Jim Gabour
17 December 2007

Dead, they were all dead.

Spring 2006 was marked in New Orleans by the appearance, in patios and yards everywhere, of thick carpets composed of unmoving migratory butterflies, jewelled dragonflies, moths and honeybees.

Jim Gabour is an award-winning film producer, writer and director, whose work focuses primarily on music and the diversity of cultures. He lives in New Orleans, where he is artist-in-residence and professor of video technology at Loyola University.

His website is here

A selection of Jim Gabour's recent articles in openDemocracy:

"This is personal" (23 April 2007)

"Cutting loose" (4 May 2007)

"Mahatma 189" (11 May 2007)

"Undercurrent" (22 June 2007)

"Cry Oncle!"(12 July 2007)

"Lessons in the classics" (6 August 2007)

"The recurring anniversary of wilderness" (28 August 2007)

"Native to America" (26 September 2007)

"Number One with a bullet" (22 October 2007)

"The upper crust" (8 November 2007)

In its zeal to stifle the clouds of aggressive disease-riddled carrion-flies and mosquitoes, the government (which government, we don't know, as they all seem to have dominion over New Orleans these days) had adopted wholesale night-time aerosol-bombing from crop-dusting planes and daytime fogging from truck-mounted fumigators. Residents appreciated the reduction of biting insects, but simultaneously mourned the quick loss of the first gay fluttering colors seen in the city in months. More seriously, for those of us who grow things, was the sudden removal of pollinators for flowering trees and plants.

Backyard fruit-and-vegetable crops never had a chance that spring.

The natural predators of the insects, the myriad of lizards and frogs native to our swampy city, were also in large part destroyed by the insecticides.

Those of us who took pride in growing a portion of our own food, and doted on the simple beauty of our environment, once again felt betrayed, on yet another level.

The living city

Eighteen months later we are recuperating. This autumn the butterflies came back, the bees buzzed about, and the first few baby frogs appeared around the fringes of backyard fountains and ponds.

Frogs! Who would believe that I would care about frogs? But these are no common amphibians. Hyla avivoca, The Bird-voiced Treefrog, is native to New Orleans, and in recent years state legislators with no better things to do (this hurricane-recovery business having become tiresome) have officially crowned avivoca as "The State Frog". I have no idea what responsibility that title carries, and it seems neither do the frogs, as I have seen no tadpoles bearing gilded inscriptions, nor hopping amphibians beribboned with multi-coloured medals to denote their governmental distinction. At least not yet.

It wouldn't be a complete surprise if the legislature - back in session - held a week's debate on which month should hold State Frog Day. Dealing with the city's recovery is boring hard work, after all. The state already has a Frog Festival, the thirty-fifth version of which was just celebrated three months ago, over in Cajun territory in Rayne, Louisiana. Cajuns don't use the proper Parisian grenouille to designate their honouree, however. Their word for these large bullfrogs is probably the best onomatopoeia I have ever heard: ouaouaron, pronounced wah-wah-ROHN. Tell me that doesn't instantly say frog.

Though the diminutive "state" Bird-voiced Treefrogs lack their own individual festival, this has not deterred the returning avivoca from their passion, and every night now that the weather has turned cooler and windows are open, the neighborhood drops into sleep to the sweet song and warbles of these talented creatures.

They also eat at night, the frogs, and mosquitoes are slowly disappearing. Of course the singers have been assisted in reducing the blood-sucking insect population by the reemergence of their tailed kin. Chameleons and geckos, salamanders and newts, with spots and stripes and neon colors have joined forces and now fill every shady spot under every bush and structure on the block. They preen and strut and eat the bad guys.

Another totally new addition to the flora of the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood since Katrina are dozens upon dozens of huge "volunteer" papaya trees, each bearing hundreds of pounds of delectable fruit. They are in every yard. I have heard speculation that the ultimate source was a single tree nurtured by a family near the late, lamented El Palaceño bodega. Though the Cubano family did not return after the storm, their tree and its fruit and seeds were ripped apart by the wind and spread over a dozen square blocks. This year we are reaping the bounty, and with the resurgent and always abundant native banana plants, we are again eating well from our yards.

In another ironic bit of flora recovery, the "Resurrection" ferns are back. These amazing resilient plants primarily inhabit the limbs of the Live Oak trees that were so badly damaged in Katrina. In their dormant state, when the ferns are stressed, they dry so completely as to be completely invisible, existing as a part of the grey scaly bark of the oaks. When they have the right living conditions, overnight they find a way to come back to life, and coat the trees in a lush green blanket. As they have this past week.

On the fauna side, once-domestic animals, pets abandoned in the face of the evacuation, often on the legally-binding orders of the soldiers and police officers who stripped pets from evacuees boarding buses out of the City, have also begun to re-approach humans.

For the last four months, three black cats have co-inhabited our backyard. We don't know if they are from the same feral litter, but feed them morning and night, and each day they have come closer and acted friendlier.

One, a tuxedo whom some call Blackie and I call Foots (he has white spats) now comes to me and will even sit in my lap. He was obviously captured after the storm, castrated and released, as is evidenced by his left ear, which is missing its top third. Force-fixed cats were caught and disfigured in that manner immediately post-Katrina, when every animal was considered feral, rabid and dangerous. The missing ear was to prevent their being picked up again. At least they were not euthanized, which was the case with many of the personal pets confiscated at the Katrina bus boarding sites.

The three cats are often joined at breakfast and dinner by a large raccoon who has taken up residence in the abandoned fire-station on the back of the block. We thought him a lone straggler these last months and have watched him grow ever larger, until just the other morning when he arrived for breakfast with two short and fuzzy versions of himself.

The three masked stripers love the papayas and bananas that fill their dish each morning.

The fact that the fruits are once again homegrown does not impress them.

In the wings

One less-positive sign that the effects of our urban trauma have not yet left, however, is an almost metaphorical physical apparition.

It involves parking.

Some years ago, on Loyola Avenue downtown near City Hall, a group of disciplined and creative artists created a multi-storied trompe l'oeil painting of a clarinet. It is quite beautiful, and from a distance looks like... a multi-storied clarinet. The painters even made the reflections in the chrome of the instrument match the buildings and area around it. Unfortunately, a part of that view is a quite banal asphalt parking-lot.

That lot, immediately below the clarinet, has somehow been chosen as the official encampment of the Louisiana national guard, and though they are thankfully not part of the reflection, at the mouthpiece of the instrument sit dozens of desert-camouflaged, bullet-proof military Humvees. And dozens more military police cars.

All of which daily drive our streets.

Amidst the returning butterflies.

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