. We are going to stake our claim to this land and this city. We are not defying nature; we are working within nature to make our home here.

Around us, other houses are rising. Several new slabs have been poured here, and the homes of the new New Orleans are taking root. Only time will tell if we will be viewed as volunteers or as weeds.

Thistle growing in post-Katrina New Orleans.

I looked again at that strange thistle, and had to give it credit for its perseverance and tenacity. Looking around at the neighboring vacant properties, I see several more of them scattered about.

They rise defiantly on the vacant land here, growing where some would not approve, reaching where some would not dare.

A few months ago, it was sunflowers, rising up from the damaged landscape.

Now it's thistle, standing tall and warning away enemies with its prickles.


Anonymous said...

Dear Tim,

We do have several very fine thistles in the neighborhood, which you know I love. What you have pictured is a cleome, a different and equally spectacular native wildflower.

And thanks for letting it grow too, Sweetie.


Cade said...

No thistle in our yard, but both pink and blue spider-wort. (It's got a small flower on a tall stalk, and when you hit it with a lawnmower - you release an awful lot of moisture). Not unattractive, but I mow it. Dug up a few of whatever color she didn't have for my mom to transplant to her garden.

judyb said...

Thanks, Tim for yet another wonderful post.

Plenty of thistles growing here in Slidell.

Sophmom said...

Thistle or cleome, it's lovely, but, mostly, you craft a beautiful analogy that results in another brilliant post. Perfect.

I missed seeing y'all last weekend. I hope we can all make the next gathering.

Peace, darlin'.

Anonymous said...

thistles are also delicious. the stalk, when peeled, tastes like the white part of a cucumber, very crisp and fresh. although i don't know what variety it was i ate off the side of the road on a fishing trip when i was a kid, only that mom said it was a thistle, it looked kinda like the on in your pic, and i thought it was some yummy.

dave said...

Tim, I'm new to this so excuse me for changing the topic. I live in Alabama and found your blog last week while looking up some info on Buras, where my wife's family lives. I read and really enjoyed your post from April of 2006 about going to Buras. You might want to try going back to the there on May 5th, 2007. There is going to be an oilfield crawfish cookoff that Saturday at the Buras firehouse. Life is comming back to south Plaquemines Parish. p.s. Do buy roundtrip gas before you get all the way down to Buras.

Freudian Slip said...

My childhood home was packed with these things. I love em :)