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
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.
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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