New Orleans Unique Levee: Down on the Batture Review

Many books have been written about New Orleans and the subject seems to be inexhaustible. Down on the Batture is something unique as it deals with woods and wild spaces.

In this review I talk about my experiences there and this new book by Professor Oliver Houck, a neighbor.

New Orleans Unique Levee: Down on the Batture Review

Down on the Batture by Oliver Houck

A new New Orleans classic, Down on the Batture by Oliver Houck is about the wild spaces between the levee and the Mississippi River

I live just a few block from the Mississippi River and remember many days spent on the levee as a boy riding my bike and playing in the woods down on the batture.

The batture is that strip of land that extends from the bank of the river to the levee. It is wild there, as wild as anything can be in a big city. It holds secrets, adventures and scraggly campsites that pop up occasionally.

I once saw a tattered blue tarp stretched out from a fallen tree trunk, a make-shift lean-to, with a perfect view of the river right there in the sand.

The tarp and the empty beer cans and a part of some charred wood were the only evidence that someone had spent many hours down there. Did they sleep there, I wondered. Were they kids, someone down on his luck, someone moving through?

My experience of the batture has been very limited. A few years ago I was taking my little nephew on a trail through the woods out to the bank where a sandy beach lay, beyond it the churning brown waters of the river.

My nephew pointed out what looked to be blackberries on the ground and looking up I found a tree covered with them. Hesitantly I pulled one off a branch and tasted it. Hm. Certainly tastes sweet enough, so I know they ain’t poisonous but what the heck were blackberries doing growing on a tree?

As we made our way back up the trail to the levee I noticed other such trees with blackberries growing on them. Next day I returned with a bucket and gathered as many of these succulent things I could find.

Now I’ve lived in New Orleans most of my life and been to the levee many times. Never seen blackberries down there. Then I discovered that my neighbor across the street, Tulane law professor Oliver Houck, makes it a regular practice to venture out to the batture with his dog Ms. Bear and obviously is a lot more versed on what the heck all is down there in those wild places.

He told me that the blackberries are really mulberries and they grow all over the place on the batture. Sweet. The last couple years because of the river flooding and such the mulberries trees have been inundated with water so I have not been able to harvest any. But I keep a bag from that first harvest in my freezer and grab a handfull at a time and remember that first discovery.

Oliver mentioned that he had written a book Down on the Batture and then I saw it reviewed in the paper. He graciously gave me a copy and I’ve been leisurely reading it over the past few months.

What a treat this book is. It’s not only full of little stories about his experiences down on the batture but also full of fascinating historical tidbits as well as intriguing facts regarding the threats and environmental challenges the river and the region have had to endure. If it was just this it would make for interesting reading.

But Down on the Batture is something more. Written in prose but more like poetry each chapter are like meditations on life, history, people, art and the passages of time. This book is not just to be read but to be savored line by line.

Oliver Houck Down on the Batture

Oliver Houck on the levee near his home

Although Professor Houck is a transplant from the northeast there is something oddly southern in his writing style tasting a lot like Faulkner and Flannery O’Conner.

Something about the inventiveness and his choice of words and the imagery he evokes that creates an unmistakable mood that surrounds you as you read it. I think he has created a unique New Orleans classic that is a must-read for anyone interested in our city and our state.

Now after reading Down on the Batture I want to venture out more along the batture and make some of the same type of discoveries as the author. Over the weekend my girlfriend and I took some chairs, some drinks and sat on top of the levee in an area close by where there is a cut in the trees with a large expanse of green grass and beach leading to the water. I had never done that before. We watched the sun go down over the west bank. The air was wet and amazingly cool. I actually got a little chill from the stiff breeze although it’s June and supposed to be hot. It was magical.

Find out more about Down on the Batture by Oliver Houck.

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Surreys Uptown For Breakfast – Smokin’ Hot Healthy Food – New Orleans, Louisiana

OK now I am going to talk about what has become one of my favorite places in New Orleans for breakfast and lunch. That place is Surreys Uptown.

Surreys Uptown – Smokin’ Hot Healthy Food — Breakfast and Lunch

Surrey's Uptown Restaurant - Yummy Healthy Breakfast and Lunch -- New Orleans, Louisiana

Now there are two restaurants called Surreys both on the same street, Magazine, but at almost opposite ends. I have not eaten at the one further downtown yet. But if the food is as good as the one Uptown then it’s worth the trip.

