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The Man

I first encountered Oliver A. Houck as a character in 1989 in John McPhee’s The Control of Nature, a best-selling chronicle of human beings struggling for supremacy over the natural world. Houck was the eloquent Tulane University law professor who assigned the federal government’s efforts to control the Mississippi River “third place in the annals of arrogance,” just behind stealing the sun and running rivers backwards. Houck, a former general counsel of the National Wildlife Federation, accompanied McPhee on the annual inspection cruise, when the infantry troops in America’s relentless war against the Mississippi make sure their control structures are still imprisoning the river safely in its channel. Otherwise, the Mississippi would break its banks and hop west into the Atchafalaya, wiping out New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and a big chunk of the American chemical industry.

Anyway, McPhee noticed that while the Army engineers and the various profiteers who depended on their waterworks spent the cruise inside playing cards and networking, Houck—whose “lone presence signals the continuing existence of the environmental movement”—stayed on deck, admiring the bayous, marveling at the cypress swamps. McPhee called Houck “a conservationist of the sunset school, with legal skills adjunct to the force of his emotion,” and described him like this:

Tall and loosely structured, Houck could be a middle-aged high jumper, still in shape to clear six feet. His face in repose is melancholy—made so, perhaps, by the world as his mind would have it in comparison with the world as he sees it. 

Houck is now twenty years past middle-aged, but he is still at Tulane, still living in New Orleans, and still battling the Corps, the oil industry, and other reliable ravagers of southern Louisiana. It is no surprise that the world that he sees still fails to live up to the world that he imagines. The surprise is that when he decided to describe those worlds on paper, he turned out to be an even better writer than McPhee.          

I have written about quite a few books for The New Republic—sometimes with admiration, sometimes with disdain, but always because the books inspired larger points I wanted to make. I am writing about Houck’s Down on the Batture because it is beautiful, enjoyable, evocative, provocative, and wise. I do not really have many larger points to make, except that I think you should read this book, and with all due respect to the University Press of Mississippi publicity machine, I doubt that you have heard of it before now. So buy it.   

The batture is the muddy, overgrown, mostly abandoned, but hardly pristine borderland between the Mississippi River and the gigantic levees that keep the river from invading New Orleans on a regular basis. Houck likes to wander the batture with his dog, and quite a bit of his book is devoted to the quirky stuff they see: dewberries, a sculpture made out of a motorcycle, a guy hunting rabbits with a golf club, a young couple making love. He also splices in the wet and wild history of the batture—the land grabs, criminal enterprises, slave rebellions, engineering follies, development schemes, catastrophic floods and political shenanigans that shaped its anarchic vibe. It’s a ringside seat to civilization, and Houck introduces it like this:

Here along the lower Mississippi, so close at hand, is a separate world. It has witnessed great ambitions, keelboats and steamers, expressways and casinos, glittering plantations, world-class pollution, and the severed heads of slaves on poles. It has also served as refuge for weekend fishermen, transients, teenagers, wild boars, and remarkable bursts of creativity…It is a place where human beings come for the very purpose of being beyond the rules of designated places, to be in contact with the trees, the river, and a sky in the late day that is turning from light blue to pink to a violent orange, and a couple of men with cans of beer are looking at it, not talking a great deal, wired to a something that is vanishing before their eyes.

The batture is Houck’s literary diving board, a jumping-off point for droll and poignant ruminations about life and Louisiana—its sorry history of race relations, its dismal breed of politicians, its rapacious brand of capitalism, and especially its abusive relationship with Mother Nature. That is what angers him the most, and inspires his best writing. You can see why he is such an effective environmental lawyer: he isn’t whiny, and he lets the fact pattern do most of his work. He will lyrically describe watching a whistling duck get fried by a high-voltage transmission line, then clinically discuss statistics on avian electrocutions and various strategies for avoiding them, then casually detonate a grenade of a closing statement: “It seems very hard for humans not to kill the creatures around them.”

It is not an original point, I suppose. And it is the point of just about every eco-book ever written: we live on a nice planet, and we ought to take better care of it. This is why so many eco-books are so dull. Even McPhee has written books the size of toasters about rocks. But Down on the Batture is a joyride. A young boy asks Houck about Jesus on the levee near the Bonnet Carré Spillway, which triggers meditations on some of the stupid development projects that he has fought in the spillway—and a hilarious riff on an airport one mayor proposed to build in (yes, in) Lake Pontchartrain—and finally back to the kid: “I still think about that little boy, and I have no answers for him. The only thing about which I feel morally certain is that there is only one natural world and to screw it up is wrong. Although where that certainty comes from I cannot answer either.”

