In the heart of the night In the cool falling rain, There’s a full moon in sight Shining down on the Ponchartrain And the river she rises Just like she use to do She’s so full of surprises She reminds me of you In the heart of the night Down in New Orleans. -Paul Cotton
I was born in the city of New Orléans or maybe the proper wording is, ‘the city was born in me.’ For biology and geography do not always equate to the affections one may have with this city by the Mississippi River. However, this is the only hypothesis that offers any explanation to why a person born far from this storied land experiences an acute scene of being ‘one’ with the area while others born into it leave; never to return.
There is a love, hate relationship with the city and its environment and the rest of the world. If ask my place of birth, eyes will light up with enthusiasm or withdraw in contempt. Both the interest and scorn associated with the amount of decadence and corruption New Orléans is infamous for. But this is only part of the story, as there exist a multitude of reasons to love or hate this place I call home and the clues lie within the cadence of the various personalities and the history that makes up this hallowed ground and how they unite into one symphony.
To get the full gist of my birth city, one needs to understand the character of the populace influenced by the geography of the area. How the passing of time from one generation to the next along with the constant ebbing and surging issuing forth from the Mississippi River through the centuries have affected the ethos of the culture, a culture rich in the hardships and miracles of life and the ability to say yes to living and to dying. The city is synonymous with the river and in many ways one born or moved to the environs of southeast Louisiana is forever influenced by the river and its lore. Hardly a day goes by that its force is not felt in one situation or another.
There exist a tug of war within my heart when I moved away years ago that never quite subsides. To stay can leave a person without direction wandering aimlessly in a desolate wasteland of his or her own making. To leave can haunt your soul, for a part of you is gone, never to return the same. Whether you stay or leave, a balance is required and the ability to pay homage to the mighty river and its city is of necessity. When I moved away I soon came to appreciate and love my place of birth all the while knowing I could never have stayed or could I ever move back. We each needed distance from each other, so in time we’d learn to love and respect one another.
There are many gods and demons in this land, and each one must be dealt a hand and given its due. They intersect, sometimes in harmony, other times in hostility. They come from every direction; from the Catholic Church to Voodoo rituals passed on from Haitian immigrants and influenced by each subsequent nationality that has come to call this land home; Spanish, French, English, Irish, Creole, Cajun, Native American, African, German and so on. So we light our candles, make the sign of the cross in front of every church, and buy our voodoo dolls… we dress up for Mardi Gras, go to confession on Ash Wednesday, fast for the 40 days of Lent and do it all over again after Easter, all to live in an uneasy peace with ourselves.
The French explorer, La Salle claimed the river and the land drained by its waters for France in 1682. The land named Louisiana after King Louis XIV while the river retained the French pronunciation of the Native American word, Misi sipi meaning “big water”, a dialect of the Algonquin language group comprising such tribes as the Ojibwa, Fox, Cheyenne, Cree and the Algonquin. The Lakota referred to the river as the “Grandfather of all Rivers”.
For La Salle, the Native Americans, and all who have seen the river and sense its greatness as it meanders down from Lake Itasca in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, some 2,340 miles, one is easily humbled by its grandeur. In numeric terms, it is staggering. If you judge the distance to the headwaters of its longest tributary, the Missouri River, the distance is 5,970 miles. At its birth, the river is twelve feet in width and only one and a half feet deep, a mere child; and as it gathers age on its long trek south the river is 3000 to 5000 feet wide with a depth of nine to twelve feet; a venerable respected elder.
About 593,000 cubic feet of water discharged every second, the sixth largest expulsion of water in the world. With its numerous tributaries, comprising other predominate rivers as the Illinois, Missouri, Ohio and the Arkansas rivers, about 1,150,000 square miles of land drained, the largest in North America as far as land mass concerned and the third largest in the world.
This consensus of water is a spiritual one, the godhead of waters. Orthodox, secular, and metaphysical, it knows no prejudice to any creed or dogma. Hence the nicknames, Father of Waters or Old Man River…..
When I was younger, many nights I sat by the levee staring out at the expanse of water down from the crescent in the river across from Jackson Square. Sometimes I would ride the Algiers ferry over to the west bank. In my imagination, I saw the entanglement of river, land and city reminding me of the big and little dipper and the North Star. The river is Ursa Major, the Missouri and Ohio Rivers are Alfa and Beta, the Gulf of Mexico is Ursa Minor and the shining jewel of New Orléans, Polaris. It became a constellation, always there to guide me wherever I lay my hat.
Please read- Of The River and the City- Part 2
Please read- Of the River and the City-Pt.3-A Love Song for New Orleans