First time I went here was my birthday when my girlfriend surprised me with the gift of a Sunday brunch here. Surreys Uptown is perched in an old shotgun home set back from the street. It’s covered by large oak trees which gives a homey natural vibe to the place.

When we got there we could see that folks were waiting to be seated and there was a rather long list that the hostess put us on. But we were not in a hurry so we decided to wait the half hour or so.

Next door Le Bon Temps Roule bar sits and offers to those who wait mixed drinks, beer and wine. We chose their delicious Bloody Mary’s. When our time came we were seated at the table right there on the porch where we could sit under the trees and watch the traffic mosey on by and listen to the subdued conversation of the other patrons at tables near the sidewalk.

I ordered the Costa Rican breakfast — eggs up with beans and rice and plantains. Good, wholesome fair. The eggs from their own chickens and everything is fresh and made to order. The coffee was delicious.

Today my cousins from the S.F. Bay area were in town so we went there for brunch. No reservations were necessary it being during the week. They pulled two tables together to accomodate and we ordered from their generous menu.

This time I got the Huevos Rancheros, one of my all-time favorite breakfasts, served in a large bowl with black beans and mole sauce. Oh…My… God. Incredible.

Someone ordered grits as a side dish and we eat took a spoonful of the most delicious, creamy grits you ever tasted. The coffee was great, I had three cups. The service from the tattooed young female staff was top-notch.

Gotta say that Surreys Uptown now become one of my favorite breakfast places. And breakfast is served all day long by the way. You can’t go wrong having a meal at this place.

They also have a juice bar so you can order fresh squeezed juices to go with your meal. This is a real healthy food place, made with the freshest of ingredients. But make no mistake, the food is delicious, the type of thing the New Orleans palate demands.

Surreys Uptown is located at 4807 Magazine St. They serve from 8-3 daily. 895-5757 for reservations. Oh, and you can only pay with cash. No credit cards.

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The Mississippi River — American Ganges — New Orleans, Louisiana

Here are some musings about the idea of the Mississippi River, which in Native American means “Big River”, being the great holy river of our continent like the Ganges, the holy river of India.

Mississippi River — The American Ganges

Mississippi River at New Orleans, Louisiana

I can feel the rumble of the depth of the Mississippi River right outside my door. I was born here on the edge of the water, one of the world’s greatest rivers.

The heart of the river is within me, the heart of the raccoon and the frog and the eagles and hawks that make their homes here.

I can feel the swaying of the huge fish deep in the darkness of the river and the rumbling of the vessel manmade carving through the water, the muddy water. I’ve never been in the river, I’ve put my feet in the it but never my whole body, never baptized myself in the river like the Ganges. The Mississippi River — our holy Ganges.

Of course, that river does not drown people, does not pull them under, does not snuff out a life like snapping your fingers on a candle wick. Our river does.

Our river knows no kin yet is kin to all, it knows no mercy or compassion, rich or poor, statesman or criminal, all the same subject to its pull without mercy like a hurricane — just a force of nature. Our Ganges, sometimes brutal, sometimes nurturing, always inspiring.

Do people go to it to wash their sins away? To bathe in it, to celebrate the dead in it as they do in India?

No… yet it holds something else, a similar kind of pull on the American conscience, especially the Southern conscience, the mighty, the mysterious, the majesty, the spirit of it sending out its ethers to those who encounter it and live nearby it, who know the dreams of Huck Finn. I am lucky enough to live a few steps away from it and to come into the world by its side.

Sometimes deep in the night I can hear the low moan of a boat whistle coming off the river, the sound like a low drawn out note on a bass violin. A deep moan, a cry in the night echoing off the trees and woods, the wild spaces that line the river.

Sometimes you can stand on the levee and look to the other shore and imagine the river in its wild state without the grain elevators, towers and buildings, imagine the flatboats that came down one right after the other filled with goods from the north, see the paddlewheels kicking up the brown water carrying cotton and passengers upstream.

And when you can, you sink yourself into the feeling and churning, the sound of the water quiet and low rushing by, multiple currents grappling with each other underneath.

You can fathom this as the artery of America that has carried the blood, the lifeline of this vast continent, the spirit of innovation and invention, of freedom, the promise of mankind. The river is its own soul and too vast to really belong to anyone.

Yet, here in New Orleans we are born from it and owe our life as a city and a people to it. The Mississippi River is forever rolling along outside our door.