I cannot claim to share Houck’s passion for birds and bunnies and the mysteries of nature. I did write a book about an endangered ecosystem, and I like the outdoors, but mostly for playing tennis. I am basically an armchair conservationist, from the school that does not like plunderers or the politicians that do their bidding, and prefers that our planet should continue to support human life. But Houck’s hypnotic prose, sporadically interrupted by sudden bursts of moral indignation, made me wish I had attended sunset school. A walk in the woods in Jefferson Parish reminds him of the one time in a quarter of a century of meandering that he got a ticket for failing to leash his dog, which evokes the ugly history of selective law enforcement in those parts, which somehow leads back to his childhood, when he and his brother set a fire that burned out of control and nearly blew up a gas station. And then the twist:

Still, I try to imagine a world in which the adults in charge have never made a fire from scratch or been out in the woods at all except when accompanied by a qualified guide. It seems bleak. I try to believe that this new breed of woods-less people will take care of the natural world anyway, but I don’t see why they would. If you don’t feel something then it does not come up on your radar. I see people like this every day who probably think I am from another planet, and they are right. My planet is called earth.

I am not saying that this is a perfect book. It gets off to an unfortunately slow start, with a bewildering chapter about that motorcycle sculpture, and then an unhelpful and uncharacteristically self-indulgent chapter about a TV interview that Houck was invited to do before the Super Bowl. Please keep reading. It gets a lot better quickly.

My only other complaint with Down on the Batture is its cursory treatment of the great cause of Houck’s life: the outrageous and ongoing disappearance of the Louisiana coast. More than 2,000 square miles of its marshlands, swamplands, and barrier islands have eroded into the Gulf of Mexico: gone, poof, wow. It is a national emergency; but since the destruction has been gradual and has failed to cover any pelicans in oil, it does not get much media coverage, although McPhee did quote Houck two decades ago warning that “the coast is sinking out of sight.” I have myself quoted Houck on the topic as well; and since by now I probably sound like his cousin or his publicist, I should say that I have only met him a couple times, although we have some mutual friends and common interests.         

Especially this one. The erasure of southern Louisiana is a genuine ecological catastrophe—unlike the over-hyped BP oil spill, which has not done much ecological damage—and a human one as well. Those lost wetlands once provided spawning grounds for the region’s seafood industry; and even more important, they provided hurricane protection for coastal communities. Katrina wouldn’t have had a chance of drowning New Orleans if it had to travel over twenty miles of land to get there. But after gliding over open water—and a misbegotten Army Corps canal that ushered it into the Big Easy—even Katrina’s relatively modest surge managed to topple the city’s flimsy Army Corps floodwalls. 

Houck devotes a brutally entertaining chapter to the oil industry, one of the two major culprits behind the ongoing disaster, noting that every inch of its 5,000 miles of canal is “a rip through the living tapestry of the coast, death by five thousand blows.” He then supplies some useful context:

The state’s coastal wetlands campaign, whose signature photo is an egret perched on a petroleum platform, is funded by Shell Oil and makes no mention of oil and gas harm to the zone. Nor does the Shell exhibit at the aquarium downtown, which features fish around an oil rig. The state and the oil and gas industry have joined forces to persuade Congress that the American taxpayer should pay to put our Humpty Dumpty back together again. No suggestion is made of a contribution from the industry, the largest member of which cleared thirty-six billion dollars in profits last year, with four others close behind. And whose major damage here, by this late date, is incontestable. Instead, Shell sponsors Jazz Fest. 

But as Houck knows better than just about anyone else, the American taxpayer should help pay to fix Humpty Dumpty as well, because the other major culprit is our very own Army Corps of Engineers. Its navigation canals have helped to shred that living tapestry of marshes, and more importantly, its manhandling of the Mississippi has starved the coast of the sediment it needs to survive. The control of nature, as the Corps proves every day, has consequences. The river’s natural deltaic processes built southern Louisiana; thanks in part to a tenacious attorney named Oliver Houck, the Atchafalaya still retains some of its natural functions, and is still building land along the coast. But the dammed and straitjacketed Mississippi carries only a fraction of its original silt, and its wonderfully efficient navigation channel whisks most of that silt out to the Gulf. That is why New Orleans has sunk below sea level. That is why a football field worth of wetlands sinks into the sea every half hour—and over two hundred square miles worth during Katrina and Rita.

Houck knows all of this better than I do. But he does not mention it in his Katrina chapter, which he devotes to some fairly dull diary entries. At one point he does mention it, but only in passing:

Whether the Corps can rework its former canal and levee projects in a way that restores a sinking Louisiana, and whether we will allow them to, given all the competing dependencies that cling to these projects like vines, is the biggest question Hurricane Katrina left behind. We do not even have the answers on paper yet.

We still don’t.

Perhaps Houck was too modest to use this book to recapitulate his distinguished career as an attorney. But it is now clear that he is not just coastal Louisiana’s legal and intellectual advocate. He is also its bard. His next assignment is to put its answers on paper.

Michael Grunwald, a senior national correspondent for Time Magazine, is the author of The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida and the Politics of Paradise.