The New York Times recently published an article about the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, discussing the issues the city and specifically the neighborhood faces six years following the hurricane. The article, titled “Jungleland: The Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans Gives New Meaning to ‘Urban Growth,’” addresses a question archaeologists have studied for decades: What causes a once densely populated area to be abandoned and returned to nature? Archaeological theories run the gamut-political leadership, economy, diseases or epidemic, social unrest, mass dispersal of residents or even a natural disaster of epic proportions.
Well, quite frankly, most archaeologists are of the persuasion that it is usually more than one of these factors that contribute to the major collapse of a great civilization. However, no archaeologist puts their trowel to the dirt without wondering how the buildings and things they unearth went from being inhabited and full of life to being abandoned for so long that nature reclaimed its territory, destroying the cultural landscape that was once an escape from the harsh elements of nature.
I remember my first archaeology class, learning about the great lost civilizations: Egyptians, Maya, Romans. The lost civilizations were so romantic, filled with the exciting possibility of discovering something new and interesting. Through my anthropological studies, I continued to explore archaeology and its fallen civilizations, but never fully understood what it took for nature to reclaim the land that was taken from it by culture.
It’s amazing to me how I didn’t fully comprehend this having grown up in New Orleans, a city that is so vulnerable to the elements of nature that you see it in the cracked sidewalks, the potholes in the roads and the roaches you can’t keep out of your home. Witnessing the aftermath of Katrina, really put this into perspective. In the hot and humid climate of the Louisiana bayou, nature moves pretty quickly. Plants sprout up in a matter of days with the nurturing love of the daily tropical rainstorms and with a nonexistent winter, no wildlife is kept in balance through an annual freezing cycle.
The only way to keep nature at bay is by constant maintenance work to a property and even then without a little construction work here or there, the buildings begin to look worn and weathered quite quickly in this raw environment. What is happening right now in the lower ninth ward is the opportunity for a once in a lifetime archaeological case study that can give needed modern day evidence to theories that until now archaeologist have only been able to speculate about. It is a real life example of how nature reclaims its territory despite the efforts of man to keep the advancements at bay.
Aside from the physical evidence that is staring the lower ninth ward residents in the face, there is also an interesting cultural study to be done here. Another question archaeologists often wonder is “Why?” Why did people choose to stay in an area that had unfavorable living conditions? Why did they not relocate to an area that was safer and more stable? The only explanation anyone is able to come up with is culture.
New Orleans has always been a unique cultural gem in the United States with its rich history and strong traditions that have been slowly built upon between outside influences and the geographic landscape where these cultures collide. Culture cannot simply be relocated, it is an intimate dialogue between the people and the place. In a city with as deep of a history as New Orleans, the culture is rich and flavorful. It has been created through generations and given depth by the layers each new generation and each new immigrant brings to it.
It is the complexity of this culture that has caused the residents to stay and fight, rather than flee to higher ground. The culture that pulses through the veins of this city hits each NOLA-ite on an emotional level so deep that the thought of a world without it is to difficult to bear. It is an emotional relationship that people are willing to make sacrifices for and one that will take precedence over other priorities. Witnessing and understanding these priorities and the lengths that a civilization will go to in order to protect them under extreme duress, is a cultural study that is invaluable to understanding human nature. I can only hope that my anthropological colleagues are using this opportunity to advance their understanding of the human condition.
I was never one who believed much in ghosts, but this all changed when I met Beatrix.
Beatrix, as I have come to call her, is my house ghost. Within days of moving into the apartment, Beatrix made herself known to my roommate and I. She was shy at first, hiding in the office in the back of the house. She would emerge at night, creeping slowly from the office through my roommate’s bedroom and out the bedroom door. I believe the office, a bonus room in the back of our house, was her bedroom.
For months this was all we saw of Beatrix until she became more comfortable with us. Then the doors in the common area started opening on their own accord. It had grown colder by then and when the doors opened I would get hit by a cold blast of air as the door swung to. Again, this still was not enough for me to believe in the ghost.
It wasn’t until after numerous doors opening on their own, numerous doors that had been double checked when latched, lights being switched on in rooms we hadn’t even been in that day, and objects being moved that I began to believe that Beatrix did in fact exist. Things started to progress, Beatrix started to become more comfortable around us and her presence became more noticeable.
Over time, it became apparent that Beatrix was a child who had lived (and possibly died?) in my house. She lived in the tiny room in the back of the house and lives there to this day. She emerges from her room at night, passing my roommate in her sleep and entering into the common areas of the house. She turns the light on in her bedroom only and enjoys playing tricks on the members of my household, particularly my roommate whose room is closest and the dogs who she teases into corners. Beatrix has moved keys, repetitively opened trash cans, and swung cabinets open at the exact time you move your head to that spot, and even slammed doors on occasion. I have considered all practical reasoning behind the happenings that have occurred, but I have come up with no explanation that explains things better than Beatrix’s existence in my home.
New Orleans is known as the most haunted city in the United States. The buildings here, in New Orleans, hold energy; energy that dates back centuries, manifesting itself, making itself known to those who pass through the walls. It’s hard to say if it is because of the humidity or the crooked history of the cities residents, or both. Whatever the reasoning, it is important to know that even though it is the most haunted city, not all ghosts are malicious, some merely exist in a neighboring universe. Beatrix may slam doors, cause the dogs to bark, pass through my hallways and create a bit of chaos, but in the end it seems she means no harm. If that is the case, a third roommate is okay by me!