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An ecological bent

It occured to me, coming out of a deep sleep, which is when such thoughts often occur, that George R. Stewart's 1949 classic of world end, ``Earth Abides,'' has a particular section that resonates with what is happening now to planet earth.

As ``Ish'' travels the country looking for survivors following a disease that has wiped out mankind except for tiny remnants of population here or there, the U.S. city that folds into itself, which returns most quickly to its original natural state, is New Orleans.

Stewart was of an ecological bent and he knew that if the world ended suddenly but not violently, cities such as New Orleans, in wet, humid climates, would revert soonest to their natural state.

So as Ish drives into New Orleans a few years after the great death, he sees buildings crumbling and sinking back into the bayous and vines and trees climbing over collapsing structures. He knows, should he return some years later, all signs of the once great city might have disappeared.

I don't recall if Ish looked at Lake Pontchartrain in ``Earth Abides,''  but if he did today he'd see oil on its surface, for the oil is creeping ever north, has taken over the lake, in essence surrounding this city whose suffering never seems to cease.

I've only been to New Orleans once, and had a can of Dixie Beer on a sweltering day, and watched giant roaches lumber across Jackson Square in the evening heat to the beat of distant music flowing from the French Quarter.

I thought those might be my last experiences with the city, and really wish they had been. But then Katrina happened and, as I've written before, through some odd happenstance our toll free phone number, even though we are in California, is only a digit or two removed from a truck and trailer rental company in New Orleans as well as the FEEMA office there. For weeks after Katrina we would get anguished live calls or recorded messages from the people of Louisiana and Mississippi.

These people were so upset it did not register with them they were talking to, or leaving a message with, an art gallery. They asked ``me'' when help was coming, when their needs would be seen to, why no one seemed to be able to do anything to help restore their shattered lives. Some of the oratory was Shakespearean in power, all of it was deeply felt.

At the same time this was going on, a friend, Andrzej Tarasewicz, brought me a 1930s era painting by Aaron Bohrod of, of all places, New Orleans. It shows a gaunt, dark-eyed boy fishing off a rocky shore, behind him a kind of industrial ghetto, smoke ushering from a crumbling chimney. Lake Pontchartrain? I don't know, probably not, probably the Mississippi. But the New Orleans connection strengthened.

Then I read a human interest story coming out of the devastated city about a New Orleans playwright who thought he'd finally gotten his break, his play to be produced by an important regional theater, but Katrina had wiped out the theater, and the playwright had no idea if the play would be done elsewhere. That's something, I thought, you finally get a break, and nature scotches it. You expect a producer or a publisher or a critic to do you in, not heavy winds from the south.

Then by chance I pick up a new play in the Monterey, California Public Library, ``Brando, Tennessee and Me,'' by Robert Smallwood., another New Orleans writer. Smallwood, I discovered, had also written an acclaimed piece called ``The Five People You Meet in Hell: Surviving Katrina.'' There had only been 100 copies of Smallwood's play printed so I thought, what is going on with me – half a continent away – and New Orleans?

But thoughts of New Orleans receded the last few years and then the Gulf thing happened and suddenly I am getting calls from the South again. Five or six in the last few days. So far, they have been for that truck and trailer company, not FEEMA, so maybe FEEMA changed its toll free phone number, or if things get worse, which they appear they might, perhaps I'll get calls meant for FEEMA again.

But for now, it's ``Hello, do you know one of your trailers is upside down in a ditch off the highway?'' ``Hello, I almost got run off the road by one of your drivers and if you don't reign in that s.o.b. . . . '' ``You know, so much is going on, we're tryin' to get out of here while the gettin's good, and you, what do you do, you bastards, you rent us a trailer with bad wheels.''

When I take the phone call and break it gently to the caller that she is talking to an art gallery in California, the silence that follows is painful. She would like to laugh at the absurdity of it – maybe ask, ``A what where?'' –  but it would probably hurt too much.

So it's obvious what is going on. People are upset and angry, the anguish is great and hope is slim, and these people are not looking as they dial or simply can't see clearly. I have never found people dialing a wrong number so moving. I expect these calls, like ``Earth Abides,'' to haunt my sleep.