This week we worked on land that used to be underwater. Fourteen thousand years ago it was the bottom of an ocean just like most parts of the United States, eleven years ago it was just over the levee that failed. Concrete bits and oyster shells clickety-clak together as they are being raked down a row of dirt that will soon rise with seeds. The woman I am working next to pauses, stands and opens her arms as a gust of wind comes up. 'I like to let it hit me.' She says when she sees me noticing. She has long purple hair. She is a college student from La Grange in Georgia and has elected to spend her Spring break rebuilding The Ninth Ward.
Prior to Hurricane Katrina, The Ninth Ward was the neighborhood in the United States with the highest concentration of African American homeowners. After the levee failed most of those homes were under fourteen feet of water.
Louisiana follows French Provincial Law whereby a deed owner can pass down their property without having to fill out any government paperwork. So, the man who lived at 1809 Lizardi, katty-corner across the street, can just now begin reworking his house after having finally, eleven years in waiting, proved the property was handed down to him. The walls of the house are strong. The windows are boarded up. It bears the Katrina Cross, black against the white of the doorframe; a spray-painted cross turned on its side bearing the initial of the rescue squad the surveyed the house, the date it was first entered by FEMA, the damage to the house marked in code and the number of dead found inside. One figure in each quadrant. 1809 bears the cross 3505 - 9/13 - NE - 1 .
Jenny and I have been staying at Capstone Community Garden. The farm is surrounded by lots of land brimming with solely animal and plant life. To the South towards the gas station is a vacant school. In between the school and our house is an aqua culture greenhouse. Leafy greens grow boldly right out of water which is purified by the bacteria that are fed by the waste of the 200 catfish lurking happily on the bottom. I only see the catfish when the outline of their white mouths ascend from the bottom to eat their morning meal. This past weekend the goats sneaked through a gate and ran ammock in the greenhouse. They ate the tops off the floating greens, unhooked the pump keeping the catfish happy, left the byproducts of their feast here and there and then once satisfied wended back around to their rightful shed. The hole they'd used to escape was so sneaky I spent half a day cursing myself for having been so careless in tying their enclosure. They had tricked the humans again, those goats.
The goats, ducks and chickens are raised as neighbors behind the house. Their waste is the manure that feeds the grow beds that last year produced 2,500 lbs. of produce for residents of The Ninth Ward who do not have access to or cannot afford fresh greens. The eggs laid by the chickens are given away or eaten as food here at the house (with maybe a sweet potato or maybe a sausage). Dominique, a broad, speckled lady takes every advantage of her free-range status and lays exclusively in the tire right outside the goat pen as if to tease the poor goats. The brown duck got in a fight with Miss Dominique last year and has had one wing slightly askance ever since. Despite this deformity she padded out a haven in the corner of the goat shed and laid five big beauties. These will go into an incubator and we will be gone by the time those chicks hatch. I'd prefer just not to think about them.
When volunteers come we make a human gate so the goats can wend again clockwise this time around the house to graze behind the 'barn.' Inside David, Captone's founder, keeps his tools locked up tight. We extracted thirty empty bee homes yesterday to prepare for this Spring's influx and realized in the process that rats are having a grand ole' time with the stash of seeds, formerly carefully catalogued and pristine in packages. I enter the barn from the bright outside, my shadow falls long across a wooden skeleton straight through onto the back wall and I think This used to be a house. I pick up a shovel from the corner and I think This used to be a house.
Following east across the street from the barn door is a vacant lot from which we cut great tall grass. It turns out johnson grass is sixteen percent protein. It's used as feed on cattle farms. The city government fines landowners who do not mow their properties so most people throw the grass away in bags but Capstone uses its weeds as goat food and the goats can't stop eating it long enough to express how much they like it. Hidden among the grass are hives 61, 62 and 63 where a bedroom, bathroom and kitchen once were, and in sight just above the bee hives past more open land the shape of a white cross pierces through the trees. If you stand at the very Southern corner of Capstone's front porch you can see in tandem this white cross and the black one spray painted on the doorframe of 1809, one closer to the sky the other closer to the ground, a yin and yang made unbeknownst to human